For a little change of pace, this past week I replaced our regular lab meeting with a writing exercise. Nearly every person in the lab was thinking about or actively working on a manuscript, so this seemed like a great time to ask people to formally think about how to put together a paper. My plan was to start the meeting with an abstract exercise outlined in this fantastic preprint by Halbisen and Ralston. The preprint provides some artificial figures that can be arranged in order and used to write a manuscript. Rather than asking the lab to write an entire manuscript on the fake data, I asked them to take a few minutes to arrange the figures in a reasonable order and write down their answers. The outcome was so much better than I had hoped. After collecting the responses, I was able to announce that no two people arrived at the same ordering except for myself and the newest undergraduate in the lab! This certainly got everyone’s attention since the least experienced person in the lab (in a room of undergrads, grad students and postdocs) was the only one that arrived at the same solution I did. I told everyone not to jump to conclusions and suggested that maybe we would be able to convince the others of our view or vice versa. A hilarious discussion ensued in which each person vehemently argued their point until we ultimately all agreed upon a final ordering with a common rationale.
After wrestling with the abstract considerations for organizing data, I asked everyone to then think about their own papers and order their data/figures in a way that they thought would be sensible for a manuscript. Some of them previously had been unsure about this task when thinking about their papers, but were now confident and easily able to proceed. If we disagreed, we discussed and were again able to reach a consensus on each ordering. To my delight, this exercise inspired several people to think of great ideas for experiments they could/should do. This is precisely the reason I feel strongly about organizing papers long before all the data are collected, but it was fantastic for all of us to see the benefits of it in real time! I too had some totally new ideas for everyone’s papers after hashing it out with them.
Overall, this combination of an abstract followed by concrete writing exercise was an unqualified success! I think everyone learned something, became empowered to push forward on their manuscripts and had great new ideas for their projects. And importantly, we had a ton of fun!
Update: Some are asking how long the exercise took. We only did the first dataset in the preprint for maybe 10-15 minutes and argued about it for another 20-25 minutes. The entire meeting including going over their own data took just over 2 hours.