How to write a (great) Perspective article

Like many journals, Journal of Biogeography (JBI) provides a specific forum for researchers to put forward new ideas (or dismantle old ones). In JBI, this article type is the Perspective. Our Author Guidelines state that Perspective papers “should be stimulating and reflective essays providing personal perspectives on key research fields and issues within biogeography”.

Across the senior editorial board, we’re always a little surprised that we don’t get more Perspective submissions since most of the biogeographers we know are brimming with personal perspectives, many of which immediately spill out over a coffee, beer or zoom call. Of course, going from a good idea to a finished article is rarely straightforward and writing your first Perspective article can be a daunting prospect – even more so if English is not your native language.

The good news is that writing a Perspective can be exceedingly enjoyable and a refreshing change from the limitations of a standard research article. Moreover, it is not a ‘black box’; there are several general principles that can help you to craft ‘stimulating and reflective essays’. Like research articles, the best Perspectives have a clear U-shaped narrative (Figure 1) that start with a clear justification of why a research area/topic needs re-evaluating and finishing with the potential implications of your new perspective for the development of the field.


A typical U-shaped narrative structure for a Perspective article

One of the best things about Perspective articles is you have enormous flexibility in how you write them. Nevertheless, when planning the article, we find it useful to divide the article into several basic components:

  1. The Introduction
    This ought to include an engaging explanation of the problem/challenge you are addressing (this can be conceptual, practical, methodological… anything really!). Generally speaking, the more important/fundamental the problem, the harder it is to convince the referees that your new perspective is valid! But the potential rewards are also greater, so give your best idea a go!
    Almost by default, you need to contrast your new perspective with the standard or alternative solution/model/explanation, i.e. the “text-book explanation” that most scientists would agree with. This standard explanation needs to be carefully layed-out without creating a ‘straw man’ (e.g. misrepresenting the alternative argument to make your argument look better)!
    Finally, introduce your new perspective and give a convincing explanation of why you think it is needed.
  2. Substantiating your new perspective
    It’s not enough to simply state your new perspective. You also need to provide convincing evidence in favour of, or at the very least consistent with, your argument, citing examples and demonstrating ways in which your new perspective can be applied. This does not need to be an exhaustive synthesis of relevant studies, but it should be sufficient to support your argument and to, at a minimum, demonstrate that existing approaches to the problem are insufficient.  Be careful to not cherry pick the literature such that you selectively ignore evidence contrary to your view. Instead, embrace challenging data, and use them to explore limitations and possibilities.
  3. Conclusions
    After discussing the evidence it is important to outline the relative strengths of your new perspective as compared to the standard/alternative perspective and to discuss the potential implications of your approach for future developments in the field.

And don’t forget your figures! It’s a decent estimate that a picture is worth a thousand words. A sweet graphic demonstrating the differences between the conventional and your new improved approach will also be worth a whole pile of citations. So, having made a compelling intellectual argument in the text, don’t sell your idea short visually. Design an eye-catching intuitive graphic that’ll get included in social media, in other people’s talks, as well as future papers and text-books. (Advice on preparing figures can be found at https://journalofbiogeographynews.org/2020/07/15/figures-the-art-of-science/.)  

How to get started:
When planning a Perspective paper (for any journal), consider starting with a simple plan, e.g. a bullet-pointed outline, that includes: (i) the problem; (ii) the standard approach; (iii) the new perspective; (iv) the key evidence, and; (v) the main conclusion. Of course, there are many other ways to structure an argument and experienced writers will often create a compelling narrative that doesn’t fit into a standard structure. The point is, a strong structure can be a huge help if you are unsure how to start, or to help organize your thoughts. 
Another tip is, if you’re unsure about the merits of an idea, write to the editorial board.  Contact an associate editor in a closely allied field and write to the Reviews Editor, Richard Ladle, and/or the editor-in-chief Michael Dawson <contacts>.  We’ll be happy to give you preliminary feedback and guidance.

We hope the short explanation above has shown you that writing a Perspective article is not fiendishly difficult or the preserve of well-seasoned biogeographers with long academic records. A new Perspective is as much about novelty and disruption as it is about experience. Here at Journal of Biogeography we believe that debate and discussion, diverse viewpoints and challenges to orthodoxy are essential if the discipline of biogeography is going to maintain its vibrancy and societal relevance. In this respect we encourage submissions from all biogeographers, but especially early stage researchers and those working in regions of the world historically under-represented in biogeography.

Written by:
Richard Ladle
Research Highlights Editor

Published by jbiogeography

Contributing to the growth and societal relevance of the discipline of biogeography through dissemination of biogeographical research.

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