Over the years, I have noticed how my writing has changed and improved with more practice. By no means is it amazing or “perfect”, but I definitely feel more confident in my scientific writing and realise some of the common mistakes I used to make. Going in to the second year of my PhD and having recently published my first, first author paper, I wanted to reflect and share on my writing progress and some tips and advice from others and of my own on how to write a scientific article for a journal.
Title and Abstract
Your title and abstract are the first things the reviewers and the audience of the journal are going to see. Make the title punchy and to-the-point, clearly highlighting what the research is about. Follow the format of putting the outcome of interest first, followed by exposure, population and finally study design. Your abstract must attract the reader to the read the full article. Make it clear, sound positive and avoid empty statements. Remember abstracts are usually 250-300 words, depending on the journal, which really isn’t a lot so make it succinct. Add in the key points- few sentences for background, research gap and aim of the study, followed by the methods summarising key techniques used, then the key results of the study which align with the research aim, and finally a few sentences discussing the implications and recommendations. Avoid too many abbreviations.
Make it clear and to the point
I remember during my undergrad years my essays used to contain a lot of wishy-washy statements, longing out sentences which didn’t add anything important or answer the research question. Cut out unnecessary adjectives and English language techniques. This is a scientific article which should be clear and to-the-point, no one is looking out for metaphors or alliteration. Sentences which don’t add anything important to the article, remove them. Have short sentences with single concepts and use short paragraphs. Watch out for repeating statements, it is very easy to do without noticing but once you have made a statement or point, you do not need to keep repeating it. I used to make the common mistake of repeating things in the conclusion, but actually the conclusion should not be a recap of your article, it should add something new whilst summarising the key findings.
Avoid filler words
Some phrases may sound fancy but are just using up crucial words in your article. Things like “in order to…” can be written as just “to…”. Instead of “a number of…” use “few”, “many” or “several”. This is something I am still guilty of, but a few edits and drafts make sure I pick up on these unnecessary words.
Most often, scientific articles are written in the past tense. This is something I still forget and always have to go through and edit. You are writing about what you have already done. Only use present tense in the discussion when discussing how your results fit in the current literature. And future tense should be used for the conclusion when you state what future research plans are.
High Quality Figures & Tables
Your figures and tables should be standalone- when someone reads a figure or table they should be able to tell exactly what it means without reading the results section. Therefore, they should be of high quality which makes a difference in how good your paper is. Articles with clear figures and tables are more likely to be accepted. Remember to add abbreviations used as a footnote of the figure or table and don’t make it too overcrowded. Play around with different formatting to see which looks best and is easier for the reader to understand. Maybe use more than one table or figure to make it less crowded? But remember, journals have different figure and table limits so make sure you check this, it is usually around 4-6 but can vary!
Results should tell a story
Your results section should be structured logically so it tells a story. You should have enough results to support your conclusion. Check if each of your results adds something to the article in terms of answering the research question. It’s easy and common to add in a huge amount of results just because you have them but some don’t actually help answer the research question. Your results should match up with each of your objectives, hence, use your objectives as a guide for what results you need to include.
Over emphasising non-significant results
This is something I did a lot during my Masters research. I got a lot of non-significant results in my Masters research and I thought the only way to counter this was to over emphasise them in the results and discussion and show the importance and reasons behind it being non-significant. In reality, if a result is non-significant, it is still a very important result and must be included in your results and discussion, but don’t try to make it into something it is not.
Check the reference style required by the journal. For scientific articles it is usually Vancouver or Harvard, but some journals may insist on one over the other, or a different type of referencing style. Try to always include references from high quality and impact journals or official websites. Try not to reference from random unknown websites or blogs or journals that are not peer reviewed. Also make sure your reference are as up-to-date as possible. And remember you do not need to have loads of references! I used to think the more references the better during my undergrad, but actually using irrelevant references looks bad in your writing. Write what you know and then cite the text using key references.