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?
*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...