For a scientist, if you don’t publish your results, it may as well not exist. Communicating the results of your experiments is crucial, so others in your field can learn from, repeat, and expand on your work. While there are a wide variety of journals and other publication venues from which to choose, the actual process of writing a paper varies little between them.
Professor Peter D. Battle, an inorganic professor at Oxford University, recently shared the process he uses to write a research paper with a group of students at Edinburgh University, and kindly allowed me to share his process here as well.
When, Where, Who, What and Why
Obviously, the first step is to decide when you have enough data to publish, where you will publish it, who the authors will be, and exactly what will and will not be included in this particular article. (Why we publish is left as an exercise for the reader.) In general, you need to learn what the smallest publishable unitis to allow your article to be published in a journal with a high impact factor. Impact factor is a numerical score that measures the average number of times an article in that journal is cited in other articles, a commonly used measure of prestige.
Read the Directions
Every journal has instructions to authors, usually available on their website. Once you’ve targeted a journal for submission, download their instructions and follow them exactly. There is no easier way to guarantee rejection than by not following the prescribed format.
Start with Figures
Professor Battle starts the writing process by creating the figures and tables that will accompany the article. Collecting all the data makes it quite obvious if data are missing, when there is still time to go back to the lab and do another experiment. The table and figure titles should be both informative and detailed, with the font size in the figures about double that used for article text. Color can add clarity to the data, but can also increase publication costs. You may want to create three separate versions of each figure – one for black and white printing (with symbols), one for color printing (with colored lines), and one for use in oral or poster presentations (with even larger titles and less explanatory text).
In the experimental section, detail not only what you did and how you did it, but why. This can be a great learning opportunity, to think about ways you might do things differently in the future. Be sure to include enough details so someone else could reproduce your work. If you include references to standard methods, make sure you actually read the papers and understand them.
Results and Discussion
The results section is where you describe your findings, detailing the non-negotiable facts that came from your experiments. The discussion section is where you put those findings in context and draw conclusions – and these conclusions may be open for debate.
Summarize, then Summarize Some More
Now that the bulk of the paper is written, go back and write the introduction. Summarize what the reader needs to know in order to read the discussion, and again include relevant references. Summarize the entire paper into the abstract – repeat information from each of the now completed sections to present a cohesive, general overview of the entire paper. Finally, summarize the entire abstract into a concise, informative title that describes your work in as few words as possible.
Throughout the process, be sure to follow all author guidelines and professional ethical guidelines. Prepare the submission packet with all required forms and information, and a well-written cover letter that describes the impact of your research. If you suggest reviewers, don’t suggest people you’ve worked with since the editors will just reject them.
Response from the Editor
The peer review process exists to improve the quality of scientific research, maintain standards, and provide credibility. When you receive the editor’s response to your submission, remember that it is not a personal attack. Read the reviewers comments, and then set them aside for 24 hours. Realize that if the reviewers had problems with a certain issue, other readers will most likely have the same issues. Strive to understand their concerns, and revise the paper to address them. Prepare a detailed response, describing exactly what you changed. If you choose not to change the submission in response to reviewers’ comments, tell the editor exactly why not.
At the completion of this process, your results will be published and shared with the rest of the scientific community. Their comments and feedback will help advance your work, in a continual cycle of learning and improvement.
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press. Special thanks to Professor Peter D. Battle for source material and insightful review comments.