10 Tips for Writing Scientific Journal Articles

Nov. 3, 2016

Writing a research manuscript can be overwhelming, particularly for early-career researchers. Without published papers, it can be difficult—if not impossible—to obtain funding or a promotion, so writing a paper well is a crucial skill for career development. Below, ASM President-Elect Dr. Peggy Cotter gives 10 handy tips on writing up your research, focusing on the introduction and discussion sections. Her general approach to composing a scientific paper? “You want to write it in a way that the reader doesn’t notice the writing. The thoughts flow into their head, it makes sense, it's interesting and they want to follow along.”

Tips for Writing an Introduction to a Research Paper

Keep in mind: The main goal of the introduction is to inform the reader of the question you set out to answer and why answering this question is important.

  1. Consider your audience. This will vary depending on the journal; a journal with a broader reach generally requires more background information in the introduction.
  2. Don’t write your introduction first. Instead, write your introduction after you’ve written your results section. Once you have assembled your results section, take a step back and see what information the reader needs in order to understand the results.
  3. Create a “big-picture” outline. State, in general terms, what concepts you want to convey in each paragraph of the introduction.                                          
    1. The first one or two paragraphs should introduce the general concept you’re addressing and/or the system under study. What is already known about the concept/system? What knowledge gap is your study seeking to fill?
    2. The next few paragraphs should tell the reader what question you are seeking to answer.
    3. Finally, the last paragraph should tell the reader how you set out to answer the question and may summarize a few of your key findings.
  4. Take your general outline and fill in the details. This outline will state the precise information that each paragraph will contain. Don’t worry about grammar or complete sentences at this stage.
  5. Once you have a detailed outline, it is time to write the prose. Make sure your writing is scientifically and grammatically correct--and make it interesting.   

Tips for Writing a Discussion

Keep in mind: The main goal of the discussion is to tell the reader what your results mean and why they are important. In other words, synthesize the results from all of your experiments and explain what these results will allow scientists to do in the future.

  1. Try the white paper approach. As you write the introduction and results sections, list conclusions and ramifications of your results randomly on a white piece of paper.
  2. Provide something for as many readers as possible. This is especially important if you publish in a journal with a broad reach. For example, you might discuss the implications of your results for both the pathway you studied and the organism you studied it in.
  3. Create a “big-picture” outline. State, in general terms, what concepts you want to convey in each paragraph of the discussion. Refer back to your white paper.
    1. The first paragraph might restate the major findings and how they led to the main conclusion(s) of the paper. Or, you could reorient the reader to the big picture by explaining the current paradigm and how your results relate to (or challenge) it. However, don’t inflate the importance of your results.
    2. Cotter calls the middle paragraphs in a discussion “modular treatises.” For each of your points, connect the dots between previous results and those presented in your paper, and make it clear how your data advance the field.
    3. Finally, the last paragraph should point to the future. What new questions arise?
  4.  Make a more detailed outline. As with the introduction, this outline will state the precise information that each paragraph will contain.
  5. Write the actual paragraphs. When you’re done, go back and read every sentence carefully. Are they grammatically correct, scientifically correct, and do they make logical sense? Did you put the results within the broader perspective of your field?

Author: Contributor

The Education Board's mission is to educate individuals at all levels in the microbiological sciences. It supports both student and faculty development through fellowships, online publications, conferences, workshops, and institutes, and networking opportunities.