"If I were you, I wouldn't be starting from here!"
I must be getting more fussy in my old age, or maybe it's just taken me this long to work out how to do it. Having had a research career in the UK for well over 30 years, where writing manuscripts and getting them accepted for publication seemed to come without too much effort, I then 'retired' and moved to Belgrade (too long a story to bother you with). Some years later, it was only when I was asked to develop a doctoral studies course in Serbia on aspects of research skills that I was forced to think about and understand why I did what I did when doing research and writing it up all these years.
History and Philosophy of Science was an option I decided to avoid for my undergraduate course at Cambridge, as I had never liked history, and philosophy I regarded as a lot of 'mumbo jumbo' given by people who talked a lot in abstract terms using erudite words I'd never heard of that went straight over my head. However, I was now finding myself thinking about the philosophy of doing good quality research and knowing when you could believe the answers to your research questions. What is the truth? Is this the truth, or are these perhaps 'alternative facts'? When do we know that we have found the truth, and how can we demonstrate it? Can we always prove it with 100% certainty? I found myself deep in abstract thought! So, maybe there is something in this philosophy 'mumbo jumbo' after all.
As well as philosophy, another word that kept occurring to me for my new PhD course was 'logic'. This word kept cropping up in my mind in so many aspects of doing research, from designing a piece of research, interpreting results, putting them together for a manuscript, as well as knowing how to persuade a funding source to give you the money for your project proposals in the first place, to do the research. It's the way you develop your thoughts and express them on 'paper': a simple story, easy to justify, easy to read, easy to understand, easy to follow, leading to the denouement "and they all lived happily ever after"!
As this PhD course developed over the years, I wondered how these words 'philosophy' and 'logic' could be illustrated visually, as I always find a good picture easier to understand than a page of words (there's truth in the saying "a picture paints a thousand words"). Well, the picture that evolved couldn't really be much simpler:
Simple, but effective, because the way in which the blue bars are presented and the axes described can summarise many aspects of developing an effective research career. For example, remove the fog at the top of the left-hand blue bar and you have defined the state-of-the-art allowing you to design a research study to create new knowledge, where the x-axis is time and the y-axis is 'knowledge'. If you want money for your research, make sure your project proposal has no fog at the top of either bar, and the y-axis becomes 'impact' [Well, actually impact per unit cost]. It's not just research, but so many aspects of our lives can be explained by how we present these two simple bars.
Since moving out to the West Balkans, all too often I found myself reading/refereeing scientific manuscripts that had fog in both bars. There's an Irish idiom (best spoken with an Irish accent) "Well, to be sure, if I were you, I wouldn't be starting from here!" (Look it up on Google). That is often just as true of scientific manuscripts as it is of lost salesmen in Ireland! You can't write a good quality scientific manuscript if the research that led to it was not good quality. You also can't write a convincing manuscript if you don't use logic to develop your story, and for persuading the journal editor to accept your manuscript you need to master the philosophy for effective competition in the publishing market place, for in reality, that is what success at scientific publishing needs. Why should a journal editor accept your manuscript when there will be many other manuscripts competing for a place in the next issue of that journal? Identify your manuscript's USP (unique selling point), then you're in with a good chance.
So, to the words philosophy and logic, should be added the word 'quality'. And it's not just the quality of our research that we should be concerned about. Last week I refereed a manuscript submitted for a scientific conference coming up later this year. Without exaggeration it was awful (the manuscript, that is)! The authors hadn't followed 'instructions for authors', the formatting was inconsistent, and there were simple spelling mistakes of English all over the place, not to mention that the English was often challenging to understand. Think about it - if authors don't bother with thorough quality control of a manuscript describing their research, what does this tell us about the likely quality of their research. Will they have found the 'truth'? Can we believe their claimed increase in knowledge?
The quality of any document you present will be a reflection of you! If you are a researcher, quality control should be an autonomic reaction that you shouldn't have to think about! Yet, from reviewing scientific manuscripts over the years, it is obvious that for some people, quality control does not come easily! One wonders how they got the money for their research in the first place!
Well, we got nearly 7 million euros for our Horizon 2020 research and innovation project Strength2Food (www.strength2food.eu) a couple of years ago by making sure we put together our project proposal using logic to develop a sufficiently competitive proposal because we implemented the philosophy necessary to beat the others, and we made sure we implemented good quality control of the information - at least as much as the short deadline for stage 2 would allow. [I subsequently found a few spelling mistakes and a couple of inconsistencies, as nobody's perfect!] Strength2Food is a five-year project looking at opportunities to improve the effectiveness of food quality schemes, public sector food procurement, focusing on school meals, and to stimulate short food supply chains, with 30 partners around the world, including seven in the West Balkans: Croatia and Serbia.
We're just at the stage of delivering our first few H2020 project 'deliverables' to the European Commission. To atone for my past research sins (occasional poor quality control of experimental design in the early days of my career), I have the dubious honour to be chairman of the project's KMREC, Knowledge Management and Research Ethics Committee, which includes final quality control of documents to be submitted for publication or sent to the Commission as project deliverables. So, summer holidays have been interwoven with quality control of pages upon pages of research findings. Maybe you'll be reassured to know that even the best quality EU researchers can fall foul of typographical errors!
To finish with, there's another word to add to logic, philosophy, and quality control. Why did they give us money for our research; why did we do the research; why did we write it up for publication? To have impact! To have impact on our stakeholders. What's it all for? Unless somebody, somewhere, somehow changes what he/she does as a result of our research, then its impact will be zero! Think about it in this way: will your manuscript increase the journal's impact factor? So, consider who is going to be interested to read about your research, but more importantly, think whether that person will change anything they do as a result of that? If not, why did you bother?!
Guest Professor, Faculty of Biology, Belgrade University
Head of Education and Training, European Training Academy