Prof Gabor Lovei is a terrestrial ecologist with interests in invasion biology, environmental biosafety, agrocology, conservation biology, biodiversity, and ornithology. Over the past 35 years he has studied invertebrate and vertebrate ecology in Europe, East Africa, New Zealand, and China, and has published 160+ peer-reviewed scientific articles, book chapters, essays, and reports. He is also interested in scientific communication and is the author of Writing and Publishing Scientific Papers: A Primer for the Non-English Speaker.
This interest was almost forced on me as a young scientist. I was working in (then-socialist) Hungary in Eastern Europe that was behind the Iron Curtain. In the early 1980ies, this curtain started to thin and contacts with the rest of the world were increasing. Suddenly we were expected to publish internationally, but our older colleagues, having spent a career in near-isolation, were unable to provide us with guidance. We had to start self-educating ourselves. Fortunately, this coincided with a two-year long postdoctoral period in Naples, Italy where I had an opportunity to experience a different research atmosphere. I started to publish my first papers in international journals and realized it needs experience and training. Every week I went to the library of the famous Anton Dohrn Aquarium, to check the Current Contents (on paper at that time – later, this became Web of Science). There I came across Robert Day’s book on scientific writing.
The very first occasion was in 1985, after I returned to Hungary, after a two-year postdoctoral stay in Italy. While there, I came across Robert Day’s “How to write and publish a scientific paper in English?”, I managed to buy it during my first research visit to the UK, and my colleagues asked me to give a summary of the book to them – their English was still rudimentary. There was a gap during my New Zealand years where I learned the skills of editorship, then picked it up again when I returned to Europe in 1998. My first course in Africa was in Burkina Faso, in 2000.
The participants have, from the beginning, been enthusiastic about the course. This did not mean that they were willing to easily give up their views on the working of journals. In Hungary, there was a strong belief that the place of work influenced the chances of acceptance in international journals. This is still a lingering belief in developing countries. I think this is mostly unfounded. Unfortunately, this lack of confidence prepared the ground for the predatory journals that became a serious problem.
I am not sure one can call this an “evolution”. The main change is the diversification of publishing models. It is a lucrative business and there is an ongoing struggle between the public interest that logically demands free access to the outcome of publicly funded research, and the vested interests of the publishers that have fabulous profit rates and thus are very reluctant to give this up. On the scientists’ side, the increased awareness of the necessity of regular publishing.
The phrasing of the question assumes that “evolution” is a directional process, during which things are getting/becoming better. Well, it is not so, neither in the case of biological evolution, nor here. There are big changes but not necessarily in a positive direction. What is a positive change is the easier access to information. That is an advantage but the flipside is that there is so much information that it easily overwhelms the researcher. It is more expensive to publish, and it is more difficult to make oneself noticed, and these are not positive changes. Life is also getting more complicated because of the unintelligent use of scientometrics by science administrators – so scientists also need to improve general scientometric knowledge when they can. There is need to interact, adapt and force change where we can. Another change is the public attitude to science which is more intense, and sometimes critical. This forces scientists to communicate with their public more frequently – and this has a positive feedback on science.
The basis of the book is the course I developed many years ago. Since 2000, I have given this course in many countries, from Argentina to China, and the feedback from participants has consistently been very encouraging. They repeatedly suggested that the material ought to be available in a book form that could help them during their publishing activities. I remember one particularly insistent participant from Ghana, Eric Danso, who asked me every 6 months whether the book was out yet? Eventually I started to believe them – but as I have been an active scientist throughout these years, holding the courses and writing a book have been a kind of hobby, it took me many years to complete.
The book contains – it has to contain – advice that can be found in any book on scientific communication, because scientific journals follow a rather rigid set of rules. Methods have to be described so that the experiments can be repeated. The author has to provide context and explain why the work is useful. These and similar pieces of advice cannot be different in any such book. So maybe the book is not that original… What I tried to instil in the reader is the spirit of collaboration, that the editors and reviewers are not enemies or hindrances to be overcome, and that one’s new discovery is never the final say in a research area. Clarity and humbleness are, in my eyes, the most important distinctions of a scientist. Considering how to help others who have to deal with one’s manuscript results in many benefits, first of all faster publication.
Another important difference is that this book was published by Open Book Publishers, a UK-based publishing house that is committed to free access. To my knowledge, this is the only book that is freely available (in a pdf form). I am glad that this way it can reach those students and scientists for whom I wrote the book. So far more than 17 thousand of them had thought that it is worth downloading the book, which is a flatteringly high number.
Too long, way too long. A chief inspiration was the multitude of young scientists in developing countries who responded enthusiastically to the course on which this book is based. It was fortunate that I found a publisher whose mission is to provide science books for free.
I hope yes. The course itself now has other parts, including how to search for information, how to prepare and deliver a scientific talk, how to prepare a poster, writing a funding proposal, and the ethical and legal aspects of publishing. I am now encouraged to embark on putting those parts of the course on paper, too. The success of this book hopefully will help to convince a publisher, preferably the same, to consider the companion volume.