Postdoc Workshop: The Tools You Need to Publish Your Paper in 'Nature'

Leslie Sage
Thursday, May 08, 2014 

Leslie Sage, a Research Associate in the Astronomy Department at the University of Maryland, and Senior Editor of Physical Sciences at Nature, visited DTM this week to give an informative talk on how to write a paper for the esteemed science publication Nature.  The talk was aimed at current postdoctoral fellows and associates, but many research and staff scientists attended as well.  Sage edits roughly 500 of the 2,000 papers submitted each year, making him an expert in what is and is not a publishable Nature paper.

Throughout his lecture, Sage harped on three main components of a publishable Nature paper: importance, relevancy, and coherency. His four step editorial process includes:

    1. Read abstract and research other papers published on the same topic;
    2. Read entire paper;
    3. Decide to send it to a referee, or not;
    4. Decide to have it published, or not.

In step one Sage can foresee what papers he will send to a referee and those he will discard by identifying the writing style of the scientist and the overall importance of the topic to the scientific community. In an abstract, he recommends identifying the key element of the bigger problem, and how the research will contribute to the solution. If the work is mainly observational or theoretical, Nature will not publish it.

Although step one is a big indicator of whether or not a paper will be published in Nature, Sage still reads the entire paper in step two. During this stage, Sage emphasizes the need to present a topic in a comprehensive manner. For example, an introduction paragraph should read on the level of a first-year undergraduate science class. All scientists today have taken this class, and this paragraph will ensure that everyone starts the paper on the same note, despite their current specialty. The bulk of the paper should read like a first-year graduate class, with the details hidden amongst charts and figures to ensure a broad audience is able to understand the work without specializing in a specific field.

After reading the entire paper, Sage sends it to referees, who comb through the paper for consistency and fraud. In an incident in 2001, a fellow at Bell Labs in New Jersey announced in Nature he had produced a transistor on the molecular scale. This discovery would have moved the emphasis from silicon based electronics towards organic electronics and could have drastically reduced the cost of electronics. After a year, scientists were finding the experiment could not be replicated. Lydia Sohn of Princeton University, and later Paul McEuen of Cornell University, subsequently both provided proof that this fellow had replicated work and data sets used in a number of different experiments and compiled them into this fraudulent paper.

If a paper passes the referee stage, it moves on to the fourth stage: publication. Why publish a paper in Nature? Nature’s press release goes out to 6,500 journalists worldwide, who then publish the work in major news outlets like the New York Times. Nature publishes only 7% of all submissions. Their exclusivity ensures the work will be taken seriously, as opposed to other scientists who publish work monthly and are known to do “science by press release.” As a fellow, one can gain notoriety amongst scientists crossing many disciplines that could work at the institution or university to which one is applying. 

As an expert in his field, Sage summarized necessary steps to take to get a paper submitted to Nature noticed by editors.   The postdoctoral fellows and associates at DTM and the Geophysical Laboratory are now better prepared to be among the elite 7% of published Nature papers. 


8 May 2014