A paper in Science – and how does that happen?

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I’ve just had a co-author paper published, not just in Science, but also featured on the cover! No, not the “Mystery of the Macho Crocs” paper (that sounds fun!) – the one on climatic control of leaf size across the globe.

Working in the field of conservation I often think that the work we do (as conservation scientists around the world) is super important and interesting. But I rarely see conservation papers in Science and Nature. It got me thinking, what does it take to publish in these top level journals*?

Of course, the author guidelines are clear – if a little unsurprising:

Nature…publishes research of the highest influence within a discipline that will be of interest to scientists in other fields”

and

Science seeks to publish those papers that are most influential in their fields or across fields and that will significantly advance scientific understanding. Selected papers should present novel and broadly important data, syntheses, or concepts. They should merit the recognition by the scientific community and general public provided by publication in Science, beyond that provided by specialty journals.”

Nature also has a blog post on how to get published there, with the normal advice, like:

  • its not just about good science, but also good communication
  • tell a story with broad relevance
  • writing should be short, clean, and clear

but also some more useful advice, like:

  • high impact papers need strong evidence and noteworthy conclusions
  • it’s all about data. Excellent, high quality data. And spectacular figures.
  • it’s “look why this matters” not “look what I’ve done”

Now I’m starting to understand why our paper got into Science. It’s a global analysis – big data, pretty awesome data. It’s the first publication using this data, which has been made public. It’s pretty, with lovely pictures, including both three-dimensional graphs and maps. And leaves – everyone can relate to them!

Some forum “advice” is a little more cynical:

  • the topic is “timely” and “buzzy”
  • the results can be packaged into a simple, pithy message
  • the authors lucked out with the reviewers

OK, so not sure really how much leaf size was on people’s radar before this. And not sure we really lucked out with the reviewers – indeed one of them really didn’t see the point. But yes, our paper can be summarized into a simple, pithy conclusion:

Global leaf sizes are controlled by the risk of overheating by day, and freezing at night.

But I think the major factor is summarised by user63830 in another forum:

“Theoretical implications are valued far beyond just experimental results in high impact papers. An important result is one thing, but an important result that changes an existing hypothesis in the field is valued much more

And that was the key for our Leaf Size paper – we showed that earlier theories were wrong. We presented an improved hypothesis, and tested it with excellent data. The results are relevant to global models of plants under changing climates. We packaged it up with fantastic figures, and a clean, simple, broadly relevant conclusion.

Simple? Easy? Maybe for some. But our leaf size paper was actually over 10 years in the making. We thought it was going to be easier – get data, show a certain hypothesis fits data better than others, and get a nice paper. When none of the hypotheses really fit, it all went a little pear shaped. A lesson in persistence though – turned out pretty alright in the end!

 

*Of course, there is also the ethical/efficiency question of should we aim to get conservation papers more into Science and Nature, but I’ll leave that to another time

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