Guidelines for writing a scientific paper

Published: Feb 23, 2023. Last modified: Mar 16, 2023
1162 words, 6 min

This blog post is a compilation of information, and my personal experiences on the process writing a scientific paper. The tips here contained exist only because I think they could be useful, and not because they have been extensively tested by me.

Starting from scratch

At some point after certain amount of work, you may end up with a message to share which is telling something potentially new and interesting. If it makes a full story, which could be potentially interesting for others, then it is likely to be ready. Ideally, at this point you would have some colleges to share it and receive feedback:

  • What do you think about this?
  • What other point of views my be explored?
  • What can be improved?

But this is very unlikely in most situations.

One should decide the paper’s theme (subject) and two or three points the reader should get home.1 If something you write isn’t needed to help the reader understand the theme, then it has to be omitted. Once you open the LaTeX blank .tex document to start your paper, the first thing to write should be the message you want to transmit. This will be a lighthouse for you when lost, and for the collaborators, which are going to be on the same page from the beginning.

I have found that the loss of perspective once you dive into the writing is what results in sentences and paragraphs with zero contribution to the discussion. I plan for my next draft to write down the ideas I want to transmit in each section, and then build the paragraphs from them.

Structure of the paper

Structuring from the beginning the paper will for sure facilitate a lot the process. Structure the sections with bullets, and then the ideas to transmit with dashes. Answering “What did you do?” is the key to finding the structure of a piece 2. Every section of the manuscript needs to support that one fundamental idea.

Introduction

The introduction may be the most important part, because you have to make the reader want to know the answer of your question.

Of course, this is somhow easy when you are also excited to share your work, when you find it meaningfull. It may be, on the other hand, very difficult when you do not like your research, and you are only doing it as a mean to an end.

A good Introduction should answer the following questions.

  • How did I get to this question?
  • Why is that important?

Remember, while you still have the perspective, use it to define the key ideas to transmit. For example, a regular Introduction could follow this line of thinking:

  1. Why is the field of your work important?: This is normally the opening sentence or paragraph showing what interesting applications have the phenomena your work is framed in. It should be simple, direct, and create curiosity in the reader.
  2. Which is the state of the art?: This introduces the previous work that has been developed in the field, and ends by identifying the problematic.
  3. Which are the tools available to solve this problem?: This is dedicated to present the available tools to tackle the problem, specifying which was selected and justifying why.
  4. Which is the objective?: Clearly state the objective of the work. This usually involves explaining that the selected method will be applied expecting to obtain some result.
  5. How is the publication structured?: Describe what information is presented in each section. It is not necessary to mention the number of the sessions. Something similar to the following example should work: “First are discussed the methods and techniques employed. Then the results are presented. Finally, the work ends with a set of conclusions and further opportunities.”

Methods

This section presents the methods selected to solve the problem.

Results

The results sections should show how I structured my work and answered the questions presented in the Introduction.

  • This is what we did, and
  • This is what we learnt.

All sentence which is not contributing to that core message should be removed.

This section is not only to report your results. Its value increases considerably when you are capable to put in the context of the field why are those results important, and how they affect a wider understanding of the topic. Generating new hypothesis and proposing further investigations to carry out is also important.

Conclusions

Finally the Conclusions are a mean to show what does this all means to the story presented in the introduction. However, there are some researchers who prefer to simply summarize the results obtained. I personally prefer the first approach.

Importance of the sections of the paper

  • When people first see your paper, it is the Title what they look at. A good title will attract the attention of the reader, a weak one will kill the interest on keeping reading your paper.
  • The abstract is probably the second most important section to attract the attention of the reader, as it is what we all read after the title.
  • Then, figures are also critical, as is more likely the third element people normally look at. Having a set of figures which to some extent tell the story by themselves is key to a good paper.

Conclusions

First, build the lighthouse:

  1. Write down the main idea you want to transmit, this will be the paper’s theme.
  2. Write down two or three points the reader should get home.
  3. Write down the sections, and the main ideas to you want to expose in each of them.

Have in mind that:

  1. Telling a story is more joyful for you and the reader.
  2. The objective is to show what you have found new and compelling.
  3. Do not write defensively, think in the reader and not in the criticism.
  4. You need to explain with your manuscript why your results are interesting, and how they affect a wider understanding of the topic.
  5. Try to reassess the existing literature and consider what can your findings be used for in the future.
  6. Also make sure to consider alternative explanations when pertinent.

Finally, take into account the following rules for improving the writing product:

  • Limit each paragraph to a single message: do not try to fold multiple ideas into a single block of text.
  • Write in short, simply constructed and direct sentences.
  • Know what you are saying, otherwise it will be difficult to comunicate it to others.
  • Avoid a lot of jargon in sentences, try to put your work in simple words.
  • Avoid the use composed sentences, and transitional words like “however” or “thus”. Their use may deviates the reader from the main message.
  • Avoid saying what you will not do. For example, don’t say “We will not consider…”

Other references

  1. Nature’s publication Working Scientist podcast: How to write a top-notch paper.
  2. Nature’s publication Publish like a pro, although this is not that useful.

Footnotes


  1. Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper ↩︎

  2. How to write a first-class paper ↩︎

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