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Mar 12 2012

How to write a scientific paper

Edited on 12 July 2012

I have been asked by many of my friends and colleagues about converting their research into text, how to write a scientific article in other words. I share my own experience here, hoping that it will be useful for some.

Writing a nice paper is not an easy job, especially if you are not a native English speaker (see this article if you are a non-native English speaker). It is even more difficult to write the first ever article of yours. Some students witness paper writing process when they are on undergraduate or master level. This is certainly good when the time comes for them to write their own paper. But not everyone, including myself, is lucky to have an article before their doctorate.

We scientists have to learn it like the way we developed many skills such as doing research. At the end, who else is capable of learning it if we are not? Don’t refrain from it, learn it as soon as you can. You will see that the procedure will teach you how to be consistent and convincing.

The golden rule: Read a lot of high quality articles (published in top journals), especially from prominent scientists. That certainly improves your scientific English. I was following more than 20 journals when I was doing my PhD. I (at least partially) read hundreds of papers so far. One professor told me once that he asks his students to read at least one article per week. So read one article per week (minimum) and “skim” the others. Skimming is going through the figures and their captions, also reading the abstract and conclusions.

There are many courses offered these days on ?scientific writing skills?, check if your institution offers one. There are also many books about it. It will be worthwhile to invest your time on these.

Writing a scientific article step-by-step:

Step 1      Literature Search: Do another complete literature search. Take your time for this. You should have done this several times throughout your work actually, especially in the beginning. Do not blindly trust on others, such as your promoter or supervisor. May be this was done before and your promoter missed it.
After doing the literature study, carefully read the most relevant papers to your work. While reading, highlight bullet points, take notes, do more literature search etc. In this stage, if well concentrated, your mind will prepare a plan for writing your own paper. When you answer (at least some of) these questions: why my research is important, what is the novelty of my research, to which questions does it answer, why is it better than the works of others, where does it fit into the existing field etc. Answering these questions will certainly help you build your plan: on which argument(s) you establish your paper, what you will talk about in the introduction, which figures you will add, how will you discuss your results and how you will conclude. The plan is actually your plan of selling your paper to the readers but also to the editor of the journal you are submitting and the reviewers.

 

Step 2      Figures: Now prepare all the figures (graphs, tables etc). You don?t need to prepare perfect versions in the beginning, just prepare easy versions. You can perfect them at the end.

You can use PowerPoint to prepare your figures. If that does not satisfy you, ask your experienced colleagues.

 

Step 3      Article type: Decide if you are going for a full article or a communication (the latter is generally harder, more restrictions apply and work should be really novel)

 

Step 4      Designate paragraphs: Literature search done, notes taken, figures are ready; now you can build up the structure of your paper. Lets say it is a full paper: Introduction, Results and Discussions, Conclusion will be three major sections. For each section, designate paragraphs by entering some phrases or keywords for each paragraph. This is very important in my point of view. For readability and clarity, each paragraph should have an aim and should give the reader one or two messages. So by deciding on the messages of each paragraph beforehand, you will ensure that your text will be consistent, free of repetitions and the readers will enjoy it.

For instance, you write a paper on a new cancer therapy based on multiple emulsions.

Introduction:

1st paragraph: Cancer

2nd paragraph: Cancer treatments in clinic

3rd paragraph: Other proposed cancer treatments in literature

4th paragraph: Define multiple emulsions and explain their use in treating diseases, especially cancer

5th paragraph: Talk about your work; why it is different than others, what is novel, what you did etc

Results & Discussions

This depends on your work of course. Figures will help you a lot to construct this part. You may start with some introducing sentences but don?t repeat the introduction section. You can also divide this section into sub-sections.

X-type emulsion: We prepared this and that. We found this and that. See Fig 1. It useful in this sense but it failed in XXX test

Y-type emulsion: We designed this emulsion. It is better.

Z-type emulsion: This is even better. Works for this and that.

Clinical trials

We found this and that. It showed us that y is useful for this. This  is because of xxxxx theory. Smith et al also found the same?

Now you are ready to start writing! Congratulations, you already made the hardest part.

 

Step 5      Actual writing: It is hard to start typing. You may spend hours in front of your computer without ending up in three sentences. Just concentrate and try, it will come. Do not give up!

I start with writing the introduction, others may start with results and discussion part. You already designated the paragraphs. Now fill the paragraphs with your sentences.

The platinum rule: Keep the language simple, avoid long and difficult to understand sentences. The shorter the article the better to read. Don’t you prefer to read 2-3 page communications over 10 page articles? Avoid repetitions and unnecessary words/sentences.

The silver rule: Do not plagiarize, meaning that do not take others sentences (or even your own sentences that are published elsewhere). See the definition of plagiarism in Wikipedia

 

Step 6      Write your conclusions: Read several conclusion sections of other articles if you need to. Point out the novelty of your work and briefly talk about your main findings. Be brave to praise your work but do not overdo it: do not claim that you found the ultimate solution to cancer :)

 

Step 7      Write an abstract: Here you will ask yourself the difference between the conclusion section and the abstract.  In abstract, you generally do not talk about your full results. Few sentences about the problem and your proposal to solve this problem.

For instance: Colorectal cancer is the most common cancer. Current treatments may have very bad side effects on patients. Here we present a new treatment method based on multiple emulsions. We prepare drug x as an emulsion and measure its lifetime in the body…

 

Step 8      Find a title: Most of the times, people read only titles. If a title is interesting, they go further into abstract and into main text. So try to find an “eye-catching title” as Prof Filip Du Prez used to tell me. He also told me that a title should not be too long. So try to find a balance. You can prepare 3 options and let your supervisor decide on the title.

 

Step 9      Find keywords

That is it! You are almost done. You should be happy by then. As you imagine, you will be much more happier once your paper is accepted for publication.

 

Step 10    Submission: This is a whole other process and I think it deserves a separate post. I guess your promoter will help you in this process if it is your first article. You should decide about the journal that you want to send your paper, learn the rules of this journal, download the template, decide about the referees that you will propose and write a good cover letter to the editor. I will try to explain this procedure and perhaps what follows next (when comments of referees return) in a separate post.

 

Good luck! Yeah, it is little bit of luck also.

M. Talha Gokmen

Note: George Whitesides is one of the greatest living chemists on earth, may be the greatest! You should read his suggestions as well.

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