The Science Editor’s Point of View (or why I prefer the laptop to the bench)

When faced with a substantive editing job of complex scientific manuscript or grant, it really doesn’t matter what the content is. I approach it all the same way. It’s a story.

Scientific research—and I’m speaking from my experience in the life sciences, but I think it’s true for research in general—falls into two categories: observational research and experimental research. Observational research is straightforward: observe, measure, and report what you see.

(I’m sure that the graduate students and post-docs toiling away in their labs might take offense to this next part, so consider yourself warned.)

Experimental research boils down to taking a system, changing one part of it (ahem, the variable), and seeing what happens. You might add something into the system (for example, treating cells with a ligand) or take it away (for example, by knocking down expression of a protein using siRNA), and then observe, measure, and report what happens. So that you know what you are seeing represents a true change, you include controls, in which everything is held constant. And voilá, you have a paper.

Seriously, though, it took me until my third year of graduate school to be able to step far enough away from the bench and the pipettor and the Eppendorf tubes and the mice to realize this. And it’s also a large part of why I ended up as a science writer and editor. I found that I preferred to see the whole picture, to communicate the story of the research, to identify the rationale, the purpose for doing the all that hard benchwork. The manuscript is truly the culmination of all the thought that went into generating hypotheses and designing experiments, and then all the hours spent at the bench—it’s a shame when the larger story gets lost in the weeds of complex garbled terminology.


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