By Sarah Boon, Ph.D.
If you’ve trained as a scientist, you know that part of the learning curve involves figuring out how to write a scientific paper. Unfortunately, few scientists receive explicit instruction in writing papers—researchers by definition are expected to know how to write.
When you’re a grad student, your supervisor is there to guide you through the paper publication process, as it’s in their best interests to have you publish the outcome of your research with them. Once you become an independent scientist, however—whether that’s in academia, industry, or at an NGO—writing research papers can be a frustrating and lonely experience.
There are many online resources and excellent books designed to provide writing advice to scientists. The difficulty as an early career researcher lies in making the time to learn how to write a good paper while also teaching yourself R stats and maybe a bit of Bayesian statistical methods, coming up with new pedagogical approaches to engage your students—or figuring out how to manage a work team, applying for a shrinking pot of grant funds, starting up a lab or getting familiar with a new job.
This post distills the process of writing a paper into the key steps, and provides links to additional resources available. The goal is to give you a good head start on writing your next scientific paper, while providing specific places to find more detailed advice.
BEFORE YOU START WRITING
The key to writing a successful research article begins well before you even put pen to paper.
While you’re doing background reading about your research area, it can be useful to save journal articles in a reference management system such as Mendeley, Zotero, or Endnote. This will help you keep track of all the papers related to your research, and make it a lot easier to create reference lists for future research papers. Secondly, you want to ensure that the design of your research project includes a well-defined research goal and series of objectives, as this forms the foundation of your research paper. Thirdly, a good paper requires that you maintain excellent notes of the materials you used and the methods you applied to answer your research question, so that readers can replicate your experiment if they so choose. Finally, many scientists suggest that you only start writing once you’ve completed all of your analysis, and have created a series of key plots and tables that best support your research goal and objectives. This will give you a strong narrative to follow in outlining your results and developing your discussion.
Once you have these aspects together, you should be ready to sit down and write.
RESEARCH PAPER STRUCTURE
A typical research paper is divided into nine sections: Title, Abstract, Introduction, Materials & Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion, Acknowledgements, and References. If you do fieldwork, you may have an additional Study Site section between the Introduction and Materials & Methods sections.
Title & Abstract
Scientists read the title and abstract to decide whether or not they will delve into an entire paper—so you want to make sure to grab them right away! The key is to write these after the paper is completed. That way you can come up with a catchy title, and structure the abstract as a mini-paper, with the research question and context, the key results and the new things those results tell us, how it compares with other research, and a conclusion for further work.
This section is all about placing your work into the broader research context, and then narrowing your focus to identify specifically what you plan to do in the paper: i.e., your research goals and objectives.
Materials & Methods
You want to provide enough detail that someone else could replicate the study if need be, and outline your rationale for that approach. Lay out what you did step by step, from the beginning to end of your experiment. Include not only how and why you collected data, but also how and why you applied specific analysis techniques. It can sometimes be hard to determine how much information is too much information; a good piece of advice is to put in more than you need, as you can always pare it down later.
As Ivan Valiela says in his book, Doing Science, this section tells the reader “the facts revealed by your work.” For example, a colleague is currently working on a paper that includes these subheadings in the Methods section: experimental design, logging history, environmental monitoring, and data analysis. The results section outlines observed weather and snowpack conditions (based on the environmental monitoring), and describes changes in streamflow with logging quantified by applying specific data analyses to the streamflow data (part of the environmental monitoring), in relation to the specific experimental design.
The discussion is where you pull your results together into a coherent story, and put that story in context by referring back to your own results and to other peoples’ research. By the end of the discussion, you should have addressed the goals and objectives you outlined in your introduction.
The conclusion ties up the paper by reiterating the research question, restating the significant results and the story they tell, and identifying any areas for further research.
Acknowledgements & References
Always be sure to recognize the contributions of others to your research, whether they’re assistants, funding agencies, or colleagues who helped you talk through different aspects of your work. As for the references—this is where the reference management system we talked about previously comes in, as it should make it relatively easy to create your reference list.