Writing the Manuscript
Preparing an article for publication is a lengthy process that requires much attention to detail. In this section, we’ll discuss some of the important considerations in preparing a high-quality manuscript.
Obtain Journal Guidelines
Once you have identified the journal, you should obtain the journal’s guidelines for authors. This is important because each journal has a unique and specific focus, audience, and format requirements that you must follow if you wish your paper to be published in it. Written directions regarding the specific requirements for preparation and submission of technical articles are increasingly available on-line and can usually be found on the journal’s homepage. Be sure to read these through thoroughly and carefully. If you fail to follow the directions, depending on the gravity of the formatting deviation, the journal may simply return your manuscript to you without even sending it out for review. It is also a good idea to obtain, if possible, and read the directions for reviewers as well. After all, your paper will be evaluated by the reviewers according to the criteria outlined in this document so you as an author would be wise to prepare your manuscript to meet the criteria that will be used in its evaluation. Some journals now use downloadable document templates which are formatted by field (title, by-line, introduction, etc.). Some of these are admittedly easier to use than others. That said, if you plan on submitting additional articles to this journal in the future, it is really well worth your time to learn how to use the template sooner rather than later.
Decide What Type of Paper
There are basically three kinds of papers: reviews, communications, and full papers.
Reviews are articles that provide a perspective on a field, technique, or research problem. They generally don’t contain new experimental results but rather summarize the present and past literature in a particular field or discipline.
Communications are relatively brief (less than 1000 words) articles describing particularly novel and timely findings for a significant study currently in progress. Because of the restrictions on their length, communications don’t have a well-defined format. Communications generally focus more on a presentation of the results followed by a brief discussion of their significance.
Full papers describe the results from a complete or full study of a system or process. These papers are generally longer (typically 4-10 pages) than communications and have a distinctive well-defined format. A discussion of the content of each section of a full paper follows below.
- Title – The paper’s title should be brief (12-15 words) and provide peer readers with a quick overview of the paper’s contents. It should be able to be understood without reference to other resources, i.e., it should stand alone. In crafting a title, it is useful to include any keywords that could be useful to abstracting service such as BIOSIS, CAS, etc. in properly indexing the article. Useful keywords might include the name of the system or material studied, the analytical methods and/or instrumentation used, etc. A number of journals publish lists of keywords that they use in indexing their articles. Try to avoid using acronyms that may be unfamiliar to anyone except specialists working in a specific field.
- By-line – The by-line consists of the names of all of those individuals who contributed to the study and their institutional and departmental affiliations usually arranged in order (left to right) of decreasing relative contributions to the paper and the science it describe. The name of the principal investigator/ major professor, usually designated with an asterisk (*), appears at the end (far right) of the list. In general, the first (leftmost) name is that of the person who contributed the most scientifically to the paper. Authorship on a paper is an important issue. It is one that should be discussed between a student and faculty mentor ideally at the start of their research relationship. If you have not discussed the issue of authorship with your advisor previously now is the best time to have this conversation. Authorship comes with important responsibilities attached. All authors are responsible for the quality and accuracy of the technical content, interpretation, and expression of the ideas contained in the article. The American Chemical Society says that all authors of papers in its journals have certain ethical responsibilities concerning the content of any papers on which their name appears. These include: accuracy, economy (shorter is better), attention to detail (repeatability), appropriate credit to the relevant literature, safety (any/all hazards should be identified), completeness, and proper acknowledgment of all contributions.
- Abstract – An abstract is a brief (usually less than 200 words), succinct summary of the work that has been done. A good abstract outlines the problem studied, the approach used, the uniqueness of the work, the principal findings, and the significance of the study. It should make sense to you then that in writing a paper the abstract should be written last. This ensures that the abstract actually abstracts the article.
- Introduction – The introduction should introduce the research problem that the study was designed to address and its significance. It should also provide an introduction to the relevant literature in the field, credit this work, and identify any limitations – what gap is the current study designed to fill? In other words, the introduction should provide literally an introduction for the reader on any/all information that he/she will need in order to understand and appreciate the science you will report on later in the article.
- Experimental – The experimental section should provide information on all of the relevant technical details concerning how the study was actually accomplished. The source and quality of any reagents, materials, and instrumentation (model and make) is provided in this section. The method of preparation, isolation, and/or purification of any reagents or materials used should be provided as well. If standard methods are used for calibration, appropriate references to the relevant literature should be provided. If new methods are used, the procedure used should be outlined in detail. A useful question to ask yourself in writing this section is: Is enough information provided to enable the reader to reproduce the experiments/measurements described?
- Results – This section of the technical paper could be referred to as “Show-and-Tell.” Here, you should present the minimal set of results that the interested reader will need to know in order to reach the same conclusions that you did in your study. There is always the temptation to share everything but this should be avoided at all costs. In writing this section it is a good idea to use sections. The data should first be presented and then any methods of analysis needed in order to interpret the raw data should be introduced. Each finding should then be stated and qualified.
Whenever possible use figures rather than tables as it is much easier to see trends in a graphical presentation of data. A useful rule of thumb in identifying the appropriate figures and tables to use in communicating your results is the following: the reader should be able to grasp the principal findings either by reading the text or by examining the figures and tables.
If you do use figures and tables each of these must be titled descriptively. Captions should include all relevant critical experimental conditions.
- Discussion of Results – In some journals “results” are presented in a separate section from “discussion. In other journals, “results” and “discussion” are presented together in one section. The former approach is viewed as more rigorous as it allows the reader to separate the data from any interpretation superimposed on them. The idea is that in this way, if the interpretation is at some point later proven incorrect, the results may still be valid and useful.
Results are the data obtained. Discussion focuses on the interpretation of those results. Often authors will summarize their conclusions in the last paragraph of the discussion section.
- Acknowledgments – This section is used to acknowledge the contributions of those anyone who assisted in the study whose contributions did not rise in the view of the principal investigator to authorship and to credit the funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, etc., that supported the work.
- References – This section contains a specifically formatted list of all of the relevant primary technical literature cited in your paper. As such, it should list all of the important papers in your field. Be sure not to ignore older papers. Today there are a number of commercially available computer programs that you can use to correctly format the bibliography of your paper. Some of the more widely used programs include Thomson’s Endnote and Procite.
Prepare a Draft
Writing a good technical article takes time. This isn’t something that can be done at the last minute or in a protracted period of time. The best approach in beginning to write your paper is to create an outline of the key points you wish to communicate in your paper. To do this, it is extremely useful to prepare and organize the figures and tables you will need to use to in order to tell your story. Be sure to consult the journal’s directions for authors concerning any format requirements that the journal may have regarding figures and/or tables. Next, you should create a draft of your paper. I generally find it easiest to begin writing the results section first. This should then logically lead you to write the discussion section in which you interpret the data presented in the results section. After this, you will know exactly what experimental details need to be described for the reader in the experimental section of your paper. At this point, you will know what background information the reader will need to know in order to understand and appreciate the science that you are presenting in your paper which will enable you to craft a good introduction for your paper. Finally, having written the paper, you will be in the best position to summarize your work in the form of an abstract.
Once you have a completed draft, revise, revise, and revise. Re-read your paper through with a critical eye toward the Journal’s review criteria. Ask your friends and colleagues for their opinion of your paper. While review criteria do vary somewhat from journal to journal, the list below should provide you with a good starting point in evaluating your own paper and determining whether or not it is ready for submission for consideration of publication.
Review Criteria Checklist
- Is the paper likely to be of interest to the readership of the journal?
- Is the problem described significant?
- Is the contribution reported in the paper new and original?
- Does the paper contain high quality data?
- Are the interpretations and conclusions adequately supported by the data provided in the paper?
- Are the references provided in the paper appropriate and correct?
- Is the organization and presentation clear and easy to understand?
- Is the length of the paper appropriate?
- Is the number of figures and tables appropriate?
- Are the figures and tables of high quality?