Seven tips for writing about and publishing your research efficiently
Contributor: Simi Juriasingani
I’ll never forget the feeling of excitement that rushed through me when I opened the PDF version of my paper and I saw it for the first time. (Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30393129). However, once the excitement faded, I ended up travelling down memory lane and thinking about the process of getting that paper published. As a recent Master of Science graduate, I also ended up thinking about my experience with writing a thesis. Looking back, I realized that I discovered a lot about scientific writing and publishing research along the way that I wish I knew earlier.
The process of publishing a paper involves four phases. I will go over these four phases, the common pitfalls in each phase and some tips to avoid them to potentially expedite the publishing process.
(Note: The first two phases apply to writing a thesis as well. Where I mention journal requirements, think about your program’s requirements instead!)
Phase One: Generating data (a.k.a. starting the manuscript)
This phase is the longest and most arduous phase of the process. It can take months or even years to gather all the data needed to finish a thesis or publish a paper.
A common pitfall in this phase: “I’m going to finish all my experiments first and then work on the manuscript.” To finish your manuscript efficiently, you need to start writing as you are generating data. For my paper, It took a little longer than a year to generate all the data, and an additional four months to write and publish. But I could have finished my paper months earlier. When I realized some of my inefficiencies, frustration set in because I couldn’t go back in time and implement the lessons I learned along the way. This realization made the writing process more difficult.
Tip 1: Decide which journal to submit your paper to as soon as possible.
Each journal has its own specific requirements (i.e. word lengths, reference formats, figure requirements and etc.). To maximize your productivity, decide which journal to submit your paper to BEFORE you start writing and follow their requirements carefully. Not only have I heard of papers being rejected for this reason, I have personally had a paper sent back for edits because guidelines weren’t followed. This wastes precious time and casts a negative light on you and your research group.
Tip 2: Make your figures and corresponding figure legends after you finish each set of experiments.
Research follows a cycle like this: design an experiment, execute it, analyze the data and repeat. If you make your figures as soon as you finish experiments, you’ll start thinking about your results in the context of the narrative of your paper and get a head start on your manuscript.
Tip 3: With the journal requirements in mind, start writing while you’re doing your experiments.
If you’re at the stage where you can run your experiment, you have already read the literature that serves as the background for your work, defined the specific objectives you will investigate and learned the methods you will use. Writing your introduction and methods while you’re generating data will help you finish the paper faster.
Phase Two: Finishing the manuscript
This phase is the most tedious part of the process. You’ll be reading papers, thinking critically about your results along with writing and editing your manuscript. The whole process can take weeks or months depending on your workload.
A common pitfall in this phase is thinking that you know the best way to present your research. Writing a paper or a thesis can be a solitary process. It is easy to convince yourself that you know your research topic better than others do because you have spent more time studying your topic than anyone else. While this may be true to some extent, it’s important to remember that ANYONE may end up reading your paper, so you must present your ideas in a manner that are palatable to people without an extensive background in the subject.
Tip 4: Get a few people with different backgrounds, science or non-science, to read and edit your paper.
If only you and your supervisor work on your paper, it may end up sounding too technical and lacking critical information. Letting people with diverse backgrounds read your paper, like other scientists and undergraduate students, may help you identify important experimental gaps and sections that are difficult to understand, respectively.
Phase Three: Submitting the manuscript
This phase is arguably the simplest part of the process. Each journal has its own E-platform or submission mechanism — described on their website. After you submit your paper, you must wait a few weeks to receive the journal’s decision. I received the decision about my paper after six weeks of waiting. The combination of nervousness, excitement and anticipation I felt during this time was almost crippling.
A common pitfall in this phase is not following the journal’s requirements. To ensure you avoid this pitfall, just follow Tip 1. When you decide on a journal, pay attention to and follow all the writing AND submission requirements carefully.
Phase Four: Revising the manuscript
Regardless of whether you receive an acceptance, invitation for resubmission after revision or rejection, you will receive comments from peer reviewers.
Revising your paper according to reviewers’ comments is an inherent part of the publishing process for any scientific paper. A common pitfall during the revision process is a stubborn mindset that prevents you from seeing the reviewer’s point of view.
Tip 5: Find evidence to support your viewpoint.
If you disagree with a reviewer, try to find scientific evidence that supports your viewpoint so that you can cite the information in your response to the reviewer’s comments.
Tip 6: Review all the data you didn’t include in the manuscript
Sometimes, the data you choose to leave out of the manuscript has the answers that reviewers ask for. Some data can serve as evidence to support forgoing a reviewer’s suggestion while some data can be added to the manuscript to improve its quality and simultaneously address a reviewer’s comment.
Tip 7: Be objective about your manuscript and the reviewers’ comments.
As difficult as it might be, it’s important to evaluate the merit of challenging reviewer comments and accept the flaws in the design of your study or the content of your manuscript. Remember that reviewers are scientists who are usually knowledgeable about your field, and if you decide to act on their suggestions, you will probably end up improving your paper.
In conclusion, writing a thesis and publishing a scientific paper are time-consuming processes. But the satisfaction that you feel after you finish your thesis or get your paper published is unparalleled. I’ll never forget the moment when I found out my paper was accepted. I was walking around a mall with my mom when I received the acceptance email and I shared the news with her immediately. The sense of achievement I felt in that moment along with the look of pride and happiness on my mom’s face will stay with me forever. While your thesis or paper will have its challenges, I can guarantee that you will feel like all your hard work paid off once you’ve reached the finish line.