It still amazes me, even though it shouldn’t, how much directions matter. Not so much the directions themselves but how closely they need to be followed. There are extraordinary few circumstances where we can purposefully disregard the directions and still get our grant funded or our paper published, and even in these circumstances, we inevitably know someone who is part of the approval process.
Funding and publication. The two areas where directions are paramount yet are often overlooked.
Let’s start with funding first. Funding, whether a grant, donation, or endowment often has strings attached. At multiple points in my graduate career, I was funded by an endowment left to my university, and I was awarded the funds because my research fit within the terms and conditions of the endowment. Unfortunately, other research being conducted in my program could not be funded through these revenue stream because the research was too outside the rules set by the endowment, even though we all work in the same general field (Think infectious versus chronic disease epidemiology, not art history versus physics).
But that is a relatively simple case because I didn’t need to apply for anything. When actually seeking a grant, I have come across numerous situations where I either could not apply for funding or the application was rejected because the proposed activities did not meet the goals of the funder. When applying for a grant, there are two types of directions that must be carefully followed: format and content. The formatting directions are often the easiest to follow but can put significant limits on our ability to follow the content directions. Whether limited by page numbers, word counts, or margins, following the formatting directions is a requirement in order to have your grant reviewed. Within the formatting sphere, make sure you have each section that is required as well. Following the page limits are a must, but if a limitations section or power analysis wasn’t included, the grant won’t be funded on the grounds of an incomplete application.
Content directions for funding are often more difficult to follow, not because the funder isn’t funding an interesting topic but because the competition for funding is so fierce that we often stretch the funders goals to suit of research or programmatic interests, or vice versa. I have done this, and I’ve seen grants fail because of it. For example, I was listed as a Key Personnel for an NIH infrastructure grant. (If that seems weird, it’s because it is). Our problem was that the vast majority of the funding was supposed to be spent building research infrastructure in developing countries. Instead of specifically following that guidance, we essentially wrote a training grant. We would travel to developing countries to train researchers in our techniques, and while these countries would see some funding, the vast majority would have stayed in our university to pay for salaries. That was a mistake and cost us the funding.
The contents of a grant matter, and if your project doesn’t line up with what the funder wants, do not waste your time writing the grant. We can easily rationalize to ourselves how our round project fits into a very awkwardly designed trapezoidal hole, but such rationalizations don’t often makes sense to those around us. For example, I have been involved with several projects on alcohol use, and I can make a very strong case for why alcohol use should be considered part of nutrition and other dietary sciences. But the nutrition world thinks different. To them, alcohol belongs solely to the addiction field and has little in common with foods and beverages.
Alright, we skimmed the surface on funding, but we also need to talk about writing up the findings. Although reports and other forms of grey literature (such as this blog) are good, we really aspire to have our research published in a peer-reviewed journal. By doing so, the scientific community has essentially given their blessing on our findings, our methods, or, hopefully, both. I’m going to assume you have already located a journal that is appropriate for your study and your field. Now, the key is recognizing the fine details in order to ensure the paper is being critiqued on the merits of the work, not on whether you used the right font size.
In my experience, there are two important directions to follow when publishing in a peer-reviewed journal: pick the write manuscript type and know the reference style. Picking the manuscript type appears straightforward, and for the majority of papers, it is, thankfully. The importance of choosing the appropriate manuscript type lies in the restrictions each type puts on your paper. In the journals I prefer to publish in, a traditional research paper is likely to have a word limit of 3,500-4,000 words not including references and tables, a reference limit between 40-50, and a limit on the number of tables and figures of 5 (most journals allow online, supplementary tables as well so this rule can be worked around). Other journals may have a limit of 10,000 words including references and tables, and still others may have a reference limit of 50 but you can pay the journal a fee to include additional references. The quick point I am trying to make is that you never have unlimited space to write. You need to follow the directions according to the type of article you have chosen.
Onward to references, the bane of everyone’s existence. References are a necessary evil and a common comment I will write when being a peer-reviewer for a journal. (As an aside, it is amazing the type of information some people believe is common knowledge to enough people to not need a citation). References are necessary because we need to provide proper attribution to whoever conducted the studies our study is built upon. References are evil because there are numerous reference styles (e.g. APA, AMA, ASA, MLA, Harvard, Vancouver, etc.), and even journals who appear to pick a standard reference style often include some minor change that is not duplicated anywhere else. Despite all that, you need to properly format your references. I’ve had papers returned without review for improperly formatted references.
But if you need to spend hours (yes, it will be hours) of your life completing an inherently evil task, take as many shortcuts as you can. Store your references in a program such as RefWorks will help you seamlessly transition from one reference style to the next. Some journals with very specific or peculiar referencing styles have included their format has a specific option in these programs. If you are uncomfortable with RefWorks or its companions, use the reference manager that is built into Microsoft Word. This feature is similar to RefWorks but the citations are stored on your PC and cannot be accessed from multiple locations. Personally, I am a late adopter of most technology, and I primarily use the reference manager in Word. It is not perfect, but the references are close enough to the intended style that editing takes only a few seconds per citation. It is also possible to download or program additional reference styles that are not included in the native program.
I’ll conclude this discussion by explaining in no uncertain terms what happens if you don’t follow the directions. 99.9% of the time, you will fail. Your grant won’t be funded, and your paper won’t be published.
The take home message
Read the directions. Follow the directions. They may not always be simple. They may even contradict themselves. But they are necessary to be successful.