UAB Graduate Catalog

Publish or Perish? UAB Helps Research Writers Succeed

“Publish or perish.” It’s an old saying in academia, but it still speaks to many of today’s graduate students, says Dr. Bryan Noe, a distinguished cell biologist and dean of the UAB Graduate School.

“The basic principle is to try to get your work published in the most high-impact journals in your field,” he recently told a group of graduate research writers. “So, you try to submit to journals that are highly respected; journals that have developed a reputation for meeting stringent review and acceptance requirements.”

But the odds of getting papers accepted can be daunting, depending upon the journal, he admits. This can present a stiff challenge for younger scholars who need to publish – as first author -- to fulfill a graduation requirement or who must write successful grant applications to secure funding in their first permanent positions.

“As I progressed through college and graduate school, I had had little formal instruction in writing after freshman composition. During the first three months in my first faculty position, I had to prepare a grant application, and I had never even seen the contents of a grant application before. It was frustrating, and needless to say, I didn’t succeed initially in securing funding.”

To help UAB students avoid the possibility of being in the same type of situation, the Graduate School offers more than half a dozen different elective courses in support of research writing through its Professional Development Program.

“To a great extent, the measure of a scientist is in his or her record of publication, presentations and grantsmanship. For some researchers, writing comes easily. For others, it doesn’t. Taking advantage of the Graduate School Professional Development courses can help jumpstart and accelerate the writing and publishing process.”

Since his first unsuccessful grant application, Noe subsequently published many times in his field and obtained as Principal Investigator, or Co-Investigator, numerous grants from NSF, NIH, and intramural sources. As dean, he continues to serve as PI on grants with the Graduate School.  His advice: “We tell students: Good science comes first. Then make sure what you publish is well written, and you’ll succeed.”

 Other tips:

1)     Plan writing projects at the beginning of the research, including target journals.

2)     Tell a complete and compelling research story. Avoid carving projects into the “Least Publishable Unit” (LPU).

3)     However, do come to closure on projects. If you find yourself constantly saying: “we need one more experiment,” it may be time to publish instead.

4)     In a dissertation, write in a sequential, cohesive fashion, not a disjointed one. If previously published papers are being incorporated into dissertation chapters, pull their contents together with a well-thought out Introduction and/or in your Discussion / Conclusions section. Also, don’t run out of time and energy and dismiss the Discussion / Conclusions section; it can be a very important part of the dissertation, a place where you are free to speculate about future questions and where the field is headed.

5)     Think about your audience. Committee members and journal readers are not all experts in your field, especially today, with so much science being inter-disciplinary.

6)     “Never assume it will be easy” – and you’ll develop the persistence and standards you need to compete with the best