How to write #2: Planning your paper.

The rest of this series is going to focus on the mechanics of writing the various sections of a research paper, considering everything from abstract through to conclusions (though not necessarily in that order). I think, though, that before plunging into the maelstrom of producing actual text, it is important to think about what comes first. Planning and dealing with some of the perils and pitfalls of multiple authorship.

  1. Decide on what your story is going to be

Writing a research paper requires you to apply the simple rules of story writing that you learned in primary school. Your work needs a clear beginning, middle and end. You need to identify what all of those elements are going to be, before you start and then plan the flow of the story up front. I say ‘story’ because that is a great model for most scientific papers. We are essentially following the pattern of:

We are interested in this subject because previous work has shown it to be important. To advance the field we set out to assess ____________, which we did using these methods_____________________________. Our findings were ______________ and __________________ and _____________________. These were largely expected given previous work, but the novel finding from our research was _________________________. In conclusion, we have confirmed the importance of this area.

In developing the plan I always start by thinking about what the bit in the middle is. For all intents and purposes this is about looking at your data and deciding what is going to be in the results section. As I will describe in a separate post, there is a need to be reasonably selective. We don’t throw in every bit of material that was collected just because it is available. Your readers don’t want to wade through dozens of dense tables of numbers that don’t contribute to the ‘story’. The nature of the data that you do put in to the paper shapes the ending. Your discussion is going to reflect the outcomes of your work and how it fits with the literature. The beginning should be easy to frame. You are writing a paper because you have done some research. Your introductory text just has to spell out why you did it and why the research was necessary.

The best papers have the same flow as a work of fiction. Think about how you will link threads together, which order the data should be presented in and how best to portray something complex in a clear and concise manner. Look at some papers by other authors- we all have papers that we really like and value. How were they structured? Why do you think they were effective? What can you borrow for your own writing?

2. Decide on what format your report will be written for

I have to say that I am not really a fan of the short report and would much rather see papers written up in full so that the authors present a larger selection of data and properly discuss it. That should be your aim. There are situations however where the short report might be the way you want to go. Some experiments or studies are done on a shoestring budget and need to be published as a means of securing funding to do the work properly. Some undergraduate research may be noteworthy in that it has generated a small number of interesting results that would otherwise not get into the public domain.

So, my advice is, go for a full paper unless the study you have completed has yielded only enough data to generate a single graph or table. In those instances, short reports, letters to the editor and similar formats are the way to go

3. Consider your target journal

It helps a lot to decide on the target journal before you start to write. Each journal has a guide to formatting of papers, length of papers, referencing style, etc. Being aware of these from the start makes the writing process simpler and avoids last minute edits. There will be lots of factors that influence your choice of journal:

  • Impact factor
  • Speed of decision-making
  • Standing within your discipline
  • Time to actual publication
  • Availability of early online publication

These are all legitimate factors to shape your target, but it is also important to avoid wasting your time. Does the journal actually publish papers that are in your area? Do they have local rules about specific aspects of the work that you can’t meet (e.g. systematic reviews must meet PRISMA standard, weight studies need more than 12 month follow-up)? Does it meet the requirements of your university or funder for open access? Will it be the most suitable vehicle to showcase your work? Is there going to be a charge for publication? Check the guidance to authors very carefully before plunging in.

4. Shared authorship

Very few of us will work in isolation and with only occasional exceptions papers are published with multiple authors. If you are responsible for writing the paper you will need to agree first of all who is going to be an author and secondly what the order of authorship is going to be. The latter is subject to conventions depending on the discipline, but in my area the first author is going to be the person who contributed most to the collection of the data and the last author is the supervisor/principal investigator, who set up the study.  The people in between will generally be listed in order of contribution. Other disciplines vary and in some subjects the list is just alphabetical.

There are certain criteria to fulfil to qualify for authorship and the general expectation is that an author will have made a significant contribution to the design or execution of a research project, been involved in collection of or analysis of the data and to have played a role in the writing or the critique of the paper. People associated with the work who do not fulfil those criteria would be expected to be listed in the acknowledgements only.

An unfortunate outcome of collaboration and coauthorship is the direct correlation between the number of authors and the amount of hassle involved in producing a paper. Your coauthors may disagree on some of the fundamentals, so take care that when you decide what the story is going to be, that they all buy into it from the start, rather than arguing about it later. They will disagree on the format of the data, exact wording of points in the discussion and probably on the conclusion.  Again, try and resolve things at the early stage of planning, but do expect to spend some time sorting out these disagreements. Mostly (if you’ve chosen your team well) they will resolve amicably, but I have seen fur fly on occasions and the corresponding author needs to be confident about taking the lead and laying down the ground-rules. The most common problem is delays in the schedule. Some of your coauthors will respond to queries and comment on drafts in a timely manner. There will certainly be someone (as researchers tend to be academics) who has many other things to do and doesn’t get round to your paper as quickly as you would like. A week or two is never too bad, but delays of months are not good for harmonious writing.

My advice is to set your authors clear deadlines. ‘here is the first draft of the paper. If I don’t hear from you by the end of next week I will assume that you are happy with it and have no changes to make’ , is a device I tend to use and it usually keeps everyone on task and the writing process avoids undue delay.

5. Standing back and accepting peer review

I am an experienced writer and I can put together a manuscript pretty quickly. You may be less confident and might spend a few weeks putting your paper together and collating comments from coauthors. If you are the corresponding author who is coordinating the submission you will have a few challenges to get the final draft put together. Coauthors may not all agree, their comments may be contradictory, or with many cooks stirring the broth, your paper may not flow and speak with a consistent style. At some point you will need to take control and responsibility for a polished product.

My advice here is not to rush. Get the final draft together in your own time and then file it away somewhere for a week or so. Let it mature in the depths of your hard-drive and then bring it out again for a final check. You will almost certainly pick on something clunky or vague. Also don’t take sole responsibility for the paper- give it to someone else who is knowledgeable in your subject but isn’t a co-author. Their unbiased viewpoint and lack of familiarity with the work will pick up on obvious flaws, awkward expression and inconsistencies.

6. Submission

These days, journals run all of their manuscript submission and review services online and all of them will have their own specific rules and requirements for the submission. These will cover what sort of files can be uploaded, whether or not a cover letter is required, the length of the manuscript, format of figures and whether figures should be provided as separate files, or embedded in the main body of the paper. The frustration that online submission systems can cause you should never be under-estimated. You’ve got to the end of the writing process. You’re feeling excited and are desperate to push the submission button. But then… you get bogged down in it all and spend half a day changing the resolution settings on your graphs, producing a blinded copy without the authors names on, etc.

My simple advice here is do a dummy run as part of your preparatory work. It can save you a few points of blood pressure increase.

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