Writing scientific papers for publication in academic journals is something you’re going to have to do during an academic career. Being faced with a lab book full of results and a blank screen is challenging and for many researchers, this can be compounded by English not being their first language. So where do you start?
You need to decide which scientific journal are you going to publish in and why. This may change over time. The journals you publish in at the start of your career may be different to the journals you target later on. Research the journal, its aims, editorial policy and its scope and read a lot – what does it publish, who is the editor? Successful authors are good readers. Target your writing to a specific journal and understand their requirements, style and the types of research they specialise in publishing. Don’t write the same paper and then tout it around different journals. Be clear before you start to write which one you are writing for.
Here are some suggestions for how to structure your paper.
Title – The title has to grab the editors and the reader’s attention. Don’t make it too technical and not too specific.
Abstract – Imagine you had to explain your research to another scientist in 30 seconds. Don’t include all the detail, but do include “hot” terms. How do you know which these are? Make sure you find out what the scientific journal likes to publish articles on. Treat the abstract like a newspaper article for the research. Do it once you’ve written the paper, but do make sure you give it enough time to do it well. Writing good abstracts is good practice for writing grant proposals – so it’s not wasted time
Introduction – Why is your research important and why is it timely? How are you going to grab the readers (editors and other scientists) attention? What else is known and how does your research add to that- i.e. put it in context of other research and what isn’t currently known. Identify the gap in current knowledge. This is another reason to be familiar with the other papers published in the journal.
Methods – Detail what you did and how. Provide enough information so that others can replicate your results. Follow the guideline produced by the journal and be consistent with units of measurement.
Results – What have you found out? Figures and diagrams can show results much better than words, but make sure they are clear and have a point. Use tables to show data involving multiple “conditions” or “variables”. What do they show? Don’t repeat what is in tables in the text but do talk about what they don’t show. Anomalies are just as important as expected results and may be more interesting to readers
Discussion – What do your results mean, and how do they fill in the gaps in current knowledge?
Conclusions – Refer to your starting ideas and what you have found out about them. What direction should future research go in?
You have far fewer pages for a scientific journal paper than you do for a thesis, so every word should matter. Always include a cover letter or email. Use this to sell your paper and show the editor why they should be interested in it. Make sure you present your paper in the correct context of the journal you are submitting it to.
Have you adhered to the journal guidelines on formatting and length of the article? This isn’t negotiable. Just a few words over WILL make a difference. Don’t give the first editor to read your paper an excuse to reject it for this reason.
Consider the audiences for your paper. Are you giving them what they need? The audiences will be the editors, the reviewers and the readers. Make sure your paper can satisfy them all.
And once you’ve been published, your work isn’t done. For your paper to have maximum benefit for your career you need to promote it. This will lead to it being noticed and therefore cited – which is what all researchers want. Promote it via social media, tell your institution’s press office – but be prepared to explain why it is important, especially to a lay audience.
If you’re just starting to write papers, a good way to get relevant experience is to ask to be a reviewer for journals in your field. Journals are always looking for new reviewers and the process gives you an excellent insight into what editors and reviewers look for in a paper. This will be useful when you come to submit your paper for review.