Clarity and Impact: Key Tips for Writing a Good Scientific Paper
As an early career researcher, writing your first few papers in a scientific journal can seem like a daunting task. How do you balance writing for your highly specialized peers, with serving the needs of a wider scientific audience? Your first publications are critical to the next stage of your career so, how can you ensure your paper is distinct and gets noticed?
In this article, we provide pointers for writing some significant sections of your paper including; abstracts, introductions, citations and conclusions/discussions. We cover how you can avoid common pitfalls and engage with readers, reviewers and editors alike. As a companion to the article, we also recommend you view this Infographic: How to write better science papers, as a useful visual guide.
...there are a lot of botched abstracts out there, how does one write better ones?
Abstracts have a critical purpose in any scientific paper — to inform readers in a succinct way about what your research entailed and the key findings. Alongside the title, abstracts help promote and amplify the reach of your article, to engage a relevant audience. However, producing a compelling abstract from a body of research work, all within a commonly recommended word limit of 250 words, can be a challenge.
Here are a a few key points to help you draft a good abstract:
- Consider the reader: Always think from a reader’s perspective — ensure it’s interesting and engaging.
- Be clear: It should distil the key messages and purpose of your paper, without the need to read the whole article. Clarity involves avoiding jargon, uncommon abbreviations and references. Also, use of the active voice can help here, e.g., writing, "We evaluated the possibility that this mutation might reduce GABAergic inhibition," rather than "The possibility that this mutation might reduce GABAergic inhibition was evaluated."
- Be precise: Choose your words carefully, so that they communicate the exact meaning of your research. Can you write things in a more specific way and not lose any content? Get the focus right The abstract should focus on the key results, whilst only describing experimental details briefly and always end with a concluding sentence.
- And finally...remember its importance An abstract is often the first encounter your peers have with your research. An engaging abstract will, therefore, strongly influence whether or not your work is further considered by a reader. These tips, paired with writing your abstract after you have drafted, therefore, have a clear idea of your introduction, methods, results and conclusions, will help make for an effective opening to your paper.
...what can one do to effectively mark out the territory the paper intends to address?
Introductions are essential to help give context to your research work and explain why it is valuable. In the first instance, they should lay out the problem to be solved then lead into what others have done to resolve it —including relevant citations. Next, it is beneficial to the reader to discuss what you perceive to be the limitations and merits of prior research work. Use this as a foundation from which to go on to your objectives and what you hope to achieve.
"Try to keep things factual and steer away from words like -groundbreaking- and -pioneering-...describing your own research in this way, may serve to annoy readers."
Try to keep things factual and steer away from words like "groundbreaking," and "pioneering" to emphasise the importance of your work. Whilst your work may indeed fall into this category, describing your own research in this way, may serve to annoy readers. Restating your aims and hypothesis in one sentence at the end of your introduction, will also help clarify things for the reader.
In terms of length, a good rule of thumb is a maximum of four paragraphs. This should allow you to convey all the required information, without losing the reader. Take into account, this part of the paper shouldn’t be a detailed documentation of the history of your research field, rather an organized guide to the objectives of your work.
...poorly thought out references can serve to obliterate your paper; what’s a good use of them?
Any work, on which your research is based, should be cited in the text of your research paper. However, citation lists that are lengthy, including many references irrelevant to your work, are a common bugbear for editors, so should be avoided. Unrelated self-citations, also tend to irritate editors. Before adding a reference, it is worth justifying the addition with the following questions — Are they truly relevant to your work? Will they ensure the reader finds the correct source for the research?
It's also important to note, citation formats can vary between journals so, you should always refer to the guide for authors from your specific publisher, to ensure you use the correct one. There are now many software and citation managers available, (like Mendeley), that are recommended to help make lighter work of organizing your references correctly.
..there’s always a tension between writing for the academy and for a wider audience – what’s a good balance?
The quality and clarity of the language you use in writing your paper, has a profound impact on understanding from a reader’s perspective. Whilst writing, it is worth taking time to envisage different readers for your work. Think of your paper as a means of scientific information transfer and ask yourself:
- Will they understand what you have written?
- What is the message that they will take away?
- Have you emphasised the correct points?
It is important to go beyond a common approach — that of writing for a peer from a competing lab in your field. Instead, consider a researcher from your broader area in a completely different line of research, an editor or a scientific journalist. Would they be able to grasp the key concepts and findings by reading your abstract? Is there clarity in your communication? How digestible is the rest of the paper, for that extended audience?
“One guiding principle is to make sure your deductions aren’t over-inflated in their nature, but always backed-up with data and what others have reported.”
Finally, it goes without saying that errors in language and grammar should be avoided. Discussing this in detail, is beyond the scope of this article. A useful resource, should you need further guidance for grammar, language and style is "Elements of style for writing scientific papers" by S.M. Griffies.
Conclusions / Discussions
...what should be the key content of this section? How can you communicate with certainty without coming across as arrogant?
The aim of this section is to communicate how the results of your work, contribute to progress in your field. It can, however, be a difficult balance between being certain in your tone and not conveying arrogance. One guiding principle is to make sure your deductions aren’t over-inflated in their nature, but always backed-up with data and what others have reported. Furthermore, you can discuss any follow-up work that is underway and suggest future research, to provide further credibility to the points you make.
A couple of useful tips on content:
- Discuss your research’s significance: You should discuss the key significance of your results. Don’t be tempted to just restate them, that’s what your results section is for.
- Tackle conflicting research: You should address any work that disagrees with your findings directly in this section. Rather than lambasting it, convince the reader why your work is an improvement, in a constructive way.
- Remember to reiterate your objectives: You should always relate back to the objectives that you laid out in your introduction at this stage, to make the paper congruent for the reader.
We hope this article has provided you some key pointers for drafting critical sections of a scientific paper. Good luck with your research!
How can I write a better scientific paper?
Further resources to help:
S M Griffies. Elements of style for writing scientific papers, Elsevier Publishing Campus
N. Rodriguez. Infographic: How to write better science papers