The Art of Writing
Publications are vital to building your profile, but for many scientists it’s less of an art and more of an afterthought. Here, we present a straightforward guide to preparing papers and posters that will get you noticed.
Paul Haddad, Emily Hilder, Frantisek Svec |
Over the years, we have presented the “Scientific Writing and Publishing” course at a number of analytical science conferences across the world.The origins of the course lie in discussions between the editors of several major journals in the field about the common mistakes made by authors, especially young scientists. Here, we distill the course into a straightforward guide to creating journal articles and posters that are clear and concise – but that also catch the reader’s attention.
The Write Stuff
How to prepare a manuscript for publication.
Before you type a single syllable, ask yourself: are my results suitable for publication?
Publications are one of the important outputs of any scientific researcher. Results that stay “in the drawer” and are not shared with the community are of little value to you or others. Publishing papers and presenting at scientific meetings serves not only the outside community, but your own career, especially when you are starting out. Defending a PhD thesis with no published papers is exceedingly difficult at best, and your publication record is scrutinized by granting agencies when reviewing project proposals.
Clearly, publishing your work is of utmost importance. But first you have to be sure that your research is sufficient. The first and most important question is whether you have discovered something new and interesting. Good journal editors and peer reviewers will quickly see through attempts to publish papers that present only an incremental development, such as separations of different compounds using a well-known method, or jumping on the bandwagon of a hot topic to publish a “me too” paper. You should also spend some time thinking about the major challenges of the work you carried out and whether you solved a difficult problem. If the answers to all these questions are “yes,” then it is time to grab a coffee, settle down at your desk and...
Select a journal
Once you have decided to write a paper, the next step is to select the journal in which you want to publish. All journals are not created equal. It is critical to make sure that your research lies within the scope of the journal, which is typically found in the “Instructions for Authors” on the journal’s website. It is also a good idea to look at a few current issues of that journal to get a feel for the type of research that is being published. Submitting a manuscript to a journal that covers a completely different field is a total waste of time. Several major publishers helpfully provide tools to help match your research to a journal from their portfolio (1)(2)(3).
A frequently mentioned parameter used to differentiate journals is the impact factor (IF), which indicates how often papers published in that journal are cited over a defined period. Publishing in high IF journals contributes to the personal prestige of the author and improves the image of their institution, so a spot in one of these journals is much sought after. However, journals with a high IF are often highly selective in the manuscripts they choose to publish and their rejection rate is usually very high. Plus, some of these journals favor certain topics. After all, how many chromatographic papers do we see in Science or Nature? Remember that the impact of the work you publish should prevail over the impact factor of the journal in which it is published. Therefore, you should choose a journal that is read by a large number of people in your own field.
Great on paper
Each journal has specific requirements for submitted manuscripts, which should be read by all authors before they start writing. Many authors have the impression that the journal editors will correct their poorly formatted manuscript to make it publishable, but editors handle hundreds of manuscripts each year (the vast majority of which are formatted incorrectly). Improper formatting will instead lead a submitted manuscript to be immediately returned to the authors for reformatting, causing a delay before the article can even be processed.
While writing, authors should always keep in mind the potential readers. For example, though the use of abbreviations makes the writing faster (and the manuscript slightly shorter), too many abbreviations make the manuscript difficult to follow and can cause readers to lose interest. A particularly common error is the use of abbreviations in the title or abstract. Who would understand the title “Development of an analytical method to quantify PBDEs, OH-BDEs, HBCDs, 2,4,6-TBP, EH-TBB, and BEH-TEBP in human serum”? Most readers would not care to read even the abstract. A better title would be “Development of an analytical method to quantify polybrominated diphenyl ethers flame retardants in human serum.”
Choosing the right keywords is also important, as these are typically used in literature searches. A keyword such as “Ultra-high performance liquid chromatography-Q Exactive hybrid quadrupole-Orbitrap high-resolution accurate mass spectrometry” is completely useless. Instead, consider what keywords you would use when searching for your paper in PubMed or similar databases.
Figures are an important part of any manuscript, but there are a number of pitfalls for the unwary. As some journals restrict the length of a printed paper, too many authors try to condense their manuscript by combining several figure panels into a single figure until each panel is so small that it is difficult to see the details, rendering them next to useless. A better approach is to show only the most important figures in the published paper and include all other figures in the electronic Supplementary Information. Despite the obvious importance of graphics, authors continue to submit completely inappropriate, uninformative and unnecessary figures.
Finally, don’t forget the references. It is easy today to generate a large number of references using computerized databases. Thus, manuscripts including more than 50 references are becoming commonplace. Unfortunately, not all authors read the references that they cite and it is not uncommon to find some that are completely irrelevant to the paper, which is unlikely to leave editors or reviewers with a favorable impression. Also, avoid including an excessive number of self-references – you are more likely to irritate than impress. Authors should also keep in mind that each journal requires a specific format for references. It is sometimes possible to recognize where a manuscript has been submitted previously just from the format of the references, immediately telling the editor that this manuscript has been rejected previously. So be sure to re-format the reference list before submitting to a new journal.
Ten of the most common errors made by authors:
- Submission of papers that are clearly out of scope
- Resubmission of a rejected manuscript (to the same or different journal) without revision
- Not sticking to the format required by the journal
- Typos and grammar errors
- Overzealous use of (undefined) abbreviations
- Poor selection of keywords
- Plagiarism, especially of small parts of a paper
- Too many figures
- Poor legibility of figures
- Too many references and excessive self-referencing
How to create and present an eye-catching poster.
For most young scientists, the first opportunity to present work to the scientific community comes in the form of a poster presentation at a scientific meeting. Posters are a unique and important form of scientific communication because they allow direct and personal communication between the presenter and the audience. However, there are some major challenges associated with poster presentations. First, poster sessions at major conferences are often crowded and very limited on time, so the primary challenge is to attract an audience by preparing a poster that is arresting, visually appealing and scientifically exciting. Second, a poster must be able to convey its major findings in 1–2 minutes through a logical and clear layout and focused interaction between the poster presenter and audience.
Attracting an audience
A primary feature of poster sessions is that attendees can be selective about which posters they will read and discuss with the presenter. So how can you get people to stop at your poster rather than walking by? These five points will help you to stand out:
- Posters are a visual communication tool, so graphic design is essential. Think about the overall impact of your poster in terms of layout, photographs, figures, schematics, and so on, to convey information without words. Suitable use of color throughout the poster is also essential. If you have a colleague or friend (whether or not they are a scientist) who is skilled in graphic design, it is a good idea to get their opinion and feedback on your poster layout.
- A clear and logical layout is also essential. Start with an informative and brief title and then include clearly delineated sections showing background, aims, experimental, results, conclusions, references and acknowledgements. The logical flow of the poster should be immediately apparent so that the reader can easily move from one section to the next in the correct sequence. To assist this process, each section should be numbered and you might also wish to include arrows to guide the reader to each successive section.
- Include a photograph of yourself (as the poster presenter) in a top corner of the poster so that you can be easily identified amongst the crowds of people at the poster session.
- Don’t forget to carefully check the poster size requirements for the particular conference that you are attending. Poster boards vary widely and it is your responsibility to ensure that your poster fits on the board provided. Avoid landscape formats as most poster boards will not accommodate this format. The safest approach is to use a portrait format printed in A0 size. Laminating your poster improves its durability but the resulting shiny, reflective surface can be hard to read.
- Legibility is the chief concern, so keep text to an absolute minimum. Given that most posters are printed in A0 format (841 mm wide × 1189 mm high) and are viewed from a distance of approximately 1 m, a good way to check legibility is to print your poster on an A4 sheet and hold it 25 cm from your nose. If you can read the A4 version easily from this distance then your A0 poster will be easily legible from 1 m.
Five of the most common mistakes in preparing and presenting posters:
- Poster will not fit neatly on the poster board
- Poster is illegible from a distance of 1 m
- Poster looks boring or has too much text
- Poster presenter is not in attendance at the designated session
- Poster presenter takes too long to explain their work
Getting your message across
Once you have managed to attract an audience for your poster (remembering that the audience will normally be one person), you must be ready to engage with that audience in a friendly and open manner.
- Ensure that you attend your poster at the designated time. Most conferences will assign each poster to only one or two poster sessions so the audience will expect you to be present at your poster for the entire designated time.
- Prepare a 1–2 minute overview of the aims and major findings of your poster and be ready to guide the audience through your poster. When someone stops at your poster you can ask politely “May I give you a 1 minute overview of my work?” People will rarely refuse this offer as it is generally faster than trying to read the poster themselves. This oral presentation must be focused and clear and you should rehearse it carefully. The audience can then extend the discussion, or move on to the next poster.
- You may wish to provide an A4 copy of your poster for people to take away and read in more detail later. It is also useful to have an open envelope at the bottom of your poster (many conferences provide this) so that people can leave their business cards to request further information or a reprint of your poster.
Once More with Feeling
How to navigate the review and revision process.
For many authors the details of peer review are opaque, making the process confusing and disheartening, particularly for young scientists. Read on as we attempt to demystify peer review and equip you with the tools to participate constructively as both author and reviewer.
Most journals use similar online submission platforms, structured to guide authors through the submission process. Just as it is important to format your manuscript to meet the journal’s specific requirements, it is essential that the journal’s instructions are followed concerning the information and files required. Without this information it can be difficult or impossible for a manuscript to be reviewed fairly, and a lack of information can also delay publication if the manuscript is ultimately accepted.
Authors should be aware that most journals now undertake an electronic check of the manuscript for plagiarism – a process that will identify any sections of text that have appeared in previous publications or on the internet. If the overlap with previously published work is considered to be excessive, the manuscript will be rejected. Take extreme care to avoid plagiarism as this is considered completely unacceptable – even if you are “borrowing” your own words from previous work.
Why is the cover letter important?
In addition to providing the core documents, including the manuscript text, figures and any supporting information, a critical and often underappreciated aspect of the submission process is the cover letter or justification statement. Almost all journals receive many more manuscript submissions than they can reasonably publish. Each journal will also have a defined target audience and thus will consider not only the novelty of the work but also the fit and interest for their target audience. For this reason, it is very important that the authors carefully consider the aims and scope of the journal and provide a strong justification as to why their work will be of interest to readers; most journals now require the authors to submit a cover letter and/or justification along with the manuscript. Rather than a chore, it is an opportunity for the authors to communicate directly with the editor and explain why their work is novel, what contribution it makes to the field and how it fits within the scope of the journal. Editors will not reject a manuscript because the cover letter is bad. However, a cover letter that piques the editor’s interest may accelerate the editorial progress of your paper.
Many journals ask authors to recommend possible reviewers, which is an important opportunity to contribute to the fair review of your manuscript by appropriate experts in the field. By suggesting inappropriate reviewers, you send a clear message to the editor: you are not familiar with the literature in your field or not confident in your work. Here are some general guidelines for choosing appropriate reviewers.
Inappropriate reviewers are:
- Editors of the journal (or editors of other journals)
- The top scientists in the world
- Your research collaborators
- People from your own institution
- A group of reviewers drawn solely from your country
- People without a publication record in the field
Appropriate reviewers include:
- People who publish actively in the field, especially in the journal
- People whose work you have cited and discussed in the Introduction of your manuscript
- Members of the advisory board of the journal where you submit your manuscript
Though authors may be asked to recommend potential reviewers, the editor will ultimately decide who will review a manuscript. The reviewers will provide both a recommendation on whether the manuscript should be published, and comments supporting this recommendation. It is a common misconception that the final decision by the editor will always directly follow the recommendations of the reviewers. Editors certainly do rely on reviewers to provide expert advice on manuscripts and their suitability for publication, but the final decision will be made by the editor, who must balance feedback from multiple reviewers.
For each manuscript that you submit for publication, a number of other scientists will give their time to review and provide feedback. To allow this system to continue, it is critical that if you publish in the scientific literature, you also actively support the peer review process. For younger scientists, providing high quality and timely reviews is an excellent way to increase your visibility. And it also provides a very effective way to engage with editors and experts in your field. In our experience, young scientists are often very well informed in their area of specialization and can be very effective reviewers. A recent editorial explaining how to prepare a helpful review gives some helpful tips for novices (4).
Responding to reviewer comments
One of the most challenging aspects of the publication process is that you must open your work to critical feedback – and this feedback is not always positive. Remember that all authors, even the most senior in the field, must respond to criticisms of their work. Read the reviewers’ comments dispassionately and don’t take offence – after all, the reviewers have taken time to read your manuscript and provide suggestions to improve it. In many cases you will be asked to address the feedback from the reviewers and revise your manuscript accordingly. Be sure to address all comments, including any specific instructions from the editor and/or editorial office. We suggest preparing a document that lists each reviewer’s comment, your response to that comment, and what specific changes have been made in the manuscript, each in a different color font. If a particular reviewer’s comment is not clear you may request clarification through the editorial office.
In some cases, you will receive a decision that your submission has been rejected for publication. Though never welcome news, rejection is something that almost all scientists experience in the course of their career – including the authors of this article! In some cases, the editor will reject a manuscript without review – sometimes referred to as a desk rejection – but it is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the research. Rather, the rejection may be based on other factors, such as the manuscript being presented in the incorrect form or written in poor English that prevents proper understanding of the work.
When a manuscript is rejected following peer review, remember that you have received the benefit of the reviewers’ time; don’t ignore the advice they have given. If you choose to submit your manuscript elsewhere you should revise the manuscript appropriately before resubmission and never resubmit the manuscript unchanged. The scientific community within a specialized area can be small, and it is very likely that the same reviewers may see your manuscript again. We suggest that when resubmitting a previously rejected manuscript to a new journal, you should declare the history of the previous submission in your cover letter and also include the reviewers’ comments and your response showing how you have addressed these comments. This makes the new editor’s job much easier and in many cases will greatly speed up the review process – it may even result in your manuscript requiring no further review.
Five Tips for Better Writing
The Analytical Scientist editorial team give their top tips for better writing in any context.
- Be concise.
- Don’t use unnecessarily complicated language.
- Avoid cliché and hyperbole. (Approach “paradigm shifts” and “holy grails” with caution.)
- Be your own editor. Go back to a piece of writing a day or two later – you’ll find it is much easier to spot any mistakes.
- Write something, even if it’s bad. Getting the thought down on paper, in any form, is often the hardest part.
Getting a manuscript published in a good journal is never easy; most journals have high rejection rates. There is no secret recipe for success – just some simple rules, dedication and hard work. Authors should remember that editors are very busy people, so it is in everyone’s interests to make the editor’s job as straightforward as possible. Authors should cherish their work and take the greatest care in preparing their manuscripts properly. Finally, authors must expect some of their submissions to be rejected. Rejection is a statistical inevitability – the important thing is to understand why the article was rejected and incorporate this knowledge into future submissions. Success will come if you persevere.
- Springer Nature, “Journal suggester” (2018). Available at: bit.ly/2stdtDr. Accessed August 10, 2018.
- Elsevier BV, “Journal finder” (2018). Available at: bit.ly/2J1zama. Accessed August 10, 2018.
- John Wiley & Sons, “Find a journal” (2018). Available at: bit.ly/2KMk5JL. Accessed August 10, 2018.
- G Hopfgartner, “What makes a good review from an editor’s perspective?” Anal Bioanal Chem, 409, 6721–6722 (2017).