About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 31, 2008

Writing It Down

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Posted by Derek

So, what’s easier: writing a blog entry every working day, or writing one scientific publication? The blog, the blog, no doubt about it. I write quickly, and pretty much always have, but putting a paper together is still slow work.

One difficulty is the length restriction, especially for a communication. Working in all the necessary details while still telling a coherent story are not always compatible goals, and doing it within four printed pages can be a real challenge. Many med-chem projects are pretty shaggy by the time it comes to publish, and there’s no way to get in all the twists and turns (nor would anyone want to read about them, in most cases).

So you have to decide how the work is going to be presented to give a readable but accurate account. The problem is, almost any project can be turned into a flowing narrative if you’re willing to throw away enough work and to lie about the rest. If you’re not going to do that (and I recommend against it!) then you have a harder job on your hands. You’re going to have to leave out something, but you’re going to have to be able to recognize what’s left.

It’s for sure that you’re not going to be able to talk about every single analog, so one good technique is to narrow down to representative compounds. That won’t always be popular with your co-authors, though. Odds are that some of the people who worked on the project will end up feeling slighted when their contributions make it onto the bottom few rows of a table, or are just mentioned in passing in the text: “Substitution with groups larger than methyl led to rapid loss of activity (data not shown), so our attention then turned to. . .”

Another difficulty is that series of analogs aren’t often made in the order that makes sense in hindsight. I think it’s acceptable to mess around with the timelines a bit in presenting the data, as long as you aren’t rearranging things that had an impact on the main flow of the SAR. That course of events you’re stuck with, and you just have to find a way to make your decisions seem reasonable. It helps if they actually were reasonable, of course. That condition does not always obtain.

As for writing style, I recommend a difficult one: the kind that you hardly see at all. Keeping someone reading along while you deliver the dry, concentrated, chewy news isn’t easy to do, but it’s a goal worth struggling for. Most papers scan as if they’ve been sprayed with light coating of eye repellent: you slide right off of them after a paragraph or so. If you can avoid that, you’re already well out from the pack. As for extra touches, I actually enjoy seeing a bit of personality and humor come through in a scientific paper, but getting that bit right is very difficult. Getting it wrong is very easy, though, and the results are unpleasant. If you’re not sure of your touch, keep your hands off the spice rack. This isn’t the time to be Henry James (is there ever a time?), William Faulkner, or Marcel Proust. If you’re going to emulate a novelist, think Hemingway. Early Hemingway. If you want a journalistic role model, you can aim for Orwell, but that’s a high mark – he had style to burn, but managed not to call attention to it. Good luck!

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. Fiona on March 31, 2008 11:52 AM writes...

No Schering or Merck comments? Or is it still being written?

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2. Derek Lowe on March 31, 2008 12:05 PM writes...

Tomorrow's post, definitely. I'm watching Schering-Plough's stock get taken out and beaten right now. . .

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3. eugene on March 31, 2008 6:10 PM writes...

Oh no! Don't remind me! I have a mediocre paper that I should have submitted a year ago, although the main text is already written.

Actually, thanks for reminding me!

(One way or the other, it will be submitted by the end of summer).

I find the best time to write late in the evening. Sleep is a very good reward for me for getting a lot of effective writing done. And if I'm not getting a lot done, then I don't get the reward. I suppose that this is not an effective strategy for the more family minded. I might have to change it in the future.

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4. The Scribe on March 31, 2008 7:07 PM writes...

I'm writing a paper now and getting everyone's buy-in on it is like pulling teeth, frankly. What happens to all those company values like collaboration? Sadly, what it amounts to is me writing the whole thing and then everyone else who has to be on the paper for political reasons, red inking it up to be damned. Then I get to spend the next 3 or 4 months "correcting" everyones corrections. It's so not fair.

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5. MTK on March 31, 2008 9:00 PM writes...

Man, I feel for you guys.

I know that I may not be doing my fair share as a scientist, but I hate writing papers. Whenever someone does it for me, I thank them profusely, make minor suggestions at most, and then stay out of the way.

My feeling is if I want a big voice in how a paper is written, then I should write it.

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6. dave.s. on April 1, 2008 12:56 PM writes...

Herb Caen, superb 40-year gossip columnist in the SF Chronicle, was asked, why have you never written a book? And he said, that's like asking a guy who shaves every day why he hasn't grown a beard.

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7. dAN on July 23, 2008 11:14 PM writes...

The Prevention of Ignorance

Historically, information sources provided to American citizens were limited due to the few methods available to the public. And also this information was subject to being filtered and, in some cases, delayed or eliminated. This occurred for a number of reasons, which included political ones. What I am referring to is pre-internet sources, such as media sources in the form of radio, newspaper, and television, for example.
Now, and with great elation (some may say), there is the internet, which has been useful to everyone from researchers to job seekers. Even doctors who seek authentic information and research elements of their profession
Soon after the advent of the internet, web logs were created, that are termed presently and simply ‘blogs’. At that time, about a decade ago, the blogs were referred to as personal journals or diaries visible on line. As time passed, blogs became a media medium, and blog communities evolved on topics that often were not addressed in mainstream media. In addition, blogs provide immediate contributions by others instead of the cumbersomeness of opinion and editorial pieces historically and not always presented in such media forms as newspapers.
The authors of blogs vary as far as the backgrounds of the creators of these journals, as well as their true intent of what they choose to present to possible readers. Furthermore, they are not exonerated from the legalities of what is written, such as cases of libel or plagiarism, for example. While we can presume that blog creators have at least an interest in a particular subject, ideally they should also have an interest and ability to annotate the written word. As with other printed material, the quality varies, as I believe this is overall rare as far as what is posted on blogs. What is of concern is the sharing of personal information about another by some writers. Then issues of invasion of privacy become a possibility.
Yet presently, blogs have become quite a driving force for those with objectives often and apparently opposed by others, and are possibly and particularly a great threat to big business and politics- both of which have been known to often monitor often the progress and/or content of some blogs, which potentially provide instant and often accurate information for readers- which includes what is posted on blogs as well as what may be commented on these posts. Understandably, this weapon certainly has the potential to affect such groups unable to prevent or filter what could expose what has not been disclosed, and at times needs to be disclosed. Rarely do blogs involve trade secrets, for example, as far as I know. So this information source in the form of a blog can be of great value to others.
This also and fortunately includes information released from whistleblowers on certain blogs or directly to the creators of certain blogs- often and with good reason to remain invisible in doing so. Normally, information shared by these people is valid, honest, and complete. And remaining anonymous is certainly possible. So secrets are difficult now to maintain with select organizations.
Yet, blogs are not free of fallacies, as one disadvantage of blogs is the potential lack of reliability, blogs however do allow the posting of documents that typically are not created for view of others besides perhaps a select few. Furthermore, blog owners, as with journalists, strive to verify any premise stated on their blog. For example, blogger Dr. Peter Rost, a whistleblower himself, not long ago posted a newsletter on his blog,, that was given to him by pharmaceutical maker AstraZeneca employees who called themselves the ‘AZ Group of Seven’ to bring to the attention to others the illegal activity of off-label promotion of one of their cancer drugs. Yet this is not what caught the attention of so many who viewed all of the content of this newsletter posted in completion on Dr. Rost’s blog site, named, “Question Authority”. It was instead a comment in this newsletter that was annotated as being stated by former regional AZ manager Mike Zubalagga, who in this newsletter referred to doctors’ offices as ‘buckets of money’. Again, the statement was authentic and in writing in this newsletter. At the same time, the statement validated what others view of pharmaceutical companies in relation to their greed, perhaps, so it traumatized the company’s public relations most likely.
Mr. Zubalagga was fired the next day due to this comment. His manager resigned soon afterwards.
And there have been other whistleblower blog cases in addition to this one, so blogs have become a very powerful and threatening medium of information release that does not allow others to prevent such releases. This is true freedom of information, free of alteration or omission. One could say that blogs are reaching a form of some sort of communication utopia. Also, as with the case just stated about the newsletter, some are more careful what is written than others.
Yet again, the information on these blogs should not be taken as absolute truth without proof to verify claims that may be made. Of course, documents that are authentic are in fact proof, as illustrated with the above example. And this, in my opinion, is the blog’s greatest value, combined with the comments on blogs from the growing number of readers who are allowed to contribute to the subject matter so quickly, which fuels the objectives of the blogs, which clearly opens formerly closed loops.
Because we, the public, have a right to know what we are entitled to know and what we want to know. This is especially true if the information could potentially be adverse to our well-being. Personally, I have no interest in the financial future of a company, for example. More important to me is the importance of knowing if others may potentially harm others with deliberate intent.
“Always be smarter than the people who hire you.” --- Lena Horne
Dan Abshear
Author’s note: What has been written is based upon information and belief

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