Science for SciFi: Peer Review

When a research project reaches completion, the investigators often write up their results in a peer-reviewed journal. Once the investigators decide what journal is most appropriate for their research, they submit their paper, if the editor of the journal decides that the research has merit and is a good fit for the journal, they begin the peer review process.

For many scientists, the peer review process can be stressful and drawn out, sometimes for all parties involved. But the peer review process, despite its faults, is vital to ensuring that honest, quality research gets published.

It’s also likely to be a major source of stress for the scientists in your novel.

There are A LOT of memes about Reviewer 2 out there. Source

Article Anatomy

Each publisher and journal will have its own formatting guidelines. These are the essential bits. Sometimes results and discussion will be a single section and not separate.

Abstract – in science we pack the conclusions into the headline. Abstracts vary in length but are normally about a paragraph. An abstract’s job is to convince someone to read the entire article and to help put what follows into context. Writing an abstract is hard, in just a few sentences you need to explain why the research matters, how it was done, and what conclusions were made.

Introduction – this is (for me) the most fun part of the article to write. The introduction explains the basic principles of an article. An introduction should explain the motivations behind the research and what gap the research aims to fill.

Experimental/Materials and Methods – every journal puts this section in a different place within the article. For someone interested in learning the impact of the research this section is fairly boring, for someone who wants to judge how reliable the data is or replicate certain techniques, this section is essential. Experimental contains a list of what tools and materials were used, who manufactured them, and how they were prepared.

Results- this section explains the collected data in excruciating detail. The data is often supplemented by a variety of graphs and other diagrams.

Discussion – here is where the authors get to explain what the data means. This section is filled with explanation and interpretation.

Conclusion – these are short. Almost as short as the abstract. A conclusion should be short and sweet.

References – any claim that is not common knowledge for the audience or data gained from the research needs to be cited. This might include established experimental techniques, general background information, mathematical formulas, computer code, and so on.

How To Read An Article

How you read an article will depend on what you are trying to get from it. If you are trying to discern the salient points you will probably read the abstract to decide if you care about it. Then maybe the introduction, then the discussion and conclusion.

If you want to explain how the authors reached those conclusions you will spend a lot of time reading the experimental and results sections. You will want to know what they did, understand why, and try and see where the project’s weak points are. This can take a good deal of time and may require multiple readings of a single article.

If you want to know the current state of the field, then a single research article just won’t do. You might find many other sources from the reference list at the end of the article, but you’ll quickly find yourself falling down a rabbit hole. If you are new to a field, you will want to find a review article. A review article is meant to summarize the current state of a given field or subfield and will highlight that field’s important developments. These articles may have hundreds of references.

The Review Process

Once the authors submit a paper, the first thing the editor does is decide whether the article is suitable for their publication. Basically, does it fit the focus of the publication and does it have a large enough impact? Some journals are “high-impact” and some are not. But that is a discussion for another day.

If the paper makes it past this stage the article is sent to a set of reviewers. These reviewers are chosen because they are experts in the field. They are the authors’ “peers” and are likely to have the knowledge needed to evaluate the quality of the research.

These experts comment on the experiments, the data, and may suggest changes that need to be made before the paper is ready for publication. This is where many of the Reviewer 2 memes originate. Authors may often feel that a reviewer’s comments are unreasonable, or that they are trying to manipulate the authors for their own benefit. The good news here is that authors can respond to reviewer comments, and if they can convince the editor that the comments have been addressed then the article can be published.

The key thing to remember is that just because an article has gone through peer review does not mean that it is free of mistakes. A research article is the result of the best possible measurements and analyses that were possible at the time. Peer review means that a small group of experts has decided that the research has merit and that it is free of major flaws.

This doesn’t mean that there are no mistakes, that there is not a larger picture, or that better analysis or measurements won’t be done in the future. A single research paper tells just one small part of a larger journey of discovery.

Emotional Costs

The impact of one single paper is likely to be minuscule, but to the authors, it might well be everything. PI’s (principal investigators) are often established, professors. The other authors, however, are likely students. These students spend years working on a project that might result in just a handful of papers. For these students, the process can be very draining. No matter how “small” the project may be in the grand scheme of things, it has, by the time of publication, been a major part of their life.

For many in academia, publishing is everything. Publishing is how graduate students build a resume. And it’s how many professors achieve tenure. Research activity is frequently measured in publications and grants.

Scenarios

There are a lot of ways to write a scientist’s motivations. But based on what we have just talked about above I will provide a few examples. The examples in this list are for creative purposes only. These are WRITING PROMPTS, not recommendations or endorsements.

  • After years of “publish or perish” the character sees their self-worth only in terms of publications. They frequently overwork themselves and lose sleep in order to make progress.
  • Eager to increase their number of publications, the character divides their research into smaller and smaller chunks to get more papers out. This practice is sometimes called “salami slicing.” It’s frowned upon, but they hope that most observers will only see the publication count and not look much deeper.
  • Desperate to publish in a high-profile journal, the character begins to falsify or omit data. After getting away with it multiple times they think they are safe. Then, several years later, they are found out and their career crumbles around them.
  • The rat race of academia is too much. Fed up with the constant publish or perish mentality, the character decides to take a post at a teaching-focused institution. They publish a paper every few years, but what they really care about are the lives of the students they help shape.

Further Reading

I don’t have any book recomendations about the peer review process. However, peer review and publishing play big roles in the lives of scientists. So here are a couple books where you can learn about the history of science and the people who do it.

Twenty Questions to Ask About Your Fictional Country

  • What is the climate like?
  • Is it landlocked, coastal, or an island?
  • What resources are present?
  • What is the terrain like?
  • Are their any natural barriers that would impede movement?
  • Where are the sources of water?
  • How many languages and ethnic groups are present?
  • Have any of these people been recently displaced?
  • How is society organized?
  • What form of government is there?
  • Do the people look favorably on the government?
  • What religions are practice?
  • Is there a state religion?
  • Who are the country’s neighbors?
  • Is this country more powerful than its neighbors?
  • What are the country’s major industries?
  • Is the country dependent on its neighbors for any important resources?
  • Does the country have any colonies abroad?
  • Are any parts of the country’s territory contested by its neighbors?
  • Does this country have any historic rivalries?

Subreddits For Creatives

Reddit is one of the biggest sites online these days with so many subreddits available that you are almost guaranteed to one tailored to your interests. Think of any hobby or weirdly specific meme format and there is probably a subreddit for it. So what if you’re a writer or worldbuilder, what are the best subreddits for you?

Worldbuilding

It should really be no surprise that r/worldbuilding ranks among my favorites. The subreddit has grown significantly in the past few years and welcomes worldbuilders of all levels of talent. New artwork, discussion posts, and resources are posted daily. If you stay on long enough you’ll begin to see who the regular posters are and get to watch their work grow and develop over time. My preferred way of browsing this subreddit is to sort by new and look for discussion posts. Participating in brain-storming sessions or answering questions about your own world is a great practice and a good way to finally flesh out parts of your setting you may have overlooked and been putting off for later.

Imaginary Network Expanded

The Imaginary Network is a cluster of related subreddits dedicated to posting all sorts of art with credit to original artists. I like to browse through it when I’m facing off with writers block. My personal favorites are r/ImaginaryBeasts for making up new flora and fauna, r/ImaginaryBattlefields for thinking up climatic showdowns, and r/ImaginaryStaships for when I need my daily dose of SciFi.

Writing Prompts

When you feel like writing but don’t know what or you’re just looking for a challenge, r/WritingPrompts is sure to help with its long list of user-submitted starting points that range from established fandom to completely originial premises. The subreddit also hosts contests from time to time and has been the route through which many users have gotten their writing noticed. Writing a response to a popular post it can be a good way to get your writing more exposure online. Several frequent posters maintain personal subreddits to showcase their writing. Unfortunately, popular promts are often highly specific or tied to a certain fandom. If this is a deal breaker to you prefer something with a little more freedom then try the less popular r/SimplePrompts.

Map Making

If you’ve made a battle map for your D&D campaign, a fantasy island, a political map of your alternate history scenario, or you just like making maps then r/mapmaking might be the place for you. Like r/Worldbuilding it’s welcoming of all skill levels and is a great place to post if you’re in need of advice or feedback. Just make sure you have all your rivers drawn right before you post.

Riots & Rebellions Part 2: Revolutionaries

Whether an attempt at revolution succeeds depends very much on who is fighting it and what their goals are. Can they convince others to follow them? Do they have the skills to lead or are they a good enough judge of character that they can choose others to lead for them? What is motivating them? Is there a limit to how far they are willing to achieve their goals? All of these are important things to think about when plotting your world’s next great uprising.

Leadership

Not every revolutionary needs to be charismatic, but it certainly helps. So many uprisings come down to a single moment, a spark that sets off the rest of the powder keg. Your character either needs to be someone who can capture and channel that energy or have someone willing to take the stage on their behalf. Lot’s of people look back at George Washington as a great general but he actually didn’t win that many battles. Rather he excelled in picking good generals to advise him, getting people to work together, and keeping their moral up. The revolutionaries you design should have their own failings just like he did.

Whatever their brand of leadership may be, make your to leave room for them to make their share of mistakes. Make your character an brilliant planner, or a charismatic speaker, or maybe just someone who is too stubborn to give up. But also give them failings, bonus points if these failures are very public. Put your characters through the wringer and make them prove to the people that they deserve to lead the revolution.

Ideology

Revolutions are often preceded by decades of debate, philosophizing, unrest, broken promises, and even failed revolts. Competing ideologies are bound to spring up amidst all of this disagreement. Your characters may find themselves forced to work together with opposing factions in order to bring down the current regime, leaving pesking details like who will be in charge for later.

There may also be a fair number of martyrs in your setting’s revolutionary history. To your characters these martyrs might be serve as memories to rally around of a painful part of history that people are afraid of seeing repeated. These memories of failed revolutions can range from lost battles in the field and dissolution due to infighting to overzealous investigators guillotining everyone. A lot of this may not make it into the final story, but it makes for good worldbuilding and can be useful for figuring out how your characters will interact with their world and with each other.

Circumstances

You’ll need to decide very early on what your character’s background is and make sure that it is consistent with the cause they are fighting for. Their past should contribute to their motivations and why they want to see the current regime brought down but that does not mean their goals at all need to be noble. Some might become revolutionaries because they want glory or riches for themselves. Your revolutionary could just as easily be an army officer who was passed over for promotion or a foreign merchant who would rather see those annoying tariffs go away.

And what about revolutions that come from the top down? Say an altruistic monarch in your setting decides its time to implement a constitution. Will the country’s elite go along with these changes or will they fight to keep business as usual? Will the populace rejoice or will they suspect ulterior motives? Most people just want to keep food on the table and their families safe. They might well distrust someone who rocks the boat to much, even if they have good intentions.

Limits

If you are writing a story about revolutionaries then it’s probably safe to assume that you have them fighting for good cause, but how far are they willing to go for this cause? Is no price too high for the sake of the revolution, or are there some lines they simply will not cross? Better yet, is there a difference between where they say the line is and what they actually do?

You may want their adherence or lack thereof to influence their success. Making a choice that goes against their normal values may alienate supporters. Otherwise, your character refusing to do something that goes ‘too far’ might cost them an important victory. Values that limit their actions may drive a wedge between them and their allies who may come to see their morals as an obstacle in the way of their goals.

Vision vs Outcome

You should keep in mind what your revolutionary thinks is their end goal. Say they succeed in toppling the old regime. What will they do then? Do they want to lead the new government and build their ideal world or would they rather retire and let others carry the torch.

A revolution’s reality often does not live up to its promise. How will your character react when other revolutionaries have other ideas, or when they find themselves contradicting their beliefs for the sake of victory. Conflict requires hard choices and those choices might not always be the most appealing to your character’s moral compass.

Finally, if the revolution prevails will your character have the skills needed to build their envisioned future?

Worldbuilding: Getting Started

Spend some time of r/worldbuiling and you will see that many posts are from new users asking how to start worldbuilding. The short answer to this is simple-however you want! But since it seems to be such a common question I decided that I would outline my worldbuilding process here for anyone who wants to start but isn’t sure how.

1. Pick a Medium

There are a lot of ways to organize your worldbuilding. For most of my projects I like to start with a nice notebook. This comes with a few limitations, it can be hard to keep topics organized and it can be hard to go back and change major details and keep everything looking neat, but if you are as fanatical about writing implements as I am then it’s a fun way to worldbuild and use your favorite pens at the same time.

Other people use OneNote, word documents, personal wikis, or services like WorldAnvil. In the end it doesn’t matter what medium you use as long as it suits your needs or preferences.

2. Have an Idea

A lot of career advice talks about having an “elevator pitch” ready and you should have the same for your setting. If you’re making a world to run a table top campaign then this pitch might come from your players. Maybe your players want to run a wizard mafia, or find an abandoned city in the far north surrounded by frozen tundra. If you’re worldbuilding for fun or for a story you plan to write you might ask yourself what would happen in a world where the industrial revolution happened a few centuries early or Rome never fell. Once you have a theme to explore or a specific scene in mind you’ll find it much easier to make a setting where those themes or scenes are possible.

3. Pick an Era

Deciding on the level of technology found in your setting is important. It establishes the tools available to your characters, the capabilities of governments, and the resources that countries are willing to go to war over. In a world where everything runs on steam coal will be a much more valuable resource than oil, but if you’re writing diesel-punk this dynamic will be reversed.

When I pick a technology level for a setting I tend to think in terms of centuries. This is just to help visualize the kind of technology and tools available in your setting and should not feel like a limitation. In the end this is your world, if you want to introduce a new technology or put a new spin on historical inventions then do it!

4. Magic

Easily accessible magic will drastically change the dynamics of your world, so deciding if magic is common, or if it exists at all, should happen early on. You should also consider outlining the limits of your world’s magic and whether it can be classified as “hard” or “soft” magic.

If you are considering a world in which divine intervention is a regular occurrence, this would be the time to do it.

5. Make a Map

Our culture is shaped by our environment and who we come in contact with, our economies are shaped by the resources available to us, and these along with other considerations shape the conflicts we engage in. Since you are probably not going to start from the creation of your world and move forward, you’re going to need to picture the “current” state of your world and work backwards to decide what geographic features might have contributed to its current predicament. Mountains, rivers, and oceans can form natural barriers and help explain why a certain culture has stayed relatively isolated, the positions of trade routes, harbors, and rivers will decide where your major cities go.

Scale is important to think about here. You might be tempted to create an entire world map on your first go, but you should consider how much of the world you need to show for your story. Mapping an entire world is fun, but you might find yourself biting off more than you can chew. To combat this I now only map out the region that I plan to focus on and wait to flesh out others areas until I need them.

6. Fill in the Rest

This is the part where you let your imagination run wild. Outline character bios, write the histories of obscure locations or the stories of empires. There’s not really any wrong way to do this. It’s your setting, do what you want with it.