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Ruining Science by Writing it Up

“How could the editor not see that my paper was appropriate for the journal?”

“How could two expert reviewers both be so stupid?”

“It’s a wonder that good science is ever appreciated...”

Ever had any of these thoughts? If so, consider that the quality of the science is generally not the problem. The failure often lies in the presentation. Even cutting-edge science becomes a dull-edged manuscript if not written well.

A well-written manuscript tells a story that is concise, clear, and written with the reader in mind. It is a story in which you give the proper amount of information, presented clearly and logically, so that the reader can appreciate the argument you have built in favor of your work by the time they come to the end.

Although the editor and peer reviewers are the first to see your manuscript, they are readers as well and you cannot assume that they are going to “get it” simply because they work in the same field as you. The onus is on you to make your case by using a story that weaves together the hypothesis or question, the methods used to test the hypothesis or answer the question, the answer you obtained, and why the answer provides new and valuable information.

Even cutting-edge science becomes a dull-edged manuscript if not written well.

A manuscript becomes easier to write if you, the author, consider what readers (including, editors and peer reviewers) need to know to appreciate your work:

  • What was the general topic of the study?
  • Why was the topic important to begin with?
  • What was the knowledge gap that needed to be filled?
  • What was your hypothesis, question or goal?
  • What experiments and methods did you use to seek an answer to your question?
  • What specifically did you measure?
  • What did you observe?
  • What did your results show?
  • What answer did you obtain?
  • What do your results mean?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of your study?
  • How do your results contribute to the field of study – what’s in it for the reader?

Once you understand what information the reader needs to know, you then need to organize your manuscript to have the greatest clarity for the reader. I intentionally used the phrase “weaves together” earlier because the best manuscripts (and the stories they tell) link all of the sections of a manuscript together in a logical fashion. You want readers to see how your experiments derived from your hypothesis or question; how your results derived from your experiments; how your answer derived from your results; and how your discussion derived from your answer.

Just as important, the various sections of the manuscript (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) must be consistent with one another. For example, every hypothesis/question posed must have an answer somewhere in the manuscript. Experiments performed must have corresponding results presented in the manuscript, and vice versa. Your discussion must reflect your results, and vice versa. In other words, the reader should be able to go back to any section of the manuscript and understand how it fits into the story being told. The reader should never wonder “why is this here”?

The literature is vast and no one can keep up with it all. We all have limited time and make value judgments often based more on the quality of the story told than on the quality of the science. If an author cannot convince me in the introduction that the topic is important and that the hypothesis/question is worth pursuing, then the quality of the science becomes irrelevant. And, if the author cannot convince me in the discussion that the results have answered an important question and thus added value to the field, then once again the science may be lost forever.

I am not advocating that you write tales or embellish your ideas and results. What I am saying is that a good story enhances good science. A poor story ruins good science. If you put the proper effort into organizing a manuscript, you can present your science in the best light. Don’t ruin your science by writing it up.

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About the Author
Thomas Annesley
Thomas Annesley

Growing up in Minnesota, Thomas Annesley wanted to be marine biologist.  His mother refused to let him attend the University of Hawaii, stating “If I put you on a plane to Hawaii I will never see you again.”  So he decided to study chemistry at a liberal arts college in Minnesota, during which time he blew up part of a laboratory.  He switched his interest from working with chemicals to working with instruments, and finally ended up as a leading expert in the field of clinical mass spectrometry. During his 31-year career as a faculty member at the University of Michigan, he recognized that 1) people write science poorly, and 2) there were few resources to educate people in scientific writing.  So he focused on developing courses, workshops, articles and books on how to write scientific papers.  His articles have been translated into six languages.

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