Nautilus

Editors’ advice on writing scientific papers

NSMBFeb.gif

Nature Structural & Molecular Biology (17, 139 ;2010) provides some writing advice for scientists: “less is more when it comes to writing a good scientific paper. Tell a story in clear, simple language and keep in mind the importance of the ‘big picture’.”

Editors and reviewers regularly have to slog through papers that seem to go on forever and, more dishearteningly, have the main points and interesting bits inexplicably hidden, when they assess them for possible publication. NSMB provides some pointers, a few of which are provided here:

Tell a story. We all love listening to a good story. And we all tell stories, but some are better at it than others, and those who tell the best stories are most able to get their points across. How you got your data is not that important—we don’t need a chronology (first we did this, then we did that, etc.). Instead, now that you have the data and have interpreted them a certain way, think about how best to tell a story in light of all the previous work in the field, the question(s) you are addressing and why that question is important. How do your results advance our understanding of the question(s)? Have you discovered something new or unexpected? Consider how your findings fit into the broader context of the field, whether they are likely to change the way people in the field will think about the topic and how they will drive further experiments in the future.

Be clear. Making your story clear is not the same thing as dumbing it down. No reviewer has ever said that a paper was too easy to read. We do, however, get complaints from reviewers about how complicated, convoluted or downright confusing a paper is. Clear, simple language allows the data and their interpretation to come through. Remember that clarity is especially important when you are trying to get complicated ideas across. Keep the jargon to a minimum and explain the terms you do use. When you’re done, give your paper to a scientist outside your field and ask that person to read it for clarity. He or she will be able to point out all the remaining jargon, whether the experimental design, results and data interpretation are clear and how interesting your paper is to someone working in another area.

Provide an informative title and abstract. PubMed allows one to search through ~19 million citations, and Table of Contents e-alerts bring you the latest from your favorite journals. And what do you see when your e-alert arrives or your search is complete?—the title and abstract. Most people will stop there without reading any further, so don’t blow it with a boring title. Make the abstract clear and try to get the ‘big picture’ across. Do not get bogged down in details. As an author, this is also your chance to draw your readers in, to entice them to read on. If the title and abstract are comprehensible to only a handful of people directly in your field, you have greatly narrowed the potential readership of your paper.

NSMB journal website.

Nature journals’ advice on how to write a scientific paper, which provides links to several independent resources.

How to get published in a Nature journal.

Comments

Comments are closed.