Scientific papers, recut

Editing is a crucial aspect of movie making. You can totally change a film by recutting it. As illustrated by the internet meme where people recut film trailers to change the genre. The Shining as a romantic comedy, anyone? Or think of Steven Soderburgh recutting Raiders of the Lost Ark as a silent film or editing Heaven’s Gate down to half its original length. And who doesn’t wish that they could edit the entire Hobbit trilogy down to the single killer movie it should’ve been? And then there are the smaller but still substantial effects of recutting, like the difference between the theatrical release and the director’s cut of Apocalypse Now.

What scientific papers have you had to recut, and how substantially? I’m thinking here of edits that substantially changed the conclusions of the paper, or even the question asked.

Scientific papers often go through many quite different iterations before being published. As an author, your “director’s cut” often ends up on the cutting room floor because the editor has the “final cut”. Sometimes, to get the paper published you have to do the equivalent of recutting a horror movie as a romantic comedy. For instance, the main chapter of my dissertation research got rejected at least a couple of times before I gave up and reframed it (i.e. “recut” it) as a paper about a completely different topic (see here). Looking back, I still wonder a little if I could’ve recut it into a successful version of the original paper. But we’ll never know, because while both Hollywood and science have recuts, only the former has reboots. 🙂

Are there papers you wish you could recut? Old fogey that I am, I confess I find the trend towards longer online supplements a very mixed bag. So I find myself wishing I could recut many papers–including some of my own–into shorter, pacier versions. But since I can’t, I often do the scientific equivalent of fast-forwarding past the boring bits and skip reading the supplements.

I’m old enough to remember a time when it was possible to publish multiple “cuts” of the same paper. In the days before online supplements, it wasn’t uncommon in ecology for authors to publish a Nature or Science paper, and then later publish a longer version of the same paper in an ecology journal. Ok, not literally the same paper–the longer paper usually would address some questions not addressed by the Nature or Science paper. But both papers would be based on the same dataset, and so would be closely related, not unlike two different cuts of the same film.*

I wonder if it would be a useful training exercise for students to try to recut a paper from an ecology journal into a Nature or Science paper. Kind of like the exercise of recutting a film trailer into a different genre, or recutting a sound film as a silent film. Not because Nature or Science papers are an end in themselves, but because at their best they’re quite different from ordinary ecology papers.** You really have to have a clear, strong “story” that you can tell in a very efficient, incisive way. I suspect it would be difficult to recut most ecology papers into plausible candidates for Nature or Science papers. But I could be wrong.

*Davis et al. 1998 Nature and Davis et al. 1998 JAE, to pick one example off the top of my head. By the way, this is a great experiment on species interactions and range shifts under climate change, you should totally click through if you don’t know this work.

**Or at least they used to be, in the days before online supplements. Nowadays, many Nature and Science papers seem more like extended abstracts with scads of supplementary material appended. And back in the good old days, kids never talked back to their parents and gas was minus-sixty cents a liter. And hey–get off my lawn you kids! 🙂

p.s. After I wrote this post but before it went up, the webcomic version came out! 🙂

3 thoughts on “Scientific papers, recut

  1. Upvote the idea of recutting papers for high-impact short-form journals. Even just cutting an abstract from 500 to 150 words while retaining utility has been a very useful exercise.

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