Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Crossposting due to image incompetence

I originally created this post simply as a place to display an image for my Nature Blog, which has a very confusing link and upload process. It's totally not working out so I'm just going to leave the image here, and paste the text in too so it makes a bit more sense!

My job as a research development facilitator means that I get to help colleagues write their grants. Lots of them. For very different projects. For example, I’m currently working on 6 different applications to the same competition, including basic, translational and clinical research proposals.

The various PIs and clinicians who I work with often ask me to write all, or part of, the grant’s introduction section. Due to the wide range of projects I cover, this is often on a subject that I’m not all that familiar with. Luckily this is something that I enjoy and am good at, and the more I do it, the more I see a pattern in my literature searches.

The pattern resembles a diamond – starting off at a single focused point, broadening out until I seem to have read half the contents of the library, then narrowing back in to a focused introduction section.

Here’s an illustration of the process (and of why I’m a writer, not an illustrator):

Step 1) I start with a focused review article in the area of interest. I read it, and highlight the primary papers that look relevant.

2) On to PubMed! I widen my scope by printing* and reading the first set of research papers.

3) Each one cites more primary papers that also look relevant.

4) Back to PubMed! More printing and reading!

5) Bloody hell, these papers are citing others that I haven’t even looked at yet. Gotta keep broadening that scope.

6) Back to PubMed! Can’t I just go to the Pub instead?

7) Oh my god, there’s more. Will it never end?

8) Back to PubMed! I’m starting to forget what the surface of my desk looks like. If my reading gets any broader I may as well just pull out the novel that’s calling my name from my gym bag.

9) A theme starts to emerge. Connections are made with papers that I read way back before the dawn of time (i.e. yesterday). I think I’m getting it.

10) Some of these papers actually aren’t as relevant as I thought they were. Better get a bigger recycling bin.

11) More themes! And some of them lead logically into one another! Hip hip hooray, and the sun is even shining. I can write a focused structural plan for my introduction now.

12) This writing stuff is a doddle once you’ve done all the reading and organising.

13) There you go Dr X, a beautifully focused and relevant introduction to your grant’s hypothesis…

...oh, the hypothesis changed today?

Will someone please bring me a new review paper? And a large whisky?


1) ...

*Yes, the process uses a lot of paper, but I just can’t read properly on screen. I compensate by printing double-sided, recycling absolutely everything, and feeling guilty all the time.

Also seen here. With or without image, depending on when you look and which browser you're using...


  1. This is AWESOME (okay, I read it at your other site but I'm commenting here)...I would love to see one of these on your paper/report writing.

  2. Well, the literature search for a paper or report follows pretty much the same pattern. I've only ever written papers on my own research before, so I'm not really sure how I'd handle the methods, results, discussion sections etc. if I ever had to write up someone else's results! So far, people have been writing their own papers and I review / edit / proof them.

  3. Wow, you sound very efficient at digesting mountains of information. Do you have a system for helping you remember what you read where or are you just that awesome at keeping things in your head?

  4. EGF: I'll work on it!

    SG: I can only retain information if I make barely legible scribbled notes as I go. So as well as the piles of printed articles, I'll have mountains of scrap paper covered in pencil scrawl heaped up around me. It seems to work as long as I do it in concentrated bursts. I doubt I'd retain much of the information for more than a day or two.

  5. Love the graphic!

    I found this post very interesting. I do occasional freelance science editing (for a commercial manuscript editing service), and just finished editing a portion of an investigator's RO1. I'm only supposed to correct and smooth out the English, not offer my scientific opinions. But I found myself really intrigued by the science in this proposal, and ended up doing a lot of unnecessary Google searches and reading on the topic.

    I could see how yours could be a very interesting job. I also wonder, though, if I'd be cut out for it. Because if a PI comes up to me and asks me to write the intro to their grant proposal? I'd be biting down on the urge to say, "YOU'RE the expert in the field. Why don't YOU do it?!"

    Guess you can't actually say that, though.

  6. Bean-mom: sounds like you enjoy your job too! All that unpaid work though - ouch.

    Writing intros is actually part of my (multi-page) job description, and it's one of the most fun parts of the job so far. So that's definitely not a problem. It's when a co-applicant is tasked with writing the methodology section, but only supplies me with 3 paragraphs (of which about 1 & 1/2 are rehashes of my introduction text), then says that that's sufficient detail when asked to expand his section, that I find myself losing my grip...

    I'll write a debriefing on my first multiple grant deadline next week some time!

  7. p.s. if my (grant funded) job isn't renewed after my 2 year contract, that kind of freelancing will definitely be something I'll look into. Are you at liberty to provide details, e.g. the name of the company? My email address is linked from my profile page if you don't want to say publicly. I can't do anything of that nature while I'm employed here (conflict of interest issues) so don't worry, I won't be trying to steal your work from you! (Not until November 2009 anyway!)

  8. I find that I often get sucked into the primary literature. So much so that the boss has to reel me in when I find obscure literature that really has to do with what I am working on.

    IHOP is a search tool that I really, really like.

  9. Geeka, I've never heard of IHOP - is it a rival to PubMed?

  10. IHOP is a really cool tool which links together all tangible literature related to a protein/phenomenon on one page. It's all hyperlinked to so you can make smooth transitions in and out. It also sort of creates a pseudopathway of connections.

  11. That does sound pretty cool. A-Googling I go!


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