Scientific and medical writers: Are you brave enough?

Raquel Pinto
Apr 1 · 5 min read

We all have seen the movies. Frodo sets out to destroy the ring or Luke Skywalker is determined to, against all odds, beat the dark forces. And we think, yeah, that could be me. We immediately identify with the hero and silently think “I would probably do that”, “That could be me”. Hmm, really?

What if Frodo said “Nah, what if I fail? I don’t want to look bad. What if everyone in the shire thinks it was better before? Are they going to blame me? After all, I am not the leader here, so it is not up to me. I know things are bad and not working the way they should, but better do nothing and not stick my head out”.

What does it take to change things for the better at the workplace?

I have been puzzled by the fact that, for some reason, the status quo (letting things stay the way they are, no matter how counterproductive they may be) seems to be perceived as not having a cost and consequences. And on the other hand, change for the obvious better seems so intimidating and daunting.

Let us have a look at the status quo scenario of medical and scientific writing: The writing process is clunky and the review process overly time-consuming, done without true collaboration and with a lot of manual work for controlling updates and edits, formatting, status of comments and making sure that all loose ends have been tied up. Can we really argue that staying this way has no cost or consequences?

Well, if there was no other way, then yes, that might be true. But if there was an alternative that would take away the hours of non-value-added document collaboration-wrestling, then the status quo would not only be costly but also absurd, leaving us walking into the future backward.

If there was a better alternative, how open would you be to change?

We know that people fall into different categories when it comes to changes in the work environment. If we have a look at the Technology Adoption Life Cycle (extension of an earlier model called the diffusion process by Joe M. Bohlen, George M. Beal, and Everett M. Rogers), there is an openness to new technology in about 50% of the workforce. The Innovators, Early Adopters, and Early Majority are in general more open to change than the Late Majority, who only joins in when there is absolutely no other way, and the Laggards, who will normally resist until the bitter end and for as long as absolutely possible.

The challenge with change is whom you should listen to. Chances are if you are still reading this blog post, you find yourself in one of the first 3 categories: Innovators, Early Adopters, or Early Majority. An important part to understand is that it is natural, expected, and not dangerous that the Late majority and Laggards resist the change to a new system. But should they be allowed to stop the transition to the obvious better alternative?

Criticism of progress and change will always be there, and some of the points voiced by the critics are also absolutely valid. That is what makes it so challenging. There is some isolated truth in the resistance. You should expect no less. But, does it add up in a way that it should veto and terminate any possible progress? If you look at the whole process of collaborative writing and reviewing, all parts involved from beginning to end, does the critique still stand?

Henry Ford said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Even for the paradigm of changing from horses to cars, there was a strong aspect of you-win-some-you-loose-some that would make people say things as:

“I know how the horse works and I don’t have to pay for gasoline!”

“Those cars can break down and I’m sure they will at some point!”

“They make a lot of noise!”

“I am an expert on horses and I don’t want to learn how to use and maintain a car!”

And that might not be so different from what happens in the medical and scientific writing world:

“The company already has a Word license.”

“Why would I pay for another software!?”

“I bet there is a bug somewhere in that new software!”

“I have spent a lot of time becoming an expert in Word! “

One question to ask would be: are you going to give every feature that you miss in the new software the right to veto the whole process? And are you going to hand out Veto cards to the Laggards? Make no mistake, they will for sure always use it and maintain the status quo.

To advocate for change, the wins must be higher than the losses

This raises two questions:

  1. Can the job be done in the new software and are the workarounds acceptable?

How can you answer these questions as a medical or scientific writer?

The best way is always to try it. Use the software with a real document for its entire life cycle. And then preferably, do it one more time. It takes about 25 days to change a habit. It also takes more effort on the first document you write in a new software because you are learning how to use it. The real benefits kick in after having done this a couple of times and having formed new habits.

So how can you be a Frodo or a Luke Skywalker?

  1. I would say, first of all, do something! Do your research, ask questions, attend a webinar, see a demo.

Part of being a good professional is also to strive for better results, and you cannot achieve them keeping the same old practices. “May the force be with you!”

If you are an early adopter, please comment below sharing any extra tips you have for successful implementations.

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This article was originally published on October 1, 2020, at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/scientific-medical-writers-you-brave-enough-leif-masvar/

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