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On My Mind: How to Write a Scientific Paper

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Publish: the process and the peers

New information—however interesting, amusing, or useful—is not accepted by scientists until it has been published. This does not mean published in the New York Times or in a best-selling book; it means published in a peer-reviewed journal. A peer-reviewed journal is run by a scientist-editor or editors. The editors look at your manuscript and then send it out to two or more “peers,” that is, people who work in the same field and are well known (i.e. well-published) themselves. These reviewers remain completely anonymous; presumably you will never know who they are. They critique the paper and often suggest changes. You meet the criticisms and revise the paper. Eventually the paper is either published or rejected. If it’s rejected, you can chuck it in the waste basket or send it to some other journal, whereupon the process begins again.

One (long) story

Karen Cueing Dolphin

The start of Karen's career as a
peer-reviewed published author.

I’ve published a number of papers in the peer-reviewed literature over my lifetime. The best known paper was the result of an event at Sea Life Park in the 1960s. Ingrid Kang Shallenberger and I accidentally developed a dolphin that could think up her own tricks and was, in fact, spectacularly good at it. The U.S. Navy was interested and funded a repeat of the process with a naïve dolphin, requiring us to collect data throughout. The resulting paper (Pryor, Haag & O’Reilly, 1969) has been cited in other scientific literature more than 600 times.

But for me, that was that. No fan mail. No feedback whatsoever, except that once in a while some professor will tell me that he assigns the paper to his students. In spite of all the citations over the years, people seem to regard this study as a quaint one-time event. The study is used to show that dolphins are really, really smart, or that applied operant conditioning can occur in a way that students will not find boring. The important aspect to me—that MANY animals might be capable of innovative thinking, given the right training situation—did not catch people’s attention.

What the scientists ignored, however, the trainers picked up on. With my book on positive reinforcementDon’t Shoot the Dog!, (Pryor, 1984, revised 1999) the advent of the clicker in 1992, and the new ease of communication due to the Internet, creativity training spread fast in the non-scientific world. Many people began teaching animals other than dolphins to be creative. Dogs. Gorillas. Sea lions. Birds. Even fish.

One day my friend, colleague, and mentor Sheila Chase, a professor at Hunter College in New York, sent me a Call for Papers from the International Journal of Comparative Psychology. They were putting together a Special Issue on behavioral variability. Sheila suggested that I submit something, bringing the “creative porpoise” paper up to date by describing the growth of training for creativity that had developed since then. So I wrote to the editors of the journal and said I’d like to offer an update. They wrote back, very surprised (I think they were surprised to learn I was still alive), and said yes they’d love that. And with my well-published friend Sheila Chase as co-author, we put a paper together and sent it in.

The reviewers objected vigorously. One didn’t understand the paper, period. Another said the paper was too casual, that it read “like a magazine article.” Okay, I can see that; we don’t need colorful writing, and, in fact, being too informal can actually get in the way of comprehension. We did a careful revision and sent back the paper. The editor objected to LOTS of things in the revision. We did another thorough revision, taking a different approach. He was even more upset.

Among other things, the editor wanted references for every “statement of truth” we made about modern training. I muttered to myself, “Yeah, but there ARE no references. Because there is nothing in the literature. That’s why we’re WRITING this paper!” Back and forth went the manuscript between me and Sheila, with Sheila crafting key paragraphs and digging up an amazing number of references that did support what we already knew. (One of my favorites is Grice [1948] who published a study demonstrating that even the briefest delay in the marker can mean the experimental animal learns nothing.)

Anyway, we kept working. Between November of 2012, when we drew up the first outline, and May of 2014, when the paper was in press (that is, set in type and being printed in the journal), my files show that we created 18 different iterations of the manuscript. Do you want to read the final version of “Training for Variable and Innovative Behavior?” You can find it online (it’s free) at this link.

If you don’t want to plow through the whole paper, here’s the abstract. It says very much what we set out to convey in the beginning. It just took a lot of work—and a lot of skilled help from the editor, David Stahlman—to actually get there.


This paper provides a summary of a 1969 report (Pryor, Haag & O’Reilly) of the spontaneous emergence of innovative behavior of a dolphin, a replication of this event through training in another dolphin, and the effect this work has had on current animal training technology. This paper provides a review of laboratory-based research in support of some of the procedures found effective in modern animal training in developing innovative behavior, specifically use of the conditioned reinforcer to mark a behavior, differential reinforcement of variability, and intentional use of positive reinforcement procedures. The authors describe specific processes for establishing innovative skills, practical applications presently in use with animals, consequent human and animal welfare benefits, and suggestions for further research.

More papers

I’m not done. This year I published not one but three papers in the scientific literature. By chance they all came out in May! One was this creativity paper (Pryor and Chase, 2014). Another reviews my history as a marine mammal scientist (Pryor, 2014). The third is a long paper on modern animal training, co-authored with Ken Ramirez, which has been published as a chapter in a textbook on classical and operant conditioning (Pryor and Ramirez, 2014).

I’m now working on two other chapters in scientific texts, one on creativity in animals and another on my history with behavior analysis. I’m also working on more papers with Sheila. I’m currently co-investigator on a two-year research project involving marker-based training of humans. I’m also on the thesis committees of several Hunter graduate students. I hope that new papers may come out of those projects as well, demonstrating more things that every good clicker trainer knows, but that are “not in the literature.” Yet.

Grice, G.R., 1948. The relation of secondary reinforcement to delayed reward in visual discrimination learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38,271-282.

Pryor, K., 1984. Don’t Shoot the Dog! Simon & Schuster, N.Y. Revised edition, 1999, Bantam Books, N.Y.

Pryor, K., 2014. Historical Perspectives: A Dolphin Journey. Aquatic Mammals, 40 (1), 104-115.

Pryor, K., and Chase, S., 2014. Training for Variable and Innovative Behavior. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, Special Issue, 27 (2), 361-368.

Pryor, K, Haag, R., and O’Reilly, J. 1969. The Creative Porpoise: Training for Novel Behavior. Journal of Experimental Analysis.

Pryor, K., and Ramirez, K., 2014. Modern Animal Training: a transformative technology. In The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Operant and Classical ConditioningFirst Edition, Frances K. McSweeney and Eric S. Murphy, Eds. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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