The future may be more in the benefits (Discussion) than the features (Methods/Results)
Submitted by Clement Weinberger on Wed, 2015-03-04 16:16
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PhD students, and a majority of PhDs in science, spend many hours at the bench doing research designed to obtain results that will either confirm or reject a hypothesis. 

They write, defend and revise a thesis. Along the way, and as soon and as often as possible afterward, they publish the results of subsequent research and comment on its significance. 

In fact, the term least publishable unit (LPU) has been used to define the “minimum amount of information that can generate a publication in a peer-reviewed journal”.  Discussion of LPUs can elicit conflicting and strongly held opinions. There’s an interesting article about LPUs as related to academia at https://chronicle.com/article/In-Defense-of-the-Least/44761

OK, that’s the background. There are two things to keep in mind here. The first is what does “LPU” mean in a context broader than basic research in academia?” The second is “What is the significance of my research results to people outside of my research community?”

In academia and basic research, most writing involves grants and publication manuscripts. Success in one drives success in the other, a relationship that some see as a “vicious cycle” and others see as an “upward spiral.” 

More planning effort often goes into the research than the publications. Of course, the main objective is to obtain and communicate good results from well-designed investigations, but equally important are obtaining tenure, professional advancement, and funding to keep the lab operating. 

In most research “communities,” the major players are well known to each other. Each has a certain perception of the others. I'm not crazy about the term “branding,” but that is what it comes down to. Branding of both labs and researchers is largely determined by funding and publications. Traditionally, the aim has been “big” or “significant” publications in “high-impact” journals.

Step back and think about where publications come from. They start with “a good idea at the time,” which then becomes “your problem,” i.e. an idea that you take ownership of. 

The key next step is to develop a research plan to answer the question by transforming it into a testable hypothesis or several hypotheses. In practical terms, that means writing a research protocol in which you decide on a title for your investigation, which eventually morphs into your article title. The protocol needs to have a written rationale for doing the work (eventually the article’s introduction), a study design with a statistical plan, planned methods and materials, and expected results. Take note that this transforms an LPU into an MLPU (a most likely publishable unit).

Did you notice what’s missing from the above analysis? It’s the Discussion section of your MLPU. That’s where you interpret your results and describe the significance of your research. 

You might think of this in terms of “what is known” and “what the results add,” either incrementally (usually) or as a giant step forward (not very often). Now, here’s where the connection with career paths comes into play. 

The interpretation is linked to the audience–to a specific target journal’s usual readers. A cluster of observations may mean something quite different to a postdoc doing basic research and someone working at a corporation participating in a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) or someone involved in translational science or medicine who is interested in connections that might exist between basic and applied science or clinical medicine. The significance can thus be seen as a reader’s estimation of “what’s in it for me” or their perceived benefits of the research.

So if you are looking for a career change and moving along “the path”, when you get the chance to show why you are the one they are looking for, “put yourself in their shoes”. 

Present what your research results add within the context of their objectives. In “oldspeak”, this might have once been described as “transfer of training” or “generalizability of results”. 

One way that this might work is to show how a research method that you have experience with could be used to test some of their existing or otherwise untestable hypotheses. The due diligence or homework that you probably need to do to prepare for this is to scan some publications by people working at that institution or company (your future boss?) before you have those discussions or propose a new good idea to test.

Here’s a practical suggestion. There’s an Internet site called eTBLAST, which is a search engine that finds publications with word frequencies similar to text that you copy/paste into a frame on the Homepage. 

Try pasting a series of keywords, an abstract, portion of an abstract, or just an article title and then look at the list of publications, journals and author names that are retrieved. From the diversity of the retrieved items, you can get an idea of the professional areas and disciplines that have shown an interest in those research objectives, methods, or results. 

These are just a few of my not quite random ideas of research publications and how to leverage them on the career path. Let me know if any of them work for you.

Cheers for now,

Clement

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Clement Weinberger
The Stylus Medical Communications
http://www.stylusedits.com



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