Notes on writing a scientific paper
by Paul Keim (7/21/97, revised 10/5/97, 2/03, 5/05, 5/06) This is a guide toward successful writing scientific papers in the Keim Genetics Lab. Scientific writing is not the same as creative writing. This is good as it means that anyone can do it. It is paint-by-the-numbers, rather than Monet! I have come up with this system over two decades and it seems to work well, especially for beginning writers. Point 3 below is the key to the system. START WITH THE RESULTS. We do not write scientific papers in the same order that they appear in the journal (e.g. Introduction, methods, results and discussion). In fact, I advocate writing the introduction last (see point 4)
Clearly define what the major and minor points you what to present in the paper. If these aren’t crystal clear in your mind, what chance do you have of communicating these ideas to your readers? Write down the single biggest point you are making and then several lesser ones. You should revisit these points after writing the Results section and revise them if your data don’t strongly support them. Target one or two journals for your paper. Xerox the instructions to authors section and a recent paper that has similar data to what you will present. As you write, match the format of your target journal. Note the peculiarities of the journal concerning: a) Citations. Use Endnote if you can as it will save a lot of time. You can download citations from Medline and Endnote will reformat for any journal. b) Tables/Figures - Table/Figure labels, Table/Figure numbering, table footnotes. For example, some journals want Roman numerals others want Arabic numbering. Some want “Fig.” in the text and “Figure” in caption. Crazy but watch for this idiosyncrasies. c) submission requirements -where do you send it, number of copies, disk copy, electronic? Some journal now require electronic submission of the entire manuscript as a pdf file (e.g. ASM journals). Some require the figures be submitted at exactly the size they will be published. Note one column versus two column figures. Think about how your figures will look in the final paper. Where will the copy editors put the caption? d) editorial policy - do you get to pick an editor or do they? Where do you send the paper to the editor or a central distribution point? e) The size and dimensions of the figures is important. Ignoring this can make for a sloppy final product. Maximize the presentation by minimizing wasted white space. Most journals want the figures to be in the final size (e.g. 1 column, 2 columns, full page, etc). What can you put in the figure caption vs. what needs to go on the figure itself. Start writing with the results section. ******* Very Important**** a) Have all your figures and tables in FINAL form before starting any text. This is crucial as it allows you to write about results that are right before your eyes.
You also have a great sense of your data after this step. The results text is frequently just the narrative that summarizes the figures and tables. You need these in tip top shape before writing any text! Numbering or order of the Figures and Tables is important but is usually obvious. If your Figures and Tables flow in a logical fashion, so will the ensuing text. Outline your results sections. Try to write strong topic sentences for each paragraph. A very good outline is readable from start to finish. Under each topic sentence, write sentences to support the strong topic statement that you use to start the paragraph. The results section may be pretty dry (“this is what we have found”), however, the text has to flow and to be readable. Think of the results as being an account of what you did on your summer vacation, without any speculation. A reasonable approach is just to describe the data presented in the tables and figures. This is an advanced style suggestion so use it with caution and sparingly. Speculation and discussion may creep into the results section if it’s only a minor point that you will not cover in depth later. I.e. if is not worth a paragraph in the discussion, but you really want it presented, then do it as a concluding sentence in the results immediately following the evidence supporting this “conclusion” or speculation. The other justifiable use of speculation in the results is to “set the reader up” for the more detail in the discussion. Again, usually a single sentence at the end of a paragraph. Not all data presented has to be in a table or figure. You can minimize the number of tables and figures by presenting simple data in the text. For example, if you are comparing the average of occurrence of some phenomena, the number can be presented in the text along with the statistical tests instead of using a histogram. (Caution - If these data are the heart of the paper, a figure should be used to emphasis the point even if can be represented in the text!)
The introduction is NOT written first, but rather next to last. The purpose of the introduction is to prepare the reader for the paper. How can you prepare the reader until you know what you have to say in the results and discussion? As you write the results and discussion section, keep track of information that you’ll need to cover in the introduction to “set the reader up” for the rest of the paper. A simple but effective introductory organization flows from general background to specific background: a) General background information or the broad topic (1-3 paragraphs) b) Specific background information related to your work (3-6 paragraphs) c) Briefly what are your goals and what conclusions (1 paragraph)
5) Write the title and abstract last. These are usually very easy to write after everything else has been done. The title should be exciting and convene the most important idea of the paper. The abstract should mirror the paper in structure: Introduction, methods, results and discussion/conclusions. Each of these sections may be represented by only a single sentence, but they should all be there.
Conserve your presubmission manuscript reviewers by using them sequentially. A person can only review your manuscript once with a fresh and unbiased perspective. After they have read it a few times, they’ll miss obvious problems. This is also why you should always have someone review your paper; you are “too close” to the work to be objective. So, pick a few reviewers and use them sequentially. Also, don’t waste their efforts by giving them a poorly written manuscript. Make it as good as you can before asking for their help it their way. On the other hand, be ready to ask for help. Sitting on the paper when you are stuck can really drag out the process. Feel free to use the first person in the manuscript. An active writing style is now acceptable and more powerful. However, I usually find the methods and materials so “matter of fact”, that I use a third person “passive” style in this section. The methods section is not intended to be read from start to finish and most readers will find the section they want and only read it. Powerful writing is captivating, logical, and, especially, persuasive. Your readers should want to keep reading and when done believe what you have said. This is not always readily accomplished but it is the goal.