Tips for Writing a Paper

Content Developed by Dr Dominik Konkolewicz

Great news, your research has gone super well. Maybe you made a material nobody ever made before, perhaps you figured out how to make polymers more degradable, or you learned something new about a reaction mechanism. Now you, your advisor and your research team want to tell everyone about it through a peer-reviewed publication.

It takes time, and the message needs to be clear.

For many of us, writing has not been a focus area. Much of the STEM and polymer curriculum trains us well for analytical, synthetic and quantitative skills. Sometimes it can feel like written communication received less attention during our training. However, written communication is important, and necessary for science to grow. Writing clear manuscripts for peer reviewed publication is a critical part of enabling science to grow, and publishing will only help you in your career.

So how can we write clear and concise manuscripts?

Starting from a solid outline is a great idea. Pick your target journal and follow the journal guidelines. This outline can be a series of bullet points outlining what you want to communicate through your manuscript. Break up your manuscript into sections (Abstract, Introduction, Methods/Experimental, Results and Discussion, and Conclusions). Other sections may be needed such as modeling or computational framework. Most modern manuscripts also have supporting information such as additional techniques or additional data which is important but not central to your manuscript.

For each section you are going to want to write at least 2-3 bullet points per paragraph in your outline. Also it can help to insert key Figures, Tables, and Schemes into your outline so you can structure your discussion around these data and what they mean.

 These bullet points in the outline  help organize your thoughts, guide the discussion, and motivate your conclusions. The goal of your outline is to create a framework for your manuscript and enables simple changes to structure and format. An outline does not need to be polished or perfect as it is only internal to you and your advisor/ co-authors.

Once you have an outline drafted send it to your advisor and perhaps other key collaborators. Changes in structure at the outline stage are easy, and requires much less effort and editing than restructuring a full draft.

Once you all agree on a structure and outline, it’s time to turn your outline into a full draft manuscript.

Using your outline as a template, turn each bullet point into a sentence or a few. These sentences should communicate, but likely expand on, the ideas in the bullet point in your outline. Pretty soon you should have a draft manuscript. In scientific writing short sentences are a good strategy. STEM fields are complex and so the writing needs to be clear and to the point. If in doubt, use two shorter sentences rather than 1 longer one.

As you are writing the first draft of the manuscript, complete your experimental details and methods, write out any equations you used to interpret your data or that you developed. Also make sure all your schemes, tables, and figures have clear captions that describe the data accurately, and allow unambiguous information about the experiment performed or the data used. Good figures and schemes make your paper stronger. In fact, some readers may just skim the text of your paper once it is published, so the figures are going to need to communicate the key message of the paper.

If your target journal has a word/page/character limit do your best to stick to that limit. It is ok to go over a bit (say 10-20%) and it it down at the end of the drafting process. But if your target journal is ACS Macro Letters with a word limit of 2600 words, and you write a 5000 word draft, it will be really hard to edit this down. However, even if your target journal doesn’t have a word limit, being concise is better than being verbose.

Importance of References and Citations

I general you are going to give credit to work done before you in the field. Maybe they identified an issue that you work on, or maybe they developed a technique you use. Make sure you give them credit for this by citing their work. It’s a matter of scientific honesty and it doesn’t cost you anything. Also key scientists are likely to review your manuscript, so make sure you acknowledge their work.

As Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”. We need to give credit, where credit is due. Take the time to look through the rich polymer literature on your topic and give the appropriate credit.

Well done! You have a draft

One you have a draft manuscript with all figures, references and supporting information completed, send it to your advisor for feedback. Make sure you spell check first! If this is your first manuscript, expect quite a few revisions from your advisor. This is normal as you learn how to write effectively in STEM fields.

Internal Revisions

Once you get feedback fro your advisor, hopefully in the form of track changes or comments, make changes to the manuscript to address those issues. Then send it back to your advisor after you address all their comments. If you have other co-authors this is likely a good time to get their feedback as well.

After a few more rounds of revisions, the manuscript is likely ready for submission. It is important that all authors agree to the submission.

What happens next?

Most modern manuscripts are electronically submitted to the journal. They move onto an editor at that point. Editors are you main contact person for the manuscript, and typically one is assigned a day or two after submission. The flow chart below outlines some pathways a manuscript can take after being submitted.
Almost always after the editors sends the manuscript out for review, reviewers request revisions. Minor revisions are typically just require some clarifications. Major revisions might require additional analysis, experimental work or substantial changes to the manuscript. Unfortunately, many manuscripts are also rejected.

Flow chart of common peer review processes by many journals

If the journal requests revisions, do your best to address each comment or concern raised by the reviewers. Most of the time they just found something unclear or are looking for additional support for your claims.

If your manuscript receives a rejection, take a deep breath, it will be ok! Take the reviewers comments into consideration and try to fix any issues they identified. Pick a new journal and submit there.

Things to consider

Preparing and Submitting a manuscript is really exciting and the culmination of months or years of work. There are a few things to look out for

Make sure you give appropriate credit to prior work. Plagiarism is not acceptable, even self plagiarism!

Be transparent with your experimental data and analysis methods. Make sure you follow all good data integrity and research integrity practices. Check with your advisor / institution for best practices in your area

Submitting a manuscript is exciting, but journals require you to submit manuscripts on an exclusive basis. This means you can’t submit the same manuscript to two different journals at the same time. Journals can reject or even bar you from publishing if you ‘double publish’.

Bottom Line

Use your common sense and be excited and transparent. The best outcome is that someone else is so excited by your work they want to use it in their projects and then they cite you!

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