Rejected by an academic journal? Your writing might be the problem

November 26, 2018

ERIE, Pa. — Pam Silver was still in graduate school when she submitted her first paper to the journal of the North American Benthological Society.

“It came back covered in red ink,” says Silver, now the interim dean for academic affairs and a distinguished professor of biology at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. “The founding editor of the journal, Rosemary Mackay, worked with me and taught me how to write.”

The voice Silver developed became the standard at the journal, which now is called Freshwater Science. She has contributed to the publication and served various roles on the editing staff for 21 years, the last 13 as editor-in-chief. She retired from journal work this spring, wanting to focus on a broader portfolio of academic work at the college.

“My head needs to be here at Penn State Behrend,” she said.

Silver’s work at the journal paid forward the patience and purposeful editing she experienced when she submitted that first paper.

“Pam worked tirelessly to improve and grow the journal while unselfishly working in the trenches with authors to improve their manuscripts,” wrote Jack Feminella, a professor of biological sciences and associate dean of academic affairs at Auburn University, and Charles Hawkins, a professor in the department of watershed sciences at Utah State University, in their successful nomination of Silver for the journal’s Distinguished Service Award. “Over her tenure as editor-in-chief, Pam has been a role model and mentor to many young authors and new appointees to the editorial board. Aside from her incredible work ethic, Pam’s ability to work effectively with all kinds of personalities is perhaps her greatest strength.”

We talked with Silver about her years at the journal, the benefits of working with young scientists and the four things academics can do to improve their writing:

Q: Tell us a bit about Freshwater Science. Who reads it?

Silver: It’s a professional journal for ecologists, biologists and environmental scientists. The Society for Freshwater Science co-publishes the journal with the University of Chicago Press quarterly. To my knowledge, it’s the only major scientific journal in the field of freshwater science that is still society-published. Most of the others have been sold to commercial publishers.

Q: How did you first get involved with the journal?

Silver: I submitted a paper. The editor bled red ink all over it, but she taught me how to make it better. I actually thought, "I want her job." I applied to be a member of the editorial board, which reviews the science in the papers, and was accepted in 1997. In 2002, they asked me to be a co-editor. When Dave Rosenberg, the journal’s second editor-in-chief, retired in 2005, they asked me to take the job.

Q: This was in addition to your full-time job as a professor at Penn State Behrend?

Silver: Yes. It was like having another full-time job. I probably worked an additional 40 hours a week editing articles and working with the writers.

Q: Seriously? Forty more hours a week?

Silver: Each article involved about 20 hours of time, and we published about 100 articles a year, so that’s about 2,000 hours annually. By the time an issue published, I would have read and edited every page at least four times.

Q: Why are journals like Freshwater Science important?

Silver: It’s a way to disseminate information in a way that ensures its validity. Is the work scientifically valid? Can the findings be trusted? If it’s in Freshwater Science, it’s been peer-reviewed.

It’s also a way of creating a network of people, a community that shares information. Sharing that information can inspire more curiosity, which leads to more science. It’s like scaffolding. Scientists just keep building on top of earlier work. Every paper that is published is resting on a pyramid of other papers.

Q: The nomination for your Distinguished Service Award focused in part on your ability to work with all sorts of personalities. How did you approach your interactions with different writers?

Silver: I was honest, but I made every effort to be kind, and I tried hard to keep our interactions informal. The authors may not have liked all the changes I made to their papers, but they usually agreed that I made them better.

Q: What was the most frequent problem you encountered while editing?

Silver: Organization. If a paper was hard to understand, it was usually because of paragraph, sentence or word order and inconsistency in how the authors were referring to things.

Q: How can academics improve their writing?

Silver: First, you use precise and concise language. You use the active voice, and forward-moving sentences, and you always think of the audience. If you can’t explain a concept to a non-scientist, you need to work on your communication skills.

Q: One of the things you’re credited with is diversifying the organization as well as the membership.

Silver: I made a real effort to increase international diversity and bring more women onto the editorial board. I also tried to include more young scientists. Everyone has something to bring to the table, and the publication benefits when it reflects a variety of perspectives.

Q: Why is it important to include young scientists?

Silver: For the same reason that I love to teach first-year students. They’re young and excited and full of energy, and they still want to save the world. You can help mentor them to direct that energy to things that are important.

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Last Updated November 27, 2018