Wednesday, April 17, 2019

How to write a scientific paper, in four simple steps

Accomplished scientific writers will all have their own tips on how to go about writing a scientific paper. However, when you are first getting started, sometimes it is easier to have a set of steps available. Certainly there are many options available, but I personally have been finding the following set of steps useful when advising students lately.
  • Step 1: Write the Introduction (starting with second paragraph)
    The introduction lays out why you bothered to do the study you did. It provides a background from the existing literature, and it points out holes in that literature or opportunities to test answers to questions that have little coverage.

    However, the first paragraph of your introduction (in fact, the first few sentences of your paper) are often the hardest ones to write. A colleague points out to her students that a great way to get around this potential writer's block is to simply skip the first paragraph. If you start with the second paragraph, you can immediately start laying out the argument for why your study needs to be done. Once you finish the rest of the introduction, it may be easy to see what the first paragraph needs to be. In other words, once you have 75% of the argument completed, the shape of the puzzle piece that remains will often be clear.
  • Step 2: Write the Discussion
    If someone is already convinced that your paper has something interesting to say, that person will likely jump straight to the discussion and start reading there. This is where you describe how your data support some story that you want to tell about an inference you have made about the natural world. As you write your discussion, it will become clear exactly which data you need to tell your story. And so that brings us to the next step.
  • Step 3: Write the Results
    Now that you have crafted a convincing discussion, you know what results are needed to support your argument. Writing the discussion first tells you what to include and what you can exclude. A lot of students make the mistake of starting with all of the possible plots that can be generated and then trying to string together a discussion around them, even if some of those plots really aren't needed. Don't do it that way. Instead, let your discussion guide which results to include.
  • Step 4: Write the Methods
    Putting this step here is controversial. In many cases where your study has a clear experimental design that tests for something very specific, then it is possible to write your methods first. However, if you are instead working with a very large dataset that might someday result in multiple papers, then your methods might need to wait for you to determine exactly which results you need to make your argument. So once you've written your results, you can then generate methods that explain how all of those results came about.
Those four steps can often soothe writer's block on a scientific paper. You may determine a different flow as you mature in your writing process, but this is just one suggestion of where you might think about starting.

Special Note: Title and Abstract

Of course, two things that are left out of the steps above are the title and abstract. Young writer's often leave these until the end, and they often view them as complementary to the rest of the article. However, with maturity, it should be possible to write them first and view them almost as alternatives (or marketing pieces) for the whole article. Writing them first can also provide structure (similar to an outline) for the rest of the article. So work toward being able to write these two things first, but it's OK if you start by writing them last.

Keep in mind that most readers will only read the title and abstract (and some will only read the title). Consequently, the title should not be clickbait; the title should be an executive summary of the article, giving the punchline as opposed to begging the reader to read further. Interested readers will move on to the abstract. Consequently, your abstract should really have everything an educated reader needs to reconstruct your article; it should have a little bit of all of the sections. Your abstract should concisely say why you did the things you did, how you did them, what the main results were, and why those results are interesting.

Take-away Message: It's About the Reader

People are busy, and they allocate their reading resources accordingly. If you tease them with half statements, they will only get frustrated and move on to the next thing that competes for their time. Instead, give them something interesting and complete in the title. If they want more details, they can read the abstract, which should itself be complete. If they want more details, they'll read the main body (possibly starting with the discussion section). For the reader, it's about sequentially choosing what to read next. When you write, you should always have this in mind as you design the delivery vehicle for the content you hope will be disseminated broadly.


Anonymous said...

Very good advice Ted. The onus really is on the author these days: the journal publishers or peer reviewers are not into correcting logical issues, or fixing any clarity problems with your paper.

The abstract is probably the most critical section, as a large majority (OK - I'm guessing a bit here) read the abstract alone then move on. It should really summarise carefuly. Here's a suggested structure - this is not hard and fast. The main thing is that abstract stands alone:
- short background to study
- hypothesis
- methods
- results
- (if appropriate) next steps to further the hypothesis

Ted Pavlic said...

@Anonymous -- Very well said!