Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Professor David Rovnyak on the labors of writing as a chemist

David Rovnyak, Professor of Chemistry
It’s Labor Day weekend, which I am going to celebrate by….writing.  My kids are off basking in the glow of grandparents, giving me the chance to get some manuscripts out the door.  Writing this reflection will be a little victory, and a bit of harmless procrastination to boot.

I write the way most chemists probably do.  I prepare the figures first and drop them in to a document and write. I use the figures as my outline.  No figures?  No paper.  Don’t even start.

I write the abstract first, and I completely rewrite it at the end.  Yup, it’s wasted time, but it's an aspirational statement of the paper, it gets me going, and I like to write linearly from start to finish.  The introduction is brutal: have we cited everyone? Did we show why this is exciting to us while staying formal?  How much theory do we review?  Have we crafted our little puzzle piece to advance the scientific enterprise? Next come the results, discussion and conclusion, which are the fastest and most fun to write.  We all love to talk and write about our data.  In fact, I go back to them whenever I need a lift.

I always involve students in the writing process.  Writing the introduction is a good challenge for them, or I may outline a section and have them fill it in.  They can take a stab at the abstract, and they should always be proofreading.  I am so thankful for many students over the years who are gifted proofreaders and have helped me become a better writer while they are learning the ropes of scientific writing themselves.  You know who you are.  Most satisfying of all, is that the first drafts of many figures were made by the students, and it’s a thrill for them (and me) to see their graphics in print.  

Unfortunately, the first draft is a mere shadow of the final paper, and we all know it. It has to be better for a lot of reasons, pride being one, but here's another that worries me a lot.  Every month, thousands of scientific articles appear in print and online and it’s getting worse. We desperately need an Artificial Intelligence that reads these thousands of articles and generates meta-research from them.  That day is coming, sooner than we might think.  But while we wait, I want the paper to read as well as possible, not for the eyes of some silicon life form years from now, but for all of us struggling to keep up with the state of the art.  

I've learned many of my weaknesses, and if I have any advice here, it’s to confront your weaknesses, too. I look for repetitive writing, run-on sentences, and all of the other writing sins I thought I had atoned for in the past.  It takes far more time to revise the first draft as it took to write it. 

Developing a more structured, deliberate and logical approach to writing that first draft is the area I work on the most. True, many of us hone the core-dump, stream-of-consciousness technique into a strange, but often very effective, art of scientific writing. It’s important to recognize that early, more spontaneous writing will likely need laborious revision before a draft nears completion.

And then it ends where it began: the abstract.  I know that Mom and a few specialists are the only ones to read the fine print.  But most readers rightfully expect to get a perfect summary of our hard-fought research from the 250-word-limit abstract and the now ubiquitous table-of-contents figure, a masterpiece of minimalist but information-rich graphic design that I fantasize would make even Edward Tufte blush a little.

When it is all done I make false promises like I do after Thanksgiving meals that I’ll be more disciplined next time, and we steel ourselves for the peer reviewers who will ask us to do it all over again.

When not writing, David Rovnyak enjoys attending conferences with students and meeting alumni.  Pictured, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Institute, from left to right: Levi Craft, B.S. Eng '17, Ed Peltzer, Ph.D., BU '72, Matthew Miele, M.S. '15, David Rovnyak.

Bio: David Rovnyak joined the Bucknell Department of Chemistry in 2003 after earning a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and performing post-doctoral study at the Harvard Medical School.  His teaching and research interests include biophysical and bioanalytical chemistry.   Students in his lab perform research in areas such as bile chemistry, protein structure, signal processing, as well as the metabolism of humans and honey bees.

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