Publishing papers is a key step in successful research. Progress in science depends on sharing ideas, technological developments and scientific discoveries, all of which depend on communication through publication. On a personal level it is essential for recognition, obtaining funding, promotion and your next job.
Often the logical order presented in a paper is defined after the data have been collated. The gaps are filled in during the final stages of writing or even after reviewer’s comments.
Accuracy and precision, concise, unambiguous and impersonal presentation clarity of style and consistency of format are essential. The greatest failings of the inexperienced are to meander in a disorganized pattern, to use far to many words and to write in a way which may be aesthetically pleasing but is open to misinterpretation.
Less is best, do not be repetitive let the data speak for themselves - do not labor the point. Tell your story in clear, simple language and keep in mind the importance of the ‘big picture’.
“Good writing on a subject is always shorter than bad writing on the same subject”
Planning and preparation
Start of simply with something that you can get down on paper, such as a list of what you have (perhaps then you will see what is missing). Get all the data together, write table and figure legends (even if some of them will get dumped later). Make a summary of what you have found. Then, most importantly make a plan.
Your plan should give you structure and a goal a basic scaffold that you will continue to modify and add detail to as your writing progresses.
The first stage of a plan may seem obvious but is often forgotten – be sure of what you are writing and who will read it. In other words what journal, what format, what length and detail will be aiming for? This is where you may find you are missing important pieces of information.
Discuss your plan with someone experienced – your supervisor. Put the plan away for a few days then come back to it. Does it still look as good as it did when you first wrote it?
Choose the easy part of the plan to write first – the methods section is an obvious starting point.
It can be helpful to write a summary at the beginning. It will inevitably need to be revised and improved later, but this (like the plan) helps to crystallize thoughts.
Help the reader with ‘sign posts’ When you are writing think of the reader. She/he wants to get the message simply and quickly. Help them through the document with clear headings and regular references to figures, objective rather than subjective discussion and clear ‘sign posts’.
Sign posts are often headings, but can also be brief statements at the beginning and end of sections summarizing and leading on to the next part.
The saying ‘say what you are going to say, say it, then say what you have said,’ is useful advice – provided the first and last are brief and informative, and not simply repetitive.
Anatomy of a Scientific Paper
Don’t blow it with a boring title! As an author, this is also your chance to draw your readers in, to entice them to read on. If the title (and abstract) are comprehensible to only a handful of people directly in your field, you have greatly narrowed the potential readership of your paper.
Titles like “Studies of X and Y…” or “Characterization of A and B” cab make eyes glaze over. They tell you nothing and don’t offer much hope for the rest of the paper. The title should highlight the main point of the paper.
Obviously the people who contributed to the work you are writting about.
The Abstract is a very short summary of the paper which must stand on its own because many journals and databases provide the abstract without the rest of the paper. The reader then uses the abstract to help decide whether or not it is worth the effort of looking at the main part of the paper.The Abstract should state the field of the work, the topic of the study, the methodologic approach, the main results, and the main implications. Avoid unspecific summaries, such as “important insights were gained”; or if this seems unavoidable, try at least to squeeze in a sample insight. Similarly, instead of merely saying a quantity was found to be “large”, give the actual value or a range of values. It is usually easiest to write the Abstract after the rest of the paper is done.
Make use of effective redundancy: conclusions in the abstract Abstract contains a forward (the before: motivation) & summary (the after: outcome)
- The context: global view of why the need (see below) is so pressing
- The need: why something needed to be done (motivation)
- The task: what was undertaken to address this need
- The object: “this paper presents/explains/describes/discusses”. Use present tense
- The findings:
- The conclusions: what the findings mean for the audience
- The perspective: what the future holds, beyond this work
“Prose is architecture not interior decoration” - Hemingway
Make the introduction short and concise. Remember, you are not writing an Annual Review of XYZ. You need to tell the reader only what he or she needs to know to understand this piece of work. Provide just enough background so that the reader can understand how the question(s) you are asking fills a gap in the knowledge of the field. When the prior literature is extensive, citing recent review papers can be a good way to keep your introduction from growing too long. Key papers that focus on issues addressed by your paper should be noted specifically, however. Then explain briefly the approach your study takes to the problem at hand, and close with a short paragraph stating what the paper shows highlighting the structure of your paper.
You should cite all the relevant references - remember, editors and reviewers use PubMed too!
A note on paragraph structure
Each paragraph in your paper should start with an introductory sentence that explanes what the paragraph is about and how it is structured. Paragraphs should be able to stand alone and deliver a clear message. Think of the first sentence as the key message (i.e. the title of a slide) Link sentences by common content within a paragraph by referring to, or following on from, the subject of the previous sentence
The first sentence of every paragraph should say what you want your audience to remember!
Try to make each of your paragraphs have one key message.
The Methods section is a technical description of the methods used in your study. Ideally, it is complete enough to allow another skilled scientist to replicate your work. If the methods are complex, including some material in Supplementary Material can be a good way to be complete without making the print version of the paper overly long. Try to start the Methods section with a paragraph explaining the overall strategy of the methods. Then provide a series of subsections that describe each method in detail. Each subsection should provide a very brief, intuitive explanation of the method, followed by the details. This structure allows the reader quickly to get a sense for what you did. He or she can read the details later if needed. To quote Ben Schneiderman, “Overview first, then details on demand.” Occasionally, a few results may be put into the Methods section; for example, the results of a study establishing the parameters of a method. When in doubt, however, keep all results in the Results section.
The Results section should crisply present your new data, and normally contains most or all of the paper’s tables and figures. It can include a very small amount of interpretation and reasoning. For example, Results can say, “Good agreement was obtained, as shown in Table x, which presents…”; or: “In order to evaluate the sensitivity of the results to variable y, the calculations were repeated with two additional values of this parameter, as shown in Figure z.” However, more extended analysis belongs in the Discussion section. Avoid the common mistake of allowing methodological details to infiltrate the Results section. This happens most commonly when the Results section becomes a narrative which describes the need for studies beyond those originally envisioned and detailed in Methods, and proceeds to describe additional methods and the results of their application. This makes for a sloppy and confusing paper, so if you realize this has happened, move the additional methods back to the Methods section. The Results section can still explain – briefly – the reason for the additional studies.
The Discussion section explains what you have concluded from your results and why, and explains the implications for the field. It should not present further data, but it can include a figure or two to help explain a new model based on the data, for example, and it can reference additional papers as it puts your work into perspective. The Introduction and Discussion are the two most flexible parts of the paper, and the Discussion is more flexible than the Introduction. Once you are comfortable with the basics of paper-writing, you can start working on writing lyrical and thought-provoking Introduction and Discussion sections. Keep in mind, though, that your comments should be connected with the data you presented, and should be well-reasoned.
A Conclusions section can be used to briefly summarize the main points of a complicated paper. However, this section is optional and should be omitted from a straightforward paper whose main points are already apparent.
A place to thank the individuals and organizations that played a supporting role in the research and paper-writing. Check whether your grantor requires a specific format or disclaimer; the NIH does.