Get Your Scientific Paper Off the Ground

Nov. 6, 2019

After spending months or years conducting numerous experiments, you finally have awesome data (YAY!). Your advisor says that it is time for you to publish your research. This can be an exciting moment until you realize the immense amount of thought, labor and time needed to prepare a scientific manuscript. Many early career scientists struggle to complete the research process by disseminating their findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

We interviewed Dr. Mary O’Riordan from the University of Michigan Medical School and Dr. Peggy Cotter from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, both presenters for the 2020 Manuscript Writing and Publishing for Scientists webinar series. They shared their advice on writing, creating a title and choosing a journal.

The Writing Process: How to Start

Although the sections of papers are ordered (abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion), scientists generally don’t write in that order. Instead, Dr. O’Riordan and Dr. Cotter recommend that you write in this order:

  1. Write a bullet point outline of your results.
  2. Assemble your figures and figure titles.
  3. Write the title and abstract to define your overall message.
  4. Write your results as a narrative in which you describe your figures.
  5. Write your introduction to define the knowledge gap your results address. 
  6. Write the discussion to give context to your results.

The Title: Your Work in a Few Words

The title of your paper must be clear, draw the reader’s attention and convey your work in only a few words. Often, this is the ONLY part of your paper that people will read! Here are some tips:

  • Define your take-home message; your title should capture this idea.
  • Instead of trying to come up with the perfect title, write down 3 or 4 possible titles and see which one resonates with you and others.  
  • Use the most definitive and specific verbs that your story allows – e.g., “suppress” vs. “affect.”
  • Be concise by deleting unnecessary words from the title.

The Journal: How to Choose

When you are ready to announce your results to the world, you will need to identify the most appropriate peer-reviewed journal for your work. With hundreds of journals to choose from, this decision can be a difficult one. Here are some tips to help you pick the right journal:

Although the writing process can be challenging, it will be deeply rewarding to see your awesome data in print!

Author: Rachel Horak, Ph.D.

Rachel Horak, Ph.D.
Rachel Horak, Ph.D. is a senior education specialist at ASM and is interested in helping educators design significant and effective learning experiences for all undergraduate biology students.