How to write a scientific paper

Word cloud of themes related to conservation and ecology

My tips:

  • Read. Read the scientific literature. You absolutely cannot cannot cannot write well without knowing what others have done. Doing science is having a conversation with the science that has gone before it. So if you’ve read only sparsely, it’s like eavesdropping onto a conversation in a loud restaurant. You really can’t join that conversation smoothly. Read a few classics, but focus on stuff written in the last five years. Otherwise, its like bringing up a topic in a conversation the group has moved on from.
  • Write your title then your abstract first. Many people do this last, and you will need to come back at the end and revise them. But if you can’t entitle your paper and can’t write a compelling abstract, you’re going to really struggle with the paper. If you have co-authors, send them the title and abstract for feedback before proceeding. Hone that main message with their support until you have it, then proceed. This will save a lot of time.
  • Make your figures before you start. They don’t have to be picture perfect at this stage, but a lot of science is communicated through figures, and it’s a lot easier to write “around” them. They basically demonstrate your key point. Identify the one key figure and write especially around that. Send your figures around to co-authors for feedback.
  • Outline your paper before writing. Outline each paragraph and within each paragraph. While doing that, note citations. Nothing interrupts good writing flow than breaking to find the “perfect” citation. Outlining could take several hours.
  • A professor once told me the ideal Introduction has three paragraphs: the big picture, the specific part of it you’re tackling, then the “Here we …” paragraph. I don’t think I have ever achieved an only-three introduction to a paper, but it’s a good way to conceptualize the goal.
  • Another professor of mine told me that if you were to read only the first sentence in each paragraph, you should be able to basically ”get” the paper. So write like that.
  • I don’t have a formula for the Discussion, but basically, the paragraphs flow something like:
    • We found that… (main finding). Then a summary of everything else you’re going to discuss (nuances 1-3), ending with the main message of your paper.
    • Main message #1
    • Main message #2
    • Main message #3 (but not more than 3!)
    • Caveats / future work. This is nearly obligatory in any article, but you can often cast limitations as areas for future research because—after all–they are.
    • Conclusion (basically, a mini-abstract reiterating the main findings).
  • Write for a specific journal. Each journal has subjects they prefer and ones they don’t. Look that up and know why your intended article belongs there and not somewhere else. For example, in my field, Diversity and Distributions wants articles that have a geographic component and a conservation component. So if my article would not have both of those facets, I’d send it elsewhere.
    • Find three or so articles in your target journal that you think are written well and are similar to yours and outline them. You can use these as a template for your article’s outline.
  • Use your Abstract, Introduction, and Methods sections to design your research. What? Isn’t writing supposed to come at the end of a project? Traditionally, yes. But I have found that if I’m stuck in an analysis with a vague idea of how to proceed, I “test” it out by writing it as if I’d done it and see how it fits. Would a reviewer be interested? Would they agree with my way forward?
  • Get feedback from co-authors twice (or more): Once after you’ve written a “rough” draft and once after you have a “near-final” draft. When you send off the rough version, tell them you only want feedback on the gross structure, logic, and interpretation, not fine details like wording. People (like me) can’t help themselves and will correct your grammar anyway, but you don’t want a “near-final” draft with gaping holes because you will have to do a lot of rewriting (and maybe re-analysis) to fill them, so you will have wasted your work fin-tuning. Telling people what kind of feedback you want is a great way to get it.
  • I’ve not yet written an article that I didn’t become sick of by the end. I hope you have better experiences. But it really takes that much rewriting. Sorry. It will pass.
  • Don’t submit your manuscript to a publication in late December. Why? As an Associate Editor, I found that I got quite a few around this season because professors, having just finished teaching, used the last few days of the year to finish a few manuscripts before they went on break. That’s admirable and understandable, but as an AE, it was impossible to find at least two reviewers who a) would even reply to my requires to review; b) get reviews committed to before the review system timed them out and made me pick a new reviewer. As a result, I feel I often “burned” through the good reviewers I had for a given article, and had to go to the second tier–who didn’t always review the submission with the skill and thought it may have deserved. I strongly feel it’s better to submit in late January a manuscript I finished in December for this reason.
  • There are monks who spend their days tracing intricate designs on the beach so they can be washed away by the rising tide. Submit your paper like a monk. Have a plan B for outright rejection (meaning, which journal will you send it to next? Not, “I’m going on a self-destructive binge…”). But, more likely, be prepared for major revisions. Nearly every article will require them.
  • Celebrate. What!? I thought I said you’d get sick if it and the tide will erase your art and the editor doesn’t know their head from a pulsating sea squirt! Yeah, but that’s the point. The editor is never going to write back and say, “Wow, your first submission really blew me away!” And your co-authors often reply with one-liner emails like “Woohoo!” which is nice but unworthy of the boulder you rolled up the hill. It’s up to you to celebrate and when to celebrate. Outline done? Woohoo! (Then go do something celebratory.) Rough draft to co-authors? Woohoo! First submission? (Woohoo!) Third submission? Woohoo! The average person just doesn’t realize how difficult being an academic is, but you do, and you need to make it good for yourself. Papers shouldn’t be a relief and a curse. They’re an expansion of human knowledge, and they should be celebrated as such by the person who wrote them.
  • Remember the greater good. Articles are great, but your tombstone isn’t going to be decorated with your CV. There are important things in life. One of them is truth, or at least the pursuit of it. Sometimes, it’s unfortunately possible for an article to get in the way of truth, and sometimes unfortunately it’s one you wrote. If you make a mistake, or if someone comes up with something better, respect it do not get in the way of it being corrected or accepted. It’s an improvement on the truth, and as such, it will outlive you.