Guest post: can you be too young to write a synthesis paper?

An opinion I have commonly heard is that young people should concentrate on primary research instead of writing reviews or synthesis papers, and that we have too many reviews anyway. In the following guest post, Alexander Kubisch disagrees:

The question I’d like to elaborate on is: Should you write a review/synthesis paper, although you just started to actively participate in science?

I say : Yes! You cannot be too young, too busy or too unimportant to do so! And it is important to do things like that, for you and for others! In the following I’d like to explain my opinion. I want to do so by giving some insights into the origins of a recent synthesis paper that I authored together with Bob Holt, Achim Poethke and Emanuel Fronhofer, which has just appeared in Oikos (see virtual special issue). In this paper we deal with the problem of understanding the formation of species’ geographical range borders by focusing on the eco-evolutionary dynamics of dispersal.

But let’s go a step back – where did the idea for this kind of synthesis come from? Well, it all started with finishing my PhD thesis. I worked on dispersal evolution along environmental gradients, focusing on dispersal evolution and its influences on range formation. All studies I did were, of course, rather detailed, using simulation approaches to address problems that were (probably) partially unknown. Anyway – once there was the time of putting the pieces together and writing my PhD thesis (the hard time was in winter/spring 2012). Actually I was quite happy with my plan for the discussion of my thesis, until, in a break, my main supervisor (Achim Poethke) asked me what my plan for the discussion was.

Well, I had one, didn’t he see it? … He proceeded and told me that he was expecting something synthesizing on my topic (dispersal evolution and range formation), something that would really advance science, including provocative and sensible conclusions, as a good discussion should be (to my opinion he really was – and is – the best possible supervisor). He actually mentioned (and hopefully still thinks) that I was a leading expert in this particular field of science. Wow! Listen to that. At first glance it was balm for my soul. At second glance… it was terribly frightening! Yet, I did not have any other way than to address this challenge (I mean, he was still my supervisor, right?). I thought about some kind of concept and rapidly realized that I needed help. That’s where my coauthor Emanuel (and in the beginning also Gita Benadi) came in.

This is the first very important message, I’d like to stress: for some kind of review and synthesis, ask someone you trust and you can talk to. It is a challenge to do such a study per se, but it is close to impossible to do it on your own. The greatest ideas can only come up, when you are in close interaction to a person, who thinks like (or probably especially unlike 🙂 ) you do.

So we made a first draft of the concept (in close interaction with Achim) and helped us one another to sort our ideas and to realize, how our work would fit together. Still, it was a huge topic, so we decided that – to be really sure that we were not just creating bullshit – we should ask someone, who definitely understands a lot about this topic and thus invited Bob Holt to join our dispersal-eco-evo-range-team. Luckily (very, very luckily!), he agreed and offered more than just helpful contributions to our paper! He was open for our ideas from the very beginning and yet was constructively criticizing and advancing our common work (thanks again, Bob!). From this experience of working on this really huge challenge, I learned that it is so very important to not just focus on some details of a system, but to try to keep (or achieve) an overview over what I knew, and what was known by others. And the most important lesson was to do it together.

By the way, it was, of course, really a lot of work. Researching the literature, organizing the findings from that, drawing a red line through it all (resp. a framework) and doing some additional simulations, until we finally wrote the paper, took all in all more than one year of work (while it was more or less our main project). And of course, we could probably have created more than one theoretical paper during that time, if we wouldn’t have focused on that project. Yet, we really thought that this kind of synthesis can be more valuable than a bunch of other detailed studies, which we would have produced otherwise – especially as it helped us to really carefully think about what we are doing, and why we are doing it. In times of an exploding mass and diversity of publications, it is (to my opinion) especially helpful and necessary to more often come to rest, digest what has been, and then – after discussing that with others – synthesize one’s own thoughts.

To come back to my title (aren’t we way too young to do that?) – I don’t think so (sure, otherwise we wouldn’t have done it 🙂 ). Especially with regard to the synthesis and perspectives of science, a fresh view with (as far as possible) open-minded ideas is what we really need! Young scientists should more than anyone else think about synthesizing their particular field of science, be it in a paper, a blog, a facebook post, or even a tweet (of course, in a paper you can say more 😉 ). And from my experience, I really would like to give you the following tips:

  1. Don’t think, you’re too young or too busy or too anything to address such a mission – if you are convinced that it would be necessary to synthesize a given topic, everybody else will be (at least soon) convinced, too!
  2. Do it together! Do not overestimate yourself or underestimate the help of others – a group of people can do amazingly great work and come to conclusions, which every single participant would not have thought of!
  3. Think! Take the time to think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it – what is the broader concept of your work? Of course, in the beginning you do, what you have to do, but you are always free – so occasionally take a moment of time and rest, relax, prepare a cup of tee (or a glass of beer (Alex) or wine (Emanuel) or anything else) and figure out, what role your research plays within the prevailing theories.

And never think, you’re not prepared to do it – you never are. Just do it 🙂

12 thoughts on “Guest post: can you be too young to write a synthesis paper?

  1. Hi Alex,

    Great encouragement! One thing I wondered: many people write a review at the beginning of their PhD, with the idea that they get to know the literature, but in my experience the danger is that the topic is too complex and they loose a lot of time.

    If you say write a synthesis early, do you think the end of the PhD is a good time, or would you like to have done this earlier in retrospect?


    • Hi Florian,
      first – thanks 🙂 Well, actually I found the timing quite perfect, I don’t think that it would have been possible to write such a paper at the very beginning of my PhD. While doing my studies I researched ‘step-wise’ through the literature, as it is usual I guess – so for every new topic I entered I read more and in the end I felt to have quite a good overview. Actually I find it sad that a lot of PhD theses do not really aim at synthesizing the topic in a broader context, as writing the thesis is in my eyes the best time to (try to) do so.


  2. “An opinion I have commonly heard is that young people should concentrate on primary research instead of writing reviews or synthesis papers”

    That’s interesting, because it’s not an opinion I’ve ever heard! I’m heavily involved with our university’s generic training programme for PhD students across the institution, and I frequently tell them that the first paper they might think about publishing is a short review or opinion piece, if they think there’s a gap in the field.They need to take advice from their supervisors, of course, but if pitched correctly it could be their entry into peer-reviewed publishing.

    I may be biased in this regard as the first peer-reviewed paper I ever published was a Perspectives piece in Trends in Ecology and Evolution back in 1992. In retrospect it was a bit naive, but has been well cited and formed the basis for a meta-analysis published almost 20 years later that tested the original ideas, finding partial support for them.

    So I would agree with Alexander – PhD students should go for it, but be aware that rejection rates from journals are high.


    • That is very true indeed, getting such a paper accepted is certainly harder, but I guess the benefits overwhelm. Actually I find your training programme great – it should more often be like that!


      • It works for us as we have relatively few PhD students across the university. The feedback we receive suggests that the students appreciate being mixed up and discussing issues, progress, methodologies, etc. with others who are far outside their own fields.


        • That sounds great – actually this is how science should really be done – and certainly great to help students to see the bigger picture.


    • I have had very good experience with writing synthesis papers as well, both an a personal and on a “career” level, so I completely agree with the two of you.

      What I was referring to were opinions expressed to me in personal conversations, but maybe those were outliers and the public opinion indeed completely in favor of writing syntheses when young?


    • I really agree with this. I think a lot of PhDs would benefit from undertaking a synthesis of meta-analysis with a discrete question when they have found their broad topic. It helps you to get to know the literature and at the end you should hopefully have something publishable. I would imagine that having a quantitative element to your work might also help with the rejection rates.


  3. I can’t remember being told this specifically, but before reading this I would also have said that a student should not try to publish a review/synthesis article (but they should write one as a chapter in their thesis) because they wouldn’t have the depth of reading, and wouldn’t be taken seriously. But I think I’ve had my mind changed – at least in the way Alexander has described the process, with a senior researcher as a co-author/collaborator but taking a back seat. I think success would depend a lot on how the person in the advisory roll steared the process.


    • It’s great that the post already had some effect 🙂 And I definitely agree – it’s very helpful to have senior researchers participating without taking the lead, rather evaluating the soundness and comprehensiveness of the manuscript, giving tips and providing ideas. Yet, I guess it depends on all participants of such a project, how much stearing in the end is necessary.


  4. Pingback: Friday links: confirmation bias confirmed, peak reading, diatom art, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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