Advice on Publishing Your First Scientific Journal Article
By Dr Lizzy Lowe
Once you have completed the experimental stages of your research and compiled all of the statistics, it’s time to think about publishing your paper. Putting together a scientific manuscript from scratch can be very daunting the first few times. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details or to have difficulty knowing where to start. This article presents a few tips about publishing your first scientific paper in order to make the process easier.
While this advice applies to most of the sciences, the structure and content of scientific papers vary significantly between fields. This article has been formulated with the biological and environmental fields in mind and is not an exhaustive list of steps for preparing a manuscript. However, hopefully it will help you on your way to publishing your research.
If you would prefer to learn how to write your first scientific article by watching a video, you can do so on our YouTube channel.
Selecting your target journal
Once you have an idea of the overall findings of your study, it’s a good time to select the journal that you would like to submit to. There are many rules on structure and format specific to each journal—the length of the paper, use of line numbers, the number of figures and tables allowed, the amount of detail expected for the introduction and the location of the methods section. There are also the rules regarding which referencing system to follow and how to format the article correctly for submission. It is thus crucial to know these rules from the onset, and each journal should have an information page for authors. (For an example, see this page for the journal Ecology.) Read over the instructions from your chosen journal and familiarise yourself with their guidelines; it’s much easier to follow these specific rules from the beginning rather than engage in a lengthy edit of the format, layout and length of your journal article at the very end.
It is also important to consider the scope of your selected journal and ensure that your study complies with the journal’s key focus areas. If it does not, your article is likely to be rejected without review and may require extensive reworking prior to being submitted to a different journal. Even though impact factor is no longer the only metric for ranking journals, it is still important to consider the calibre of the journal you are submitting to. Aim high, but make sure your study is appropriate for the journal in terms of impact, interest to the readership and themes. The last thing you want to do is waste the editors’ time (or yours!).
Writing: Don’t start at the beginning
Naturally, it’s important to have done an extensive review of the literature before you start your research, but don’t make the mistake of writing the abstract or introduction of your manuscript first. While the introduction may seem like the easiest place to start, it depends strongly on your results and conclusion(s), and can therefore change during the development of your journal article. You may find a simpler interpretation of your results or decide to add extra analysis halfway through writing your manuscript, which could completely change the scope of the paper. Therefore, it is best to leave the writing of the introduction until the end.
One thing you should do when you are researching the literature is make a bullet-point introduction. Make a note of the major themes your article will cover, and include lots of subheadings and statements with references. These bullet points are much easier to rearrange than a full introduction, and enable you to keep track of any useful references and the statements they support. When it finally comes to writing your introduction, you will have all of the points you need and you can pick the themes that best relate to your results and your chosen journal.
Your finalised results (including all of the figures and tables that you would like to include) form the basis of your article. Figures present your data in an organised and easy-to-understand manner, as well as reducing your word count (important for journals that have a lower word limit). One well-made figure is vastly preferable to a large paragraph of text—just remember not to double-up by presenting data in both a figure and in the text. It’s recommended that you present the most exciting results of your study in your figures, because they are normally the first or second thing a reader (and reviewer) will look at.
While it’s tempting to show the readers every little bit of data that you have collected, a paper does not always have to (and, in fact, will rarely) include all the results from your experiment. This does not mean cherry picking data to support a particular result or outcome, but rather being selective of the results included in your paper—include all of the results that are relevant to your story, but exclude anything that does not help to explain your findings.
Telling your research ‘story’
A journal article is essentially an exercise in storytelling, and should thus be as clear and easy to follow as possible. Keep your sentences short and concise, avoid complicated language and try to make your ideas flow. Starting each paragraph with a topic sentence—a sentence that outlines what you will cover in the paragraph—greatly aids the flow of your writing, and will help you stay on track by encouraging you to only include information that relates to this theme.
To help you create a clear and cohesive story, create a separate reference document that includes a summary of your results (3–5 main points) and a short list of the implications of these results. This summary may well form part of your abstract once you have finished the rest of your paper. By referring to this at different stages during your writing, you will ensure that you stay on topic and that you are addressing all of the central topics in your discussion and introduction.
Writing the methods
You will probably have the majority of your methods written in some form (e.g. from your research proposal or planning stages). Therefore, the majority of the work for this section will be ensuring that the tense is correct, all relevant information is included and the flow is easy to follow. It is often helpful to use the last paragraph of the methods to describe the statistical analysis you used (without actually stating any of the results). This ensures the reader knows how you produced your results and sets the stage for the reporting of the analyses in your results section.
Have your results summary on hand to ensure that you only include the methods of the experiments included in your paper. Some journals put the methods at the end of the article, in which case don’t include any information in the methods that is essential for the interpretation of the results. Instead, present this information before your results.
As the methods are a relatively simple component of the paper, it can be useful to save this part of the writing for a time when you are overwhelmed by the rest of the article. Getting stuck into the methods at this time means that you continue to make progress and helps you feel more in control of the writing process.
Writing the discussion
The first paragraph of the discussion is normally a brief summary of the most important results of your study and how they fit into the broader literature of your field. The following paragraphs then explain your results in the context of the literature. For example, you can start a paragraph with a description of the result and then explore why you think this occurred, using examples from other studies to back up your ideas. Try to discuss only one result per paragraph, and (depending on the length of the manuscript) limit the discussion to three or four themes that best explain your results. If your paper requires more than four themes, it may be worth splitting these across multiple articles.
Once you have a well-formed argument around the themes that best explain your results, you can start thinking about how to present these themes in the introduction.
Writing the introduction
If you followed our earlier advice, you will have a list-style introduction with the themes of your research and the important references. Go through this list and select the themes that you covered in your discussion. When it comes to structure, a formula that is often followed in biological papers is to start with a very broad background paragraph, then have 2–3 paragraphs describing previous work relating to your themes, then have a paragraph explaining your study system and/or study organisms, and finish with a paragraph outlining the aims and hypothesis. This last paragraph should not read like the methods, but should give the reader an idea of all the key experiments undertaken for this study.
Submitting your journal article
Once your final draft is finished, you’re on the home stretch, but the process of submitting a paper can take longer than you think. In addition to your manuscript, tables and figures (which often need to meet very specific requirements) and supplementary material, you will also need a cover letter, all of the affiliations of your co-authors and their funding details, up to three suggested reviewers and, often, a statement outlining why you have chosen to submit to this particular journal. Many journals will also ask you to provide your raw data or analyses as supplementary material or in an online data repository.
These final steps can be quite demanding the first few times you submit a paper (and for a couple more after that), but take the time to do them well. The information you submit along with your paper influences the editors’ decision to send your paper out to review—this is important, considering that many journals reject more than 50 per cent of submitted manuscripts before the review stage.
A cover letter is a short (less than one page) letter to the editor(s) that helps them decide whether your paper is suited for the journal. Start with a statement such as ‘Please accept the submission of our manuscript entitled [title] for consideration for publication in [name of journal]’. In the second section, make the most important findings of your study as clear as possible; say why your research is new and how it adds to the knowledge of your field. It is also important to emphasise why the readers of this particular journal would be interested in your study. It can be helpful to request some recent cover letters from your supervisor in order to get an idea of the content required in your field.
Tips for becoming a better writer
Learning to critique journal articles is an excellent way to improve your own writing skills; it makes it easier to stand in the reviewers’ shoes and look at your own paper with a critical eye to detect any details that may need refinement. A great way to gain experience as a reviewer is to ask your supervisor if they have any papers you could review, or ask if you can look at any reviewer comments that have been written or received. Supervisors will normally jump at the opportunity to pass on some reviewing duties.
A final piece of advice: make a collection of well-written papers in your field (EndNote groups are a good way to do this) to refer back to when you are unsure how to structure your paper. Simply reading through these papers is a good way to get inspiration and help guide the way you would like your paper to read.