Writing Scientific Papers

Person typing on laptop

Peer-reviewed journals are the gold standard for establishing credibility with the scientific community. If you have heard the phrase “publish or perish,” you already know the importance of submitting a manuscript. When you publish your findings in a scientific journal, you are contributing to the body of scientific knowledge and simultaneously building your professional reputation. Grasping the explicit and unspoken rules of manuscript writing is an important step in communicating high quality research and contributes to your professional development as a scientist.

Here are a some tips to help you with manuscript writing and the submission process.

Know Your Purpose

As with any genre of writing, you need to know your purpose. You must know why you are writing. Are you describing how you determined the intermediates in a chemical reaction? Did you develop a new synthesis or analysis? Will your work support the development of more efficient solar cells, more effective cancer treatments, or an improved understanding of atomic structure?

Typically, your purpose in writing is aligned with the purpose of your research. For example, your actual research might be an electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) study of vanadyl polyporphyrins, but the reason for doing it is to develop nondestructive methods of analyzing ancient Egyptian artifacts. So, your purpose in writing is to share the results of analytical work that can help preserve ancient artifacts. Ultimately, this will help guide your writing, as well as help you identify the most appropriate place to publish it.

Know the Rules

The easiest way to get a paper rejected is to disregard the guidelines of the journal. Each journal has its own requirements for publication that cover everything from content to format. Read the guidelines carefully and make sure you adhere to the journal’s standards.

Make sure, too, that you submit to the correct journal. Although it may be tempting to submit that EPR research to an archaeological journal, it is really a piece about analytical chemistry research. Submitting your work to Analytical Chemistry is much more likely to be successful. (Plus, ACS journals are able to share manuscripts—if your manuscript is not a fit for one journal, you can move it to another journal.)

You’ll need to know what type of article you want to submit. While a completed project is usually a full article, shorter communications or notes typically provide brief updates on a few experiments. Longer literature reviews, as their name implies, cover the relevant research in a branch of science rather than the research of a single person or team. Perspectives and commentaries are usually invited requests for a researcher’s opinions on a topic.

Draft an Outline

Writing an outline will help you organize your thoughts and identify what information to include.  Although specifics vary from journal to journal, all scientific articles generally have the same format.

A single phrase that summarizes your work. Make it descriptive and compelling. This is an easy way to draw readers in. Subtitles may be used for greater clarity.

  1. Microwave-Assisted Extraction as a Green Technology Approach to Recover Polyphenols from Castanea sativa Shells
  2. High Entropy and Low Symmetry: Triclinic High-Entropy Molybdates

1-2 short paragraphs that summarize your work.

2-6 paragraphs that highlight the purpose and impact of your research, summarize prior work in the field, and define any relevant terms.

Procedure (or Materials and Methodology)
A succinct yet complete description of your experiments and the tools you used. Another researcher should be able to duplicate your results (provided in another section) using your procedure. 

Detail the results of your procedure. Figures, tables, and graphs will help present data. (Note: Some ACS journals will require you to provide complete data sets. Others allow you to “clean up” your data by removing outliers and noise.)

A description of how you interpreted the data and contextualized your results. Again, another researcher should be able to follow the logic of your explanation using only the data you provide.

1-3 short paragraphs that summarize key findings and what you intend to do in the future to improve or expand the research.

A brief statement that gives credit to those who helped with the research.

Formatted in the citation style required by the journal.

Conflict of Interest statement (if applicable)

Know Your Audience

When writing for journals, it is safe to assume you are writing to an audience of experts in your field. You do not need to describe specific terms such as mitochondria, explain how specific tools such as NMR work, or provide a chemical equation of a simple acid/base reaction.

However, an expert in your field is not the same as an expert in your research. Be sure to define any specialized techniques your lab uses or names of specific molecules you worked with. Molecular structures and diagrams of specialized equipment are also useful.

Write Objectively and Use the Right Words

For academic journals, your writing should be clear, plain, and objective. The tone should be formal and professional. Use third-person, passive voice, which is the accepted standard in journals:

  • No: I added 10.0 g of NaCl to the solution.
  • No: Add 10.0 g NaCl to the solution.
  • Yes: 10.0 g of NaCl were added to the solution.

Figurative language should be avoided as well, as it can get distracting and convolutes your message. Complex terminology and abbreviations should be defined in the text the first time they appear. You also need to abide by the conventional rules of grammar, syntax, and punctuation so that your  writing is clear and coherent.

For more guidance, refer to the ACS Guide to Scholarly Communication or ask others to proofread your work.

Balance the Layout

Whether it is printed on paper or online, any layout you submit is likely to be changed during publication. However, there is still a lot you can—and should—do to make your manuscript easy to read.

Avoid writing large blocks of text. Break up text into smaller paragraphs to make the information easy to digest. Use a combination of long and short sentences to keep readers engaged. A picture is worth a thousand words, so add diagrams, charts, and other visual elements when appropriate. 

Include Figures and Tables

Figures and tables should be labeled clearly and referenced in the text. Use figures as a guide for your readers. Many researchers look at the data long before they read the text, so include a description with figures and tables in the caption. For example, “Table 1. Percent yield for the ligand synthesis with varying pH.” Some writers even create graphical abstracts that serve as an effective way to visually provide a brief synopsis of their manuscript.

Figures, charts, and tables should be easy to read and interpret at a glance. If you create a flow chart, it should be easy to follow. If you use colors to indicate different traces on a graph, they must be distinguishable. If you incorporate graphs, include axis labels, units, and a legend.

Lastly, make sure that the data you include is meaningful. Don’t just throw it in there as a space-filler. It has to contribute to your discussion in some capacity.

Find Supporting Literature

You will need to incorporate a good amount of background information in your introduction, supported by references, to provide the prior knowledge your research is based on, its significance, and how it is unique from other work. In all likelihood, you already collected these references when you were starting your research, but you should verify you are up-to-date on the literature. 

Be sure to use peer-reviewed journal articles or government-approved patents. Check databases and online tools such as ACS SciFinder, Google Scholar, Web of Science, Reaxys, and National Center for Biotechnology Information databases. Start with whatever journal access is provided by your institution, then check with any professional societies you belong to. For example, ACS members can search ACS publications for free and download up to 50 papers per year. If you get really stuck, try contacting the researchers themselves; many will be pleased to share copies of their papers.

Manage and Cite Sources

To keep all your sources organized, you may want to use an online reference manager such as Mendeley, ReadCube, ACS ChemWorx, Zotero, RefWorks, or EndNote. These programs allow you to save, create, and share citations. Each one has different features, but all serve similar purposes. Whichever one you choose to sort your references, make sure your method is robust. You’ll thank yourself later.

Don’t Procrastinate

Whether you feel you work better under pressure or simply have a lot to do, it’s easy to procrastinate. Don’t do it. Build in your own deadlines so that you have time to address last-minute gaps in your data, revisions from your advisor, or track down that one elusive reference. You want to make sure you present your best work and don’t miss the deadline.

Having the extra time built in is also useful because it allows you to have others proofread the draft before you submit it. You need to give these readers time to read your paper and give commentary. You then need to make updates to your manuscript. Fit in the time for this. Plan ahead.

Be Ethical

Ethics has been a make-or-break issue for a lot of careers lately. Here are a few tips to avoid ethical traps:

  • Don’t change your data. Just don’t do it. Don’t try to beat the system. Odds are, you’ll get caught. And it will hurt your reputation in the science community.
  • Discuss any results that seem to disprove your theory or conclusion. They often mean the experimental design needs to be revamped. Or they may become that crucial “next step” you discuss in your conclusion.
  • Submit your work to only one journal at a time. Don’t try to publish the same work in more than one journal.

Dealing with Reviewer #2

The process of publishing in an academic journal can be rather taxing. Your draft will likely go through multiple rounds of peer review after you submit it. The reviewers oftentimes know who wrote the paper, but their identity is not revealed to the author. From there, a variety of things could happen. Your manuscript can be accepted, sent back for revisions, or rejected.

It is not uncommon for one or more reviewers to seem particularly harsh in their feedback. (Just look on social media for reviewer #2 memes.) Don’t take it personally. Perhaps they didn’t understand your work or were having a bad day. Take a breath (or maybe a day), then look at their criticism objectively. There may be a better way to explain your conclusions or one more experiment to try.

Reviewer criticism—even rejection—is rarely the indictment it feels like. Science is an ever-evolving field, and setbacks are inevitable. Use reviewers’ comments to your advantage to make your work stronger and build your professional reputation.

About the Author
Melanie Padalino headshot

Melanie Padalino is a chemistry Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, and an ACS member. She is also a violinist, dancer, and avid technical writer.