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Behind the Science: Have you read that great paper?


About the blog author: Stew Grant has seen both sides of publishing research articles, as a writer and as an editor. He has about 120 publications in peer-reviewed journals and has had his share of discouraging rejections and major revisions at the behest of critical reviewers. He has also acted as an associate editor for several journals over the past 26 years, including Journal of Heredity, and has shepherded at least 250 manuscripts through the peer review process. Here are some tips on writing for publication from his perspective.

Tips for writing and publishing effective research articles

Publishing research articles is a basis for a successful career in science. Hence, learning to write well should be a major focus of your efforts, not only as a student, but throughout your career.

What are some useful strategies for writing a manuscript?

In formal logic, one approach to address cause-and-effect problems is to identify the ‘conditions’ that allow an event to happen. This is an awkward way of putting it, but bear with me. From a logician’s point of view, two kinds of conditions are needed for an event to take place, necessary conditions and sufficient conditions. The desired event here is the publication of a research article in a scientific journal, or the writing of a PhD thesis.

Imagine a three-legged stool. All three legs and the plate on top are needed for the stool to function correctly. Take one leg away and the stool falls over. Remove the plate on top and all you have are three pieces of wood. Think of the legs as necessary conditions to publish your article and the plate on top as the sufficient condition that unites the three necessary conditions. The necessary conditions for publishing are 1) the motivation to publish with the persistence to complete a manuscript, 2) the development of an idea worthy of publication, and 3) the ability to effectively communicate your idea in writing. You may have a strong desire to publish, but may not have a publishable idea. Or you may have a great idea, but lack the skills to communicate your idea well enough to pass the scrutiny of peer reviewers and editors.

The sufficient condition is to apply these three necessary conditions so you are able to submit your writing project for publication.

Okay, enough abstract concepts and on to practical tips for writing an effective research article.

Embrace good grammar and vocabulary

Successful writing relies on a working knowledge of grammar and a good vocabulary to express your ideas. Punctuation, word choice, and easy-to-read sentences arranged in well-organized paragraphs are essential for drawing your reader through your ideas. Learning to write well is a life-long challenge and goes beyond learning basic rules as you develop your own style of writing.

I can tell you from my experience as an associate editor that not many writers have mastered the rules of grammar. It helps to occasionally read from a book on writing to refresh your memory. My favorite guide is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Nearly all guidelines for writing with clarity have changed little since this book was first published in 1920.

Choice of vocabulary is also important, especially developing the habit of using simple words to explain complex ideas. Often a manuscript is difficult to understand because of the overuse of jargon, abbreviations, or specialized words. Sometimes a writer uses specialized words to sound ‘scientific’ in an attempt to give authority to the writing.

Write for your reader

Have a particular reader in mind as you write so you can select the appropriate vocabulary and level of complexity. Generally speaking, reading comprehension is a couple of notches lower than what you might think it is. Your goal is not to impress with your knowledge, but to write so that your ideas are understood without great effort. Don’t force your reader to read a sentence twice because it is overly complex. I’m sure you have heard that sentences constructed with active-voice verbs are easier to understand than passive-voice constructions. The use of metaphors can also help to get a point across.

Although we like to think of ourselves as objective thinkers, we, in fact, react emotionally to writing, and this influences our comprehension. A reader can get frustrated trying to read passages with multi-syllable words, jumbles of complex sentences, and poorly organized paragraphs. When your reader puts down your article because of mental fatigue, you have lost the opportunity to communicate your message. A smooth flow of thought through your manuscript distinguishes a poorly written article from an effective one.

Neurobiologists tell us that we experience hormonal cycles that can produce a mental state of heightened focus for about 90 minutes, before the initial gush of adrenalin and dopamine run their course. At that point, our attention wanders elsewhere. Unless you are required to publish a lengthy article, such as a comprehensive review or systematic catalogue of museum collections, limit your articles to less than 15 published pages so they can be read in one sitting. Most active researchers do not have the time to carefully winnow through a long and densely written article.

It is of great importance that you keep your reader in mind as you write.

Process your big idea

A fundamental requirement of a ‘scientific’ paper is to develop a novel idea that refines, or modifies, concepts in your discipline, or even provides a new framework to address long-standing problems. But where do these ideas come from? While conference talks, seminars, and discussions can be important starts, the development of an idea has to come from digesting the written literature in your field.

I may read over 100 research articles and reviews as background for a manuscript and am then faced with having to remember the details of these articles when composing a paragraph at a keyboard. I can often remember an idea that I want to include in a paragraph, but I can’t always remember where the idea came from.

The solution to circumvent the limits of my memory is to take notes as I read an article. Personally, I spend about 80% of my ‘writing time’ reading and taking notes. Admittedly, taking notes while reading is slow and tedious, but it often prompts me to write my own paragraphs in response to what I’m reading. I can then cut and paste these paragraphs into a manuscript to kick-start the writing process.

Prepare an effective ‘argument’

No matter the topic, a scientific article is a formal argument with premises, consisting of your data and the results from the literature, and a conclusion. It doesn’t matter if you are writing a methods paper, a manuscript encumbered with equations, or an interpretation of data, follow the formal rules of logic. Your goal is to convince your reader of the value of a particular method, or of the importance of your novel concept. Place your major conclusion last in your manuscript, so your reader is left considering your most important point.

Not everyone thinks alike. Writers with the same set of data may pose different hypotheses, test them with their own collection of statistical methods and come to different ‘logical’ conclusions. It is an illusion that science is a logical process leading step by step to a conclusion, but a logical framework is still effective for presenting ideas.

Write often

These are just four guidelines among many. Each of these topics are the subjects of chapters, and indeed whole books. While guidelines may help to improve your writing to some extent, you will acquire an effective writing style only by writing. Write, write, write!

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