How to write a research paper
BY ELISABETH PAIN
Condensing months or years of research into a few pages can be a mighty exercise even for experienced writers. Authors need to find the sweet spot between convincingly addressing their scientific questions and presenting their results in such detail the key message is lost. They must describe their methods succinctly and clearly so their experiments can be reproduced, and discuss the broader implications of their research without overselling their work.
The feeling of being exposed that comes with publishing can also get in the way of writing, says Daniela Anahí Parker Yáñez, a fourth-year materials science Ph.D. student at Linköping University in Sweden. “It is definitely frightening to state something incorrect.” Especially if you are a newcomer, “one always feels like there is something one doesn’t know, or that your words are not the best.” For non-native English speakers like Parker, there is also an additional language barrier that requires being “proactive and willing to become better,” she adds. “But at the same time, keep in mind that publishing results is very helpful for others.”
Science Careers asked early-career scientists in a range of disciplines to share their approaches for writing a research manuscript and strategies for overcoming common stumbling blocks. The answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
1. What is not mentioned as a challenge in condensing research into a few pages?
A. Finding the right balance between addressing scientific questions and presenting results.
B. Describing methods clearly and succinctly for reproducibility.
C. Not overselling the implications of the research.
D. Being a non-native English speaker.
【解析】The article did mention that being a non-native English speaker can pose an additional challenge, but it is not specifically mentioned as a challenge in condensing research into a few pages. The other options are all mentioned as common challenges.
How do you know when it’s time to start working on a paper? What is your overall writing process?
Ideally, by the time I start writing a paper I have a strong foundation for why I decided to research this topic, the robust results from different experiments that support my idea, and a good overview of how my research advances scientific knowledge. To be more certain that I have a consistent story to tell, I also like to put my findings to the test by trying to invalidate them experimentally or see if there is anything important missing. Then, writing the paper and getting it ready for submission may take me 3 to 6 months. I like separating the writing into three phases. The results and the methods go first, as this is the phase where I write what was done and how, and what the outcomes were. In a second phase, I tackle the introduction and refine the results section with input from my supervisor and collaborators on how we want to develop the story, which references should be included, and what the takeaway message is. In the last phase I write the abstract and work on providing a coherent ending in the conclusion.
2. What is the first thing the author likes to separate when writing a paper?
A. Introduction and background information.
B. Results and methods.
C. Abstract and conclusion.
D. Feedback from supervisor and collaborators.
【解析】According to the text, the author likes to separate the writing into three phases. The first phase is dedicated to writing down the results and the methods used to achieve them. This is where the author explains what was done and what the outcomes were.
I first collate all the figures and data - both positive and negative - that I think are likely to be relevant to the story. I’m more a visual person, so the next step is to generate a coherent storyboard of my figures to get a big-picture view of the project. This process helps me formulate an outline of the manuscript that I can use as a guide during the writing. Once I start writing the draft - and consequently also spend time looking more closely at the data - I constantly go back and forth to the literature to make sure I’m not missing anything about my topic and that I’m citing the right studies. Sometimes during this process, the story narrative can change a little, and that’s OK! I just go with the flow and see where the data takes me.
- Jessica S. Ho, postdoctoral researcher in microbiology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
3. What does the author do after collating relevant figures and data for a research project?
A. Generate a coherent storyboard to get a big-picture view.
B. Write the entire draft in one sitting.
C. Focus on positive data only and discard negative data.
D. Ignore the literature to avoid getting sidetracked.
【解析】According to the text, after collecting all relevant figures and data, the author generates a coherent storyboard to get a big-picture view of the project. This helps the author formulate an outline of the manuscript that they can use as a guide during the writing process.
I feel ready to turn my research into a paper when I have a set of results forming a clear storyline. I start the writing process with an outline that serves more as a wish list for how I want the flow of the paper to go, bearing in mind the overall goal, specific aims, and main takeaways of the manuscript. I usually put all the results I have into the outline in one long, running results section with a summary of what they add to the storyline. Then the methods section is typically the first I write, as I find it relatively straightforward. During my research, I try to keep my code for data analysis organized and documented in such a way that writing the methods and results is effectively translating my scripts from nil into a storyline. I often write the results section at the same time as the methods to try and mirror the flow. In the results, I also include some text describing the figures I want to generate or preliminary, hand-drawn figures. Before writing the introduction and discussion, I take a day or two to really dive into the literature and refresh my vision of where my work fits in the current state of the science. The final aesthetically pleasing and well-formatted figures and tables are usually one of the last things I develop. I always save the abstract for the end. Assuming all analysis is complete before I start writing, preparing a paper usually takes me 2 to 3 months from blank page to submission.
- Marissa Kosnik, group leader in environmental toxicology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology
4. What is the first section the author typically writes when starting the writing process?
【解析】According to the text, the methods section is typically the first section the author writes when starting the writing process, as she finds it relatively straightforward. During her research, she tries to keep her code for data analysis organized and documented in such a way that writing the methods and results is effectively translating their scripts from nil into a storyline. She also often writes the results section at the same time as the methods to try and mirror the flow.
I start to think about the publication when I am still carrying out the research because, depending on the audience we plan to reach, the datasets that we use to develop our model and the experimental evaluation that we present can vastly differ. The target journal is chosen long before the writing process begins, and putting the paper together usually takes me 3 to 6 weeks. But sometimes, we realize during the writing that we need to do a few further experiments to make a strong point, which can prolong the process.
- Niklas Gebauer, Ph.D. student in machine learning at the Berlin Institute of Technology
5. What can prolong the process of putting a paper together?
A. Choosing the target journal before starting the writing process.
B. Considering the audience during the research.
C. Developing a model with specific datasets.
D. Realizing further experiments are needed during the writing.
【解析】According to the text, the author notes that sometimes during the writing process, he realizes that he needs to do a few further experiments to make a strong point, which can prolong the process.
In my theoretical field, I begin by deciding how to split the content into sections. I usually think about accompanying tables and figures to illustrate my theoretical results and prepare them before even starting the draft. I very often go back to the literature and evaluate how my work fits into the broader research context to develop the scientific story. Then I work on the more technical core of the paper and only later write the introduction, broader perspectives, and conclusions. For me, the hardest section is the introduction, where the main theoretical questions need to be made clear while avoiding jargon and technicalities as much as possible. I usually list the relevant references for the scientific context and the key results of the work, and then build around this. The abstract is the very last thing I do.
- Valentina Ros, researcher in statistical physics at Paris-Saclay University in France
6. What is the hardest section for the author when writing a paper in her theoretical field?
A. Tables and figures.
B. Technical core.
D. Broader perspectives and conclusions.
【解析】According to the text, the author finds the introduction the hardest section when writing a paper in her theoretical field. The reason for this is that the introduction has to make the main theoretical questions clear while avoiding jargon and technicalities as much as possible.
Any further specifics about what should go into each part of the manuscript, or how it should be presented?
In the results section, in addition to describing the data I give a brief explanation of the rationale, hypothesis, and set up for each experiment to help the reader follow the logic of my work. The target journal does sometimes influence the writing and preparation of the manuscript, mostly in terms of the figures or dataset requirements, word counts, and reference formats.
7. What information does the author provide in the results section?
A. A summary of the literature review.
B. An explanation of the future implications of the work.
C. The rationale, hypothesis, and setup for each experiment.
D. A discussion of the limitations of the study.
【解析】According to the text, in the results section, in addition to describing the data, the author provides a brief explanation of the rationale, hypothesis, and set up for each experiment to help the reader follow the logic of their work.
In the discussion, I try to explain how the data supports my assertions and how strongly. I feel it is the most difficult section since there is always a risk of under-explaining your data. Giving some thought to how to give a twist to the title or make it unique is important so the paper can be more easily found and remembered in the tide of research manuscripts. For the acknowledgments, I usually keep a spreadsheet with all the individuals and organizations that have supported the research. Finally, I consult with my supervisors or institute's legal office to fill in the declarations about funding, potential conflicts of interest, and compliance with ethical standards and reporting guidelines. The choice of journal may affect the length of the manuscript and order of the sections.
- Roshan Paladugu, postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Adapted from https://www.science.org/content/article/how-write-research-paper
1. manuscript n. a copy of a book, piece of music, etc. before it has been printed 手稿；原稿。例如：an unpublished / original manuscript 未经发表的 / 原始的手稿
2. stumbling blocks something that causes problems and prevents you from achieving your aim 绊脚石
3. robust adj. strong and full of determination; showing that you are sure about what you are doing or saying 坚定的；信心十足的