Note: This post is a reprint, with minor modifications, of my original post for BrainAura as a part of their Destination PhD, editorial, and science communication initiatives. Please do check out their exhaustive list of offerings, for a wide variety of scientific purposes. The share here is to illustrate some of my thoughts on writing a scientific paper effectively; the views and opinions reflected here are those solely of the author and should be treated as such.
Scientific research by definition is built upon previous investigations. Reliably accurate results need to be freely accessible, and the writing and publishing of papers is an effective and nearly indispensable way of communicating the progress of the scientific journey from hypothesis to data to theory. Condensing months, if not years, of research into a few concise pages, is daunting enough for the tenured professor, to say nothing of the graduate student. It is something the professional academic grows into overtime, and masters the skill of translating the clarity of thoughts into the clarity of words. Yet, publishing a paper does not come easy. For many researchers, it could be a very lengthy process involving many steps of reviewing and corrections. Statistics from several publication houses indicate that, often, less than 50% of the received papers are publishable.
Scientific papers fall into one of a few broad categories: primary research papers that convey newly-discovered results, reviews that collate information from published papers in a field or subfield, and meta-analyses that analyze large sets of previously-published data to spot overall trends. Primary research tends to be structured in the much-debated IMRaD format: introduction, methods, results (and their analysis), and discussion. In this blog post, I have tried to simplify the process of structuring a research paper and included some ideas which might help avoid rejections.
1. A beguiling title is not critical but certainly useful in catching the eye of a non-specialist scientist. One must keep in mind that the title must convey the research objective in an effective manner.
2. A well-written abstract can not only sell the work described in the paper but also give the reader a sense of what to expect in the article.
3. The introduction section should aim to explain why the investigation was carried out, citing the research it was based on, clearly explaining how the presented results and the remaining paper is structured.
4. In the interest of open science, the ‘methods’ section of the paper is perhaps the most crucial as the presented science in this section has to be completely and accurately reproducible. The described methodology should accurately describe how the research was carried out.
5. The ‘results’ section should clearly explain what resulted from the research. The obtained data needs to be presented as clearly and objectively as possible with an emphasis on how the information fills the intended gaps that were outlined in the ‘introduction’ section, and both the raw data and the analysis scripts need to be openly accessible with the links to their online repositories cited in the paper.
6. However, the final learnings and conclusions should not be presented in the ‘results’ section. Readers should be able to predict and be drawn towards the conclusions from well-documented results.
7. In the ‘analysis’ section sometimes combined with the ‘discussions’, the dots are connected to make the story clear for the reader. It is important to show and not tell; the devil always lies in the data.
8. A key criterion arising during the peer review process is whether the conclusions are suitably supported by the presented data, failure to do so is among the most common reasons for rejection of a manuscript.
9. The general layout of the paper should, of course, be complemented by lucid writing and clearly illustrated figures; ‘pictures speak a thousand words’.
10. Above all, organized science operates on the principle of trust and mutual respect: it is extremely important to make sure that all previous work is given credit for through appropriate references and all borrowed text is properly cited: many software programs check for plagiarism and this could be a final channel to run the paper through prior to submission.
Keeping the writing easy to comprehend yet catchy is not an easy task, the article should justify the need for its existence and the scientific investigation it describes. The tips presented in this article are based on personal experience and can be instrumental in avoiding rejection from the publishers. However, different journals adopt different writing and presentation styles and it is definitely recommended to keep this aspect in mind.