Publishing in a highly-selective, high-impact journal can make a researcher’s career. So what turns great science into a great manuscript?
A room packed full of PhD candidates and post-docs were given a taster of Nature Masterclasses at #NJCE15 London. The session was run by Peter Gorsuch of MSC Scientific Editing, who runs a pre-submission service that offers researchers Nature-standard editing on their manuscripts. Peter was previously an associate editor for the physical sciences team at Nature, so is a fountain of knowledge on scientific writing and publishing. Also offering wisdom via video were Nature manuscript editors Sadaf Shadan (Senior Editor, Biology) and Leonie Mueck (Associate Editor, Physical Sciences).
The science: what do editors at high-impact journals look for?
For a paper to get accepted, it should contain “novel conclusions that significantly advance our understanding of the field,” says Peter. The experts told the audience that a good paper might:
- Push the field in a new direction.
- Fill in the gaps in our current understanding.
- Demonstrate a principle that may be applied to many other examples.
- Give a known technique a new use.
- Contain conceptual novelty.
- Appeal to a broad audience, bearing relevance to scientists in other fields.
- Give a new application of fundamental science.
The science, of course, has to be robustly supported by evidence, but this is largely decided at peer-review. A useful piece of advice from Sadaf was to use the covering letter to explain WHY your article should be published.
But what makes good science into a great paper?
”The research questions and data are absolutely key,” says Peter, “but a compelling story is also really important.” You need to be able to present your arguments clearly for your target audience. Know your audience but also know your journal — it’s worth researching the journal before submitting.
What about structure?
The overall structure of any paper is fairly standard. For journals like Nature and Science, Peter highlights the need to frame your research, start from a broad conceptual view, narrow down to the nitty-gritty details and then broaden back out in the discussion — following an “egg timer shape”. (More specialised journals may have different structures, Leonie advises later – so again, study your target journal, and tailor the structure with care.)
How can you capture your audience with a good title?
Peter recommends you know your ‘A to F’ to lure your audience in, and convince them to read on:
- Declarative: give your headline finding (avoid being too assertive eg. implying causation when you have a correlation).
- Engage the paper’s audience: don’t distract or annoy them with too many acronyms or complex nouns.
- Focus on the main, novel findings: “What do you offer in your paper that we don’t already know?”
In addition to the above, Peter suggests that questions in your title (eg. “Does X affect Y?”) may invoke one of two responses: “You studied it — you tell us!” or “Probably not, otherwise you would have said!” Also, puns, while hilarious to the author, can easily fall flat with the reader.
What belongs in an abstract?
Above all, your abstract should be an accurate representation of the content of your paper. “Not everyone will read your paper,” advises Peter. The abstract, above all, should say what you found, did and why you did it, and should show the importance of your subject. You should include key statistics, without alienating your readers with too many numbers and acronyms, and explain what it all means — how can this be applied? — but be sure not to over-hype!
How do you decide on keywords?
The last focus of the session was how to choose keywords. These decide how your readers will approach your paper if they don’t already know about it. Peter suggests that it’s about finding a balance between keywords that are not too common and also not too rare. For example, if the word didn’t exist before your paper, no one will search for it!
Though these are all important points to bear in mind, “there’s no secret formula,” says Peter. Ultimately, the advice will only help you to make the most of what you have — so it’s always best to go out there and do good, robust science!
- ‘Elements of style’, an editorial in Nature Physics with manuscript writing tips;
- ‘Scientific writing 101’, an editorial in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology with manuscript writing tips;
- ‘Scientific communication: Writing up’, an editorial in Nature Cell Biology on the submission process;
- ‘A very good place to start’, an editorial in Nature Chemical Biology on editorial processes;
- ‘Good data need good writing’, an editorial in Nature Immunology covering some of the common errors in manuscript writing;
- ‘Writing well: lowering the barriers to success’, a commentary in Nature Immunology on the art of scientific writing;
- ‘Presentation of science’, an editorial in Nature Photonics on writing about the implications of your work;
- ‘The art of the revision’, an editorial in Nature Chemical Biology on manuscript revisions;
- ‘Abstract Science’, an article in the Huffington Post, written by Noah Gray, Senior Editor at Nature.