Tuesday, April 02, 2013

When you finally decide to publish your birding notes!

There will invariably come a juncture in the life of a birdwatcher when the desire to record, for posterity, what has been seen and experienced in the field becomes almost overpowering, and that enthusiastic moment, when the observation gets transformed into the black and white cement of print, is vital for ornithology, for the note will now join the library that forms the rank and file of recorded bird study.
But when this journey of the observation, from the mind’s eye to the pen hovers over a blank sheet of paper, it does pay to pause and ponder the very process. What should comprise the framework of the note?
You would have some written notes about the encounter in your field notebook—these should form the very backbone of your paper. If you did not commit to paper or to pixel what you thought was unique and worthy of reporting, then you are on slightly shaky ground, for memory is truly a flighty bird in the bush. So always jot down as many details as you possibly can on the spot. Try and sketch the bird, if a photographic record is not possible. Do not bother about it being pretty, but always aim for accuracy of description. These are your primary data and therefore the very bedrock of your tryst with the printed page.
Once you are convinced that you have something novel to share with fellow ornithologists, you need to bolster that conviction with historical support, for science is indeed the process of building upon earlier blocks, with the inviolable premise of general integrity being the primary ethic of the ornithologist. Search published literature for more information on your theory or observation. Assess the past objectively, logically, dispassionately, and weigh in the balance of fact versus ‘flight of fancy’ whether what you thought was new is truly so. Ponder if what you observed substantially adds to the sum of knowledge. Does it provide any fresh insight? These are the points you will have to ruminate over. Perish the thought of publishing, if it is not so, treating the exercise not as one in futility, but educative.
But if it is true, then zoom out and observe the entire overall picture, to re-assess how your unique observation fits in the larger jigsaw puzzle. Once you are convinced, plunge in and try to go to the source of every available and relevant past record. If this entails delay and tribulations, so be it. For the fruit always tastes best when ripe. Summarize clearly and cogently what you have researched, for you must cite references in appropriate places to support your marshalled data. [The citations should correspond to an alphabetically, chronologically arranged bibliography listed under a references section at the end of your paper.] Do not fear if you plough up more of the field than required, for at least you will have the satisfaction of not leaving any stone unturned. Now separate the cheese from the chalk and prudently select only the most relevant references for your paper.
Conclude with a succinct discussion, about your theory or observation, to arrive at what you have deduced. This is your framework, a foundation based on fact, supported with historical documentation, and a discussion that positively clinches your point of view.
Your work is done, or so you presume. But it is only half the battle won. You need to study the ‘house-style’ of your target journal. By this I mean, begging the indulgence and presumption of the wizened, the way the journal crosses its ‘t’s and dots its ‘i’s; the way it uses capitalization; the lay of geographical terms; the style how citations are inserted; the precise method of the reference section; the taxonomic style; the English and scientific nomenclature it subscribes to, and so forth.
The best way of doing this is to look up any guidelines to authors that the journal might carry within its pages or on its website. You must also try and get a previously printed issue of the journal to help you to study the style of articles published within its covers.
When you have legitimate facts, have completed your homework, and have fully understood the house style, you are finally ready to put pen to paper. When it’s done, sleep over what you’ve written. Review it afresh. Show it to your peers and professors. Encourage constructive criticism with a view to improvement. Badger them to assess the scientific rigour and to comment on language—for your aim is to write in a way that conveys a primarily scientific or semi-scientific subject to a lay, non-scientific readership with both simplicity and accuracy. Trust me, when I say, that your harshest critic at this stage is your best friend, compared to the talons that will inevitably slash your note in the peer review, or worse, the beaks of sharp readers that will slice you like a thrush dispatching a worm.
A paper that is authentic, that has veracity, that has followed the house style of the journal, and whose language is clear and simple, immediately attracts the attention of the perpetually harassed editor, who picks it from the morass of misguided manuscripts littering the desk, joyously recognizing your efforts in making it what it is, and sending it off to one or more peer reviewers—that tribe of gurus who can be either the bane or the benediction of a manuscript, relegating it to the dreaded TO DO pile, if it is tardy, or fervently pouncing on it with zealous red-inked pens if it is not.
Revere the bloodstained shreds of your manuscript when they finally return from their dreaded baptism by editorial fire. Dress all the wounds carefully, meticulously, and lovingly—snipping, stitching and applying salve. Leave no wound unattended for it will surely fester till you are forced to nurse it back to health.
After the mandatory period of convalescence, when you sleep over your handiwork, revisit it once again, calmly and dispassionately, before marching it off once again to the editor.
When finally the printed journal is in your hands, and you see only one name in its many pages, the trauma of labour is instantly forgotten and you, once again, take up your mighty pen.


Prashanth Nuggehalli Srinivas said...

A very nice note Aasheesh. Thank you. I myself can recollect passing through early years wondering, what to start off with; what information is useful/important in those notes etc. Two stray comments, if I may:
1) I found a question-driven approach very useful. Although it is not always easy to think of a purpose/question for our birdwatching (which is where the "date" comes from), asking a question to these notes always helps (for me) construct the narrative that has to come. Somehow a framework develops once the question is clearer.

2) Although there is much value in publishing notes as papers in journals, there is a lot to be gained from documenting and making available stray notes and observations online/searchable. This somehow is much more important these days especially for many who do not want a "paper", but do want their notes to be of some use to somebody or the discipline.

Asif husain said...

Wonderful piece of writing Aasheesh bhai . Will be of help to so many people.

Unknown said...

Excellent piece.Loved the analogy of the reviews by friend , peer and reader.