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Women in Science

There are many reasons why academics publish their work. In one author survey the most important reason authors gave was to communicate their results to their peers. Other reasons included the advancement of their career, personal prestige, and to gain funding [Swan 2006]. Publishing and obtaining fellowship funding are crucially important to an academic career.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is likely to influence which journals researchers choose for their publications because the overall quality of articles submitted is judged according to whether or not articles are seen as world leading, internationally excellent, recognised internationally or recognised nationally [].

Writing your first paper

The women we interviewed talked about their experiences of publishing. Maggie recalled how a senior colleague had spent a day helping her to turn her first draft into a paper that has been very highly cited.

Portrait of Prof Maggie Snowling© Women in ScienceMaggie’s senior colleague helped her with her first paper. Maggie tries to help her students in the same way and once a year they have a writing workshop for two or three days.


Helen B found publishing straightforward because she was working in a new and emerging field that people were interested in. Other women described having a positive experiences of publishing their first paper and only later realising that it could be a harsh process.

Click for Eleanor's interviewEleanor's first submission was published, but she has found it is not always that easy.


Christine, a clinician, pointed out that it is important to start publishing as early as possible, even as an undergraduate. She said that publication not only helps you establish your name but also shapes the direction of other people’s work and ultimately benefits patients.

Portrait of Dr Christine Kiire© Women in ScienceChristine did her first lab based project as an undergraduate. At the time she didn’t realise that she could have published from her BA dissertation.


Helen A, who is doing her DPhil, encourages her medical students to submit papers to journals and abstracts for presentation as oral sessions or posters. She recalled the excitement she felt when her article about diagnostic accuracy of speed bumps in appendicitis was accepted for the BMJ Christmas edition. She was determined to get her work published and understood the importance of being persistent.

Click for Helen's interview© Women in ScienceHelen and co-authors didn’t give up when they had their article rejected by the BMJ: they collected more cases, re-wrote the paper and it was published in the Christmas BMJ.


Jamie, another DPhil student, used to work ‘behind the scenes’ in publishing. She found having her work published was ‘thrilling’, but in some ways ‘scary’ because by publishing she was opening herself up for criticism.

Click for Jamie's interview© Women in ScienceJamie’s first publication was a review for the Cochrane Group. Getting it published was really exciting and a very positive experience.


Molly had some of her PhD results published in the journal Science. Her research focused on brain chemistry and human decision making. She thinks that that paper launched her career. Her second paper was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Portrait of Molly CrockettMolly felt unprepared to deal with the considerable (and often inaccurate) media interest after her paper was published in Science. She took part in Training for Public Engagement and has done a TED talk on misreported science.


Molly now writes a blog for the Guardian ‘dedicated to de-bunking stories about psychology’ in the media.

Dealing with peer review

Others also published several papers from their PhDs. Although the process of peer review, especially when it leads to rejection, can be frustrating and waste time, women stressed that it’s important not to give up on a paper that you are confident is good science. Alison E had an early paper rejected she threw it in the bin without realising she could revise it.

Click for Katja's interview© Women in ScienceKatja says that it’s normal in her field that for every paper published you probably get a couple of rejections, which is just part of the job.


Blanca stressed that if a paper is rejected it doesn’t mean that the work is worthless. Jenny pointed out that she has never had a paper that hasn’t been improved by the review process. Angela has found what you can expect from the peer review process is different in different disciplines.

Click for Jenny's interview© Women in ScienceJenny finds negative reviews very irritating but must not be taken personally. In her experience papers are always improved by external criticism.


Click for Tamsin's interviewTamsin found the reviews for her first paper to be a bit 'harsh', but she has come to be more business-like about reviewers' comments and uses them to improve the paper.


Click for Charlotte's interviewCharlotte suggests waiting a day or two before writing the response to reviewers.


Click for Angela's interviewAngela has found changing disciplines from chemistry to biology brought a new appreciation of the peer-review process.

Publication strategies

Learning to write a good paper can be through trial and error but it is enormously helpful to work with a much more experienced colleague (see Maggie above). Alison W said that it is harder to get a paper published in your early career if you don’t have a ‘really famous senior author.’

There were also many accounts of differences of opinion in teams about which journals to submit to: senior colleagues and supervisors might want the highest impact journal while an early career researcher might feel they really need a first author publication, regardless of journal impact factor. Helen M said that there is a trade-off between wanting to get a paper in a high impact journal and wanting to get something published quickly because publications are needed for grant applications and to support younger colleagues’ careers. She stressed that science should not be ‘driven by papers alone’ but by the science itself.

Portrait of Helen McShane© Women in ScienceSome of Helen’s papers are in high impact journals while others are in lower impact journals because those journals are more specialised.


When Anna started her postdoc she wanted to publish rapidly because she wanted a good publication record when she applied for fellowships. She chose projects that would lead to rapid publication whether the results of the experiments were positive or negative. This proved to be a successful model and her CV grew rapidly. Other women described 'dips' in their publication record at different stages of their careers such as moving from postdoc to a permanent position. Kylie says scientists can sometimes put a lot of pressure on themselves when sometimes things just take a bit of time.

Obstacles to acceptance

Kay and others have noticed that journals will often ask authors to collect more data before accepting a paper for publication. There can be a tension between the interests of the journal (high citations index) and the best interests of the scientific community (timely reporting). The increase in ‘Open Access’ journals may be making a positive difference.

Portrait of Kay Davies© Women in ScienceKay points out that journals may ask for more data to be collected to make the ‘story complete’. This may be difficult if the research team is relatively small.


Portrait of Jane Langdale© Women in ScienceJane says that nowadays editors often want more and more experiments completed before they agree to publish a paper.

First, last and corresponding authors

Authorship and the order of the authors on a paper is often a difficult issue, especially in collaborative and multi-disciplinary projects. Some women told us about difficult confrontations with colleagues who thought they should have been authors, or who expected a more prominent position in the list. Katja commented that some people are just ‘more pushy’ than others and does not think this is a gender issue. Elspeth’s work is mainly on methods, which are less likely to get published in ‘Nature’ and ‘Science’. Carolyn is often a co-author because she contributes images and spectroscopy to other people’s studies.

In some sciences authorship is determined alphabetically. Although this can cause some problems in multidisciplinary research. Daniela says in particle physics there can be hundreds of authors on a paper. The authors are always alphabetical and the elected spokesperson is given the credit for the experiment. She only includes papers where she's had a real and direct impact.

Click for Marta's interviewIn Marta’s field authorship is usually determined alphabetically, but someone still needs to lead writing the paper


Click for Angela's interviewAngela has found alphabetical authorship is not always understood in multidisciplinary contexts and needs managing when authors form different disciplines work together.


In other science subjectsthe first and last author positions are the most important. The last author is usually the person leading the research team. Submissions for the Research Excellence Framework require an explanation of the author’s contribution. Some Oxford departments have avoided submitting papers with a long list of authors or where the index author is not the first, last or corresponding author. Sally worries that the restriction in author numbers means that some research assistants, who have contributed a lot to the experiments, may not be included as authors. She thinks women are more likely to include all those who have contributed to the research than her male colleagues.

Portrait of Alison Banham© Women in ScienceAlison says that for the REF Oxford only includes papers for those who are first, last or corresponding author. This means that collaborative research comes with a penalty.


Portrait of Sally CowleySally thinks that her division’s emphasis on the importance of having relatively few authors on papers for the REF discourages including research assistants as co-authors.


Xin and others pointed out that some journals allow joint first, last or corresponding authors. Kay said that it is important to make it clear exactly what people have contributed to the research. She also said that if someone is a grant holder but not the last author on a paper, other people may not think that person is running the team.

Portrait of Xin Lu© Women in ScienceXin often uses joint co-authorship when there have been equal contributions. If communication between research groups is good the problem of the order of the authors can usually be resolved.


Click for Eleanor's interviewEleanor has found interdisciplinary work can present both challenges and potential solutions to the problems of who is first or last author of a paper.


Charlotte's PhD supervisor insisted he didn't need to be an author on her doctoral publications and it was only later that she realised the 'people can get really quite antsy about where their name is appearing on a paper'. Jane L was similarly helped early in her career by a PI who suggested that she should be the last author on a paper. Jane has never forgotten this and ever since she has held a permanent academic post she has offered last authorship to junior colleagues on the grounds that she doesn’t need it for her career.

Portrait of Jane Langdale© Women in ScienceJane says that it is important to think about authorship early in a project. She also thinks that senior researchers should give more junior colleagues a chance to be last author.

Click for Helen's interviewThe importance of author position has changed over the years due to the REF and now Helen ensures junior researchers get to be senior author to support their careers.


Eleanor has worked with people who have been very generous and offered her last authorship. She says that this strategy is a good one because then other people want to work with you. She says that ‘fighting’ for the best position in the list of authors doesn’t serve you well in the long term.

Writing up

Portrait of Prof. Eleanor Barnes© Women in ScienceEleanor learnt from a university workshop (The Balanced Researcher) about the benefit of keeping protected time every day to write up her studies rather than waiting for three clear days (which never materialise).


Publishing is the ‘metric of success’ for academic researchers – if a study is not published it is as if it has never been done. But when one is busy it is very easy to allow the writing (and especially the first authored papers) to fall down the priority list. Several women gave advice to others about writing papers for publication, including:

  • Remember that grants awarded and papers published are the two objective ways that you are measured as a scientist.
  • Discuss authorship order early in the project (especially in collaborations).
  • Unless very early career try to get published in high impact journals.
  • Have a plan B journal in mind if the high impact journal turns it down.
  • Write a captivating story with a clear narrative thread to help the reviewers see why this is important work.
  • Very few people are naturally brilliant writers but writing gets easier the more you do it – so do it regularly.
  • Ask a colleague to provide a ‘critical friend’ review before you submit the paper.
  • Submit a conference abstract for presentation before writing the final draft to help get the story straight.
  • Write clearly and succinctly.
  • It isn’t necessary to do everything that a peer reviewer suggests - make a case to the editor if you disagree with a suggestion.
  • Be persistent, don’t give up if you are confident that it’s good science.
  • Help junior colleagues to write by taking time to work though their draft papers.
  • Make protected time for writing, even if only one hour a couple of times a week this will allow the paper to advance a paragraph at a time.
  • Writing books may not seem to be as highly valued as high impact journal papers, but it can get you known and contribute to an international reputation in your field.

Portrait of Barbara Casadei© Women in ScienceBarbara thinks it is important to have a story, a narrative running through the paper, and that care should be taken to include enough but not too much in a single paper.


Click for Helen's interviewHelen stresses the need to ensure she has 'protected time' away from meetings so she can engage with work that requires more concentration


Reference Swan, A. (2006) The culture of Open Access: researchers’ views and responses. In Jacobs, N., Ed. Open Access: Key Strategic, Technical and Economic Aspects, chapter 7. Chandos, Oxford. pp 52-59.

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