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Five Steps to Writing a Great Scientific Article

Thousands of scientific articles are published each year. It’s a basic series of steps in biomedical research: do experiments, analyze data, publish your results, and repeat. It seems straightforward, but one question remains. How do you write a paper for publication if it’s your first one?

A blank white page, and a silently blinking cursor: How can an empty document be so intimidating? You still hear the voice of your PhD supervisor echoing in your head: “You’ve got all that lovely data. Why don’t you start putting it together in a scientific article so we can get it published?” Sure, why not?

You have been working on your PhD thesis in basic research for about two years. And now, it’s make-or-break time. Your personal moment of truth has arrived, and the next step is within reach. You have to put your scientific data together, and review all those days, evenings, and weekends you spent doing your experiments. But where to start? How can your enormous pile of data be transformed into a few pages of clear and concise science? In short: “How to write a scientific article?” These are typical questions that young scientists ask themselves when they are confronted with the task of publishing their results for the first time.

1. Identify your target audience

But first things first. An important question you need to answer right at the start is about your audience. Who are you writing for, and which journal are you aiming at? Ravi Murugesan, an editor at a manuscript-services agency, American Journal Experts, shares insights on selecting the right journal in his article on SciDev.Net. He writes that there are different indicators for the quality of a publication. A well-structured peer-review process is one important criterion that you should keep in mind when choosing your journal of interest, advises Murugesan.

Choosing the right journal:
Before you start writing your scientific article, you should think about the journal you are aiming at. This influences the guidelines you need to keep in mind when crafting the manuscript.
© matka_Wariatka / shutterstock

2. Draft your outline starting from relevant figures and references

After choosing a target journal, you can start structuring your relevant data. Chris Wiggins, associate professor for applied mathematics at Columbia University in New York, defines an algorithm for writing a scientific article on Nature.com’s New York blog. He recommends following a 14-step process that includes identifying the most relevant figures and references, and then putting the outline together.

At this point, you should discuss your outline with all your ideas in a structured form with colleagues and experienced researchers from your institute. This prevents you from putting a lot of effort into a draft that was on the wrong track from the beginning.

3. Start writing

Using your outline, you can initiate the creative part of the process: crafting the manuscript. According to Professor Pete Carr from the Department of Chemistry, University of Minnesota, the most crucial step is when you start to write. He says it’s essential to always keep your reader in mind. Clinical psychologist and scientific-writing coach Dr. Gina Hyatt agrees. Only when you explain your research clearly and understandably can your audience follow your explanation, and appreciate the work you’ve done, she says. That´s the major point of Meenakshi Prabhune a former researcher who turned a science writer. She advices to “write to express, not impress.

If you are struggling with starting your writing, it could help to schedule a specific time for filling your outline with content. That’s a recommendation from Elena Kallestinova from the Graduate Writing Center at Yale University. She also advises starting with “material and methods,” as you already have all your notes and the protocols needed to put that section together. In her opinion, the most promising order of writing is: materials and methods, results, introduction, and discussion. Barbara Hoogenboom and Robert Manske suggest ending the discussion with your conclusion, and writing the abstract after finishing all the other text pieces. Kallestinova also recommends updating your outline as part of the ongoing process, as your focus might shift as you progress with your manuscript. Afterwards, you should find a snappy and understandable title that delivers the rough idea of your work (Borja, 2014).

4. The review process

It was a lot of work, but there you go – you’ve written the first draft! Now you need to put as much effort into reviewing and editing the scientific article. Show the different parts of your manuscript to colleagues, scientific mentors, and collaboration partners, if appropriate. Discuss corrections and ideas, and decide which to include and which to omit. Before submitting the paper, pay attention to the formal requirements of the journal. Make sure you adhere to the guidelines for authors, in particular that all your references are cited correctly.

Quality control for science papers:
A paper that has been submitted to a journal is evaluated by researchers working in that particular field of research: the peer review process. Then the researchers recommend whether to publish the article or not.
© chromatos / shutterstock

After internal review and submission, you enter the review process of the journal. The libraries of the North Carolina State University described the procedure in a three-minute-video. First, an editor reads your manuscript and evaluates whether it is a good fit for the journal. If so, he sends your article to scientists who work in your field of research. They judge the manuscript using different criteria such as originality, methodology, logical argumentation, and relevance. Then they send a recommendation to the editor of the journal whether they support publishing the paper or not. Finally, the editor decides. He has three options: approving the article, asking the author for revision, or rejecting the paper.

But don’t worry if you are asked to revise your text, or even if it’s rejected. After receiving a rejection, try to find a less prestigious journal you could send your scientific article to. For many researchers, Nature and Science are the Holy Grail, because these journals are highly prestigious, and generate a lot of attention for your results (Take a look behind the scenes, and watch the video “The life of a Nature paper”). However, lots of other journals may be less glamorous, but are the main resource for experts in a particular field of research. When thinking about the journal you want to submit your research to, be realistic and exclude the urge for scientific fame. Again, focus on your main audience. Then you will make a wise decision and be successful.

5. Things to consider when you have published your first scientific article

Congratulations! You submitted your paper and the journal has accepted it – well done! But you might think about promoting your research, and to do so by going beyond the conventional publication channels. Various web platforms, including Researchgate and Google Scholar, specialize in connecting scientists. By using such platforms, you can network with the scientific community, share experiences, and learn from others. Communicating your scientific achievements through social media can help to increase the impact of your results by making your network, and a wider readership, aware of your hard work and your fascinating findings.

Further Resources:

Finding the appropriate journal: Ravi Murugesan explains in an article the key aspects to consider when you want to publish your scientific results. He is an editor at the manuscript-services agency American Journal Experts.

About the peer-review process: In an explanatory video, the libraries of the North Carolina State University describe what happens after scientists submit papers to a journal for publication.

An algorithm for writing a scientific paper: Chris Wiggins, associate professor for applied mathematics at Columbia University in New York, describes on Nature.com’s New York blog an algorithm with 14 steps for writing a publication.

Writing a paper in a weekend: In his video Professor Pete Carr from the Department of Chemistry, University of Minnesota shares his experience from supervising hundreds of publications at his research group with users on Youtube.

Promoting a clear style of writing: Dr. Gina Hyatt, clinical psychologist and scientific-writing coach, discloses seven key aspects for a clear voice in scientific writing.

A paper on writing papers: Elena Kallestinova from the Graduate Writing Center at Yale University published an article called “How to Write Your First Research Paper” in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.

Another paper on writing papers: Barbara Hoogenboom and Robert Manske published a research article called “How to Write a Scientific Article” in the International Journal of Sports and Physical Therapy.

Advice from a senior scientist: On the website of the Elsevier publishing group, Dr. Angel Borja, head of projects at AZTI-Tecnalia research center near Bilbao, Spain, describes “11 Steps to Structuring a Science Paper Editors Will Take Seriously”.

Scientific writing: A very short cheat sheetMeenakshi Prabhune has one golden rule for effective science writing – keep it clear and simple.

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