Improving Writing Skills--The Postdoc Editors Club

Most of us have felt the anxiety: a draft manuscript comes back from your PI or mentor covered with red ink. Don't you wish someone else--one of your peers, perhaps--had had a look at it first? Meet the Postdoc Editors Club of the Postdoctoral Council at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

The Postdoctoral Council has taken upon itself the task of helping young scientists develop essential technical writing skills, skills that otherwise competent young scientists often lack. Furthermore, 50% of the postdoctoral fellows at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine are foreign nationals for whom English is a second (or third) language. Many foreign postdocs have expressed interest in learning more about writing scientific papers.

The council knew it had to find a way to train postdocs in technical writing on the cheap. First we looked into the possibility of postdocs utilizing the campus Writing Lab. Unfortunately, the writing lab on campus did not have the resources to support the postdoctoral community. The idea of creating a separate writing lab for postdocs was determined to be even more expensive.

Thus was the Postdoc Editors Club conceived within the School of Medicine. The Editors Club is a group of volunteer editors, working under the guidance of an Editor-in-Chief. Volunteer editors read and evaluate manuscripts and give feedback to the authors. In exchange, volunteer editors get a new item for their vitae as well as critical training and experience in technical writing and editing. The program is especially attractive to postdocs who may want to pursue a career in writing and the skills are very useful for those who remain in academia.

Here is how it works: Authors who wish to have a manuscript reviewed submit it to the editor-in-chief. The editor-in-chief checks the manuscript to be sure it is an advanced draft and assigns it to a peer editor. The peer editor reviews the manuscript and suggests changes to improve language, clarity and organization. Editors do not comment on the quality of the science being reported as this is a judgement we felt was best reserved to ones mentor. The editor returns the manuscript to the author with recommendations. In a face to face meeting, the author and the peer editor review the manuscript together, a step we believe that is vital to the process.

The Postdoc Editors Club was implemented in several stages:

Choosing an editor-in-chief. The Postdoctoral Council selects the editor-in-chief from within its membership. The editor-in-chief oversees the project, responds whenever difficulties arise, and generally makes sure that things move smoothly along. The duties of the editor-in-chief include recruiting, training, and reviewing the work of the volunteer editors; receiving, distributing and tracking submitted manuscripts; promoting the service; and assuring confidentiality and conflict-of-interest standards.

Recruiting editors. A recruitment letter is sent to all postdoctoral fellows. The letter indicates the benefits of volunteering as a peer editor include training and experience working as an editor. Editors are also recruited via periodic e-mail campaigns and on the council Web page.

Developing standards. We use proofreading standards as specified in The American Heritage Dictionary and by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. We have also developed standards for confidentiality and for dealing with potential conflicts of interest. To assure submitting authors that their work will be held in the strictest confidence, and to protect peer editors from the appearance of impropriety, the author, the author's mentor, the editor-in-chief, and the peer editor all sign a Statement of Confidentiality and Understanding. This statement ensures that every submitted manuscript will be treated as a privileged communication, that reviewers will excuse themselves in the event of a conflict of interest, and that both the postdoctoral author and his or her mentor are aware of the goals and procedures of the review process.

Training editors. Editor's training includes discussions of what kinds of revisions are appropriate, the use of standard editorial markings, and suggestions for managing one-on-one discussions with authors. We also define and teach standards for handling conflicts of interest as well as difficulties with authors.

Inviting and hosting a professional editor. The club frequently hosts professional editors, who present a seminar and dine with the volunteer editors. This gives volunteer editors an opportunity to meet with a professional editor in both formal and informal settings and is intended to help volunteer editors understand the review process, appreciate science communications as a career path, and establish contacts with professionals in the science-communications field.

Advertising the service. The Postdoc Editors Club is promoted through periodic email campaigns, quarterly flyers, and information links on the council Web page. Information is also shared with PIs so that they might also refer postdocs to the service. Users of the service also advertise for us by word of mouth.

Other tips. It has been useful to discuss our plans for the Postdoc Editors Club with faculty from the English department on campus as well as the operational staff of the Writing Lab. They have offered tips for maintaining the program and anticipating potential pitfalls.

For more information about the project, check the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine Postdoctoral Council Web site or directly contact the Postdoc Editors Club editor-in-chief.

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