Who gets to tell the story?

Why didn’t the writer of that important new review cite your work? After all, it is on exactly that topic. This is unfair. It is easy to feel aggrieved. Why should you bother to work so hard on your research when the big boys just ignore it. What to do? Fortunately, there is an easy answer: start writing the reviews that define the field yourself.

When you write a review, you can put your work where it belongs in the scientific narrative. But be careful! The best reviews are the most fair ones. They cite as widely as is appropriate. They have a new and clear perspective, or they extend an old perspective. Many journals these days put reference limits on reviews, so work hard to cite the most relevant ones, mixing between the very newest and the historical papers that once defined the field. Don’t look for revenge by ignoring those who once ignored you. These are the scientists you want to win over to your perspective.

When you write your review, you should have something new to say. This takes work. But it is work that is rewarded, for it not only helps put your work in a worthy place, but it can also lead you in new and creative directions. Graduate students should be involved in reviews, writing or collaborating on them as they become familiar with the literature, provided they can write a fresh, new review.

RenduelesOlaya Rendueles, a postdoc in the Velicer lab in Zurich told me that a number of her fellow grad students in Paris wrote review papers very early in their graduate careers because the short 3 year program required at least one publication. That would be hard to do with a data paper in such a short time.  I did a quick search and found an interesting review that she wrote entitled: Multispecies biofilms: how to avoid unfriendly neighbors. It looks interesting, but I couldn’t download it from here.


Steve Frank

It will still be true that the reviews written by newcomers will take longer to have an impact than the reviews written by leaders in the field. Just remember, those leaders got to their positions by having interesting things to say. I can hardly wait to read Steve Frank‘s latest piece on kin selection, for example. I also love the way he makes everything so accessible, retaining the rights to his books so people can download the PDFs freely. This didn’t stop me from actually buying the books for the convenience of the format.

There are other things you can do to get your work noticed. Attend various meetings. Give talks and posters. Approach scientists you admire and engage them in conversation about their work. Then work it around to yours. We scientists are social animals and remember best the work of those we know.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo become a leader in your field, you need to do the important new studies, casting pretty shells on the beach of science. But you also need to gather the shells of everyone together and put them into a pattern. Then you will get the attention you deserve.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in New ideas, Publishing your work, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Who gets to tell the story?

  1. Olaya says:

    Thanks for the publicity 🙂
    I’ll send you the review by email, but it should be “downloadable” through the FEMS website.

  2. cmdrysdale says:

    This is great advice, and it almost exactly the way I managed to get a foothold in academia some 15 years ago. However, I’d add one more bit of advice (which someone gave me a long time ago). If you want to get to the top in a field, choose a small field. That is, choose an area where there’s not a lot of people already working. It’s easier to make your mark, and also easier to find a subject to write a review about that hasn’t already been covered by reviews written by the ‘big boys’. In my case it was an obscure group of whales that no one really knew anything about at the time, and it did wonders for my career.

  3. Choosing a neglected field and making it shine is also really good advice. It is amazing how many things there are in the world that don’t get studied much. The first group I chose was wonderful, but was literally out to get me if I came too close (paper wasps). The second main group is small, has an unattractive name (cellular slime molds), and isn’t really undiscovered since many cell biologists study them. Besides microbes, I bet there are tons of things to be learned from fungi, so you can see I went in the opposite of the whale direction!

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