A first for everything

I recently had a nerve-wracking experience, my very first manuscript was finally ready to be submitted to a journal but when it came time to press the “submit” button, I froze. I had been working on this manuscript since my honours year in 2015, it has been 4 years, there have been countless drafts, my co-authors (my supervisors) were happy with it and they were ready to let it go. I think I reread the final draft 87 times, checking if I had dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s, I found myself making excuses to not submit, it wasn’t ready (after 4 years it really REALLY was though!), I wasn’t ready and, frankly, I was TERRIFIED. This would be my introduction into the ‘real world’ of research, the very first piece of writing I put out to my research community for them to critique and read.

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So, what did this millennial do before pressing submit? Naturally, I went to Twitter and told my online support system that my impostor syndrome had crippled me. I was overwhelmed at the response, many people offered advice, words of encouragement and some even offered to press submit for me, it helped me feel less afraid. Many researchers shared their feelings about their first submission and their first rejections. It has now been just over a month since I submitted, I am still anxious and check the submission status constantly but I feel more confident now, even if the paper is rejected, my online support helped me realise that it is not the end of the world, it is simply a hurdle that I will overcome.

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So, in honour of my first baby, my first paper, I thought I should put together a post that helps guide other first-timers in the world of publication! There are many fantastic detailed guides online, one of my favourites is from Dr Melanie Seiler on the blog The Female Scientist. This is a good guideline for writing a paper, outlining what is expected in each section and how to go about writing your first paper. Also check out this guideline on Enago, How to Write a Research Paper. These are REALLY helpful to start your writing process! Below I detail a few of my own tips, the last one being my favourite. My editor, Prof Inglesi- Lotz, has also contributed to this area of interest in a SAYAS blog post which is worth the read before going into a panic about publishing your first paper.

  • Find a good support system

I was fortunate enough to attend a publication workshop early last year hosted by The Centre of Excellence in Paleosciences at WITS University and led by the phenomenal publishing machine that is Dr Jennifer Fitchett. Dr Fitchett covered the publication process, she explained things like H-indexes and choosing journals and navigating this scary space. If your institution offers writing support like this, I encourage you to attend, it is great to work through problems in groups and to bounce your ideas off researchers that could be in a completely different field in order to test the clarity of your work.

Your support system can also consist of your co-authors, your supervisors and your peers. They are probably familiar with your work and if you ask, would be happy to provide feedback. If you love Twitter, like I do, then an online community can also help you navigate through your fears.

  • Choose your journal wisely

Most journals have an outline of the research work they publish and often a guideline for authors. Make sure to check your prospective journals’ homepage and learn about their format, submission and review processes. This will help you decide if it is the right journal for your work and assist in preparing your manuscript. Another way to decide if a journal is a good fit for you is to look at your own reference list and the journals you frequently cite, this could be an indicator of the right type of journal for your research work. Aim high and even if you are rejected, chances are you will receive some feedback that can be helpful in revising your paper. If that is not for you though, try to pick a suitable journal based on the research at hand, this requires an honest look at your work.

  • Get a second, third or fourth opinion

It is okay to feel unsure! It is great to bounce your ideas off other people whose opinions and input you value. The manuscript can be circulated (confidentially) for you to get some constructive feedback. This is also why conferences and seminars are so important, they offer an opportunity to present to an audience who can provide feedback and act as a room of reviewers. Discussing your work with others may encourage new ideas and insights and take you out of your mental bubble.

  • Stop that impostor syndrome

ff8827a44ceb7590b70c0fe0f5e63bbe.jpgMy wonderful SAYAS editor also reminded me that just a few weeks before my panic, I had written a blog post on Impostor Syndrome and my dealings with it, she reminded me that I was capable and that my voice, my research and my perspective mattered. Sometimes that is all you need. It is going to be difficult and your fears are valid, but you cannot let that stop you from sharing your research work. You matter!

  • Press SUBMIT!

This is probably the hardest part, once you press submit, your work is out there to be judged. Reviewer 2 is real, and they will probably have feedback but that can all assist you in presenting the best possible work. If you need a gentle nudge, you could always ask someone you trust to press the button for you. I promise once it is done you will feel a sense of relief! Sometimes it is about changing your perspective, although it is nerve-wracking, think of the feedback and how it will help you improve your work.

  • Don’t let the fear of rejection stop you

If your paper comes back with revisions, or it is rejected, do not let that stop you. Take a moment, maybe more, reflect on the feedback, dust yourself off and TRY AGAIN. There are many reasons why manuscripts are rejected and take the feedback and rework it, change your approach, change the journal possibly but do not give up.

  • Congratulate yourself

I pressed submit before 11AM on a Monday and you know what? I had a glass of wine and didn’t feel an ounce of guilt. Celebrate that you were brave enough to do it, you deserve it!Instagram-Simple-as-that-6a4430

The Unsung Heroes of Palaeosciences

In 2016, I found myself in the beautiful country of Kenya alongside a team of researchers, curators and technicians from South Africa. We were in Kenya to attend a workshop titled: Developing a collaborative pan- African approach between partner institutions in support of palaeoscientific research training and public outreach. This was the very first time I was exposed to the ‘behind the scenes’ work of palaeosciences and just how much it impacted the research I so loved.

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During our time in Kenya, we attended the Unsung Heroes of Palaeontology awards ceremony, hosted at the National Museums of Kenya. I was so overwhelmed with pride when I found out that two members of our travel party were being honoured at this event, Mr Lazarus Kgasi (Senior Curatorial Assistant at Ditsong Museums) and Ms Zandile Ndaba (whom I affectionately call ‘Mama’, Technician/caster/ excavator and explorer at University of the Witwatersrand). These two incredible individuals were being celebrated for their contributions to our science, for their role in uncovering pieces of our history that help us understand who we are today, where we came from and how we fit into the puzzle of life on earth. Many other prominent fossil finders, technicians and curators were celebrated from East Africa, an evening dedicated to their contributions, but I could not help but wonder when I left, what happens now?

Often, when we discuss ‘equality’, ‘transformation’ and ‘diversity’ in academic spaces, we are usually only referring to academics and not other members of our team and community which includes technicians. When we fight for fair pay, fair treatment and recognition, I hope that we always remember that not all our colleagues are scientists in the traditional sense, but that their contributions to the science are by no means any less. Technicians perform a wide variety of roles in palaeosciences, I list a few below:

  • They are often fossil finders at the forefront of excavations (they are so talented that they can spot a fossil before any researchers do usually).
  • They are the first to see a fossil after hours and sometimes years of preparation using fine tools such as air scribes (in my eyes, they are the ones who breathe life into rock so that the scientist can tell the story). Check out this cool fossil preparation time-lapse video!
  • They assist in the education of future generations of researchers through their incredible artistry when casting fossils (we have some of the most talented casting technicians in the world and their casts are used globally in schools and museums to teach the history and importance of fossil finds in Africa)
  • They are teachers. During my time in Kenya I was exposed to the chemistry behind cast making, the big data management behind curating and the project management behind excavations. These individuals are not only technical staff, but they are also highly trained, highly specialised individuals with a vast amount of knowledge that I personally think most researchers take for granted.

zandile ndabaIn the past, technicians were often exploited, coming from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, with not many options for further education. This led to their contributions being largely ignored, while researchers accepted the glory that came along with significant finds. This is an especially sensitive reality in South Africa, where the technical workforce consisted of mostly Black Africans (and still does today). Is one prize giving in their lifetime enough? Is one moment to recognise all they have done really going to make a difference?

While I completely agree that it is important to celebrate these moments, I do believe that a greater impact, a greater change and a more meaningful exchange would be to invest in the present and future of technical work in the palaeosciences and the role of these individuals in our ongoing research. This includes skills development and certification and proper compensation. Funding is often tight in the field of palaeosciences but that can no longer be used as an excuse to exploit the hard work of individuals who deserve more, more support from us as academics, students and colleagues.

This change is on the way as more people acknowledge the contributions of technicians in their research papers, sometimes (but not often enough) they are included as co-authors. However, this is not the norm and it should be, their contributions often lay the foundation for research work. As a young woman of colour in science, I firmly believe that I cannot thrive in a research space until we all do. Aviwe Matiwane Kim Tommy

Last year, in celebration of Heritage Day, I was fortunate to give a talk at the First South African Fossil Hunters public symposium alongside my dear friend (and super incredible palaeobotanist and science communicator) Ms Aviwe Matiwane, a PhD Candidate at Rhodes University and Albany Museum. Aviwe and I had been in discussions for a while on what we would present, we had both agreed that we wanted to take this opportunity to highlight members of our community that are often forgotten. Before ending off this blog post I would like to thank the technicians and curators who have made an impact on my life. Our science is so much better for having you in it. Thank you for inspiring me, encouraging me, supporting me and motivating me. You are deeply appreciated and valued, and I promise that when we fight for a better future, we include you in it.