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A personal view of scientific writing orThe mistakes I have made! John Kirby (with Alicia Cresswell) Postgraduate tutor
What do scientist write? • Abstracts • Research papers • Reviews • (maybe from your first assessment) • Book chapters • Books • Grant applications • Theses • (and assessment reports)
Clarity is essential • All documents need to read swiftly • No room for ambiguity • What you write might alter patient management! • English may not be the readers first language • Keep your language simple!
Rules for clarity • Everyone will acquire his or her own style • However, there are some general rules: • Use short sentences which express single concepts • I worry if my sentences exceed three lines • Use short paragraphs • Avoid ‘clever’ clauses and parentheses • Use good grammar and punctuation • If in doubt, keep it simple
A useful tips • You will annoy your friends, but please try to read your own work out loud. • If you find it hard to speak then then something is wrong with the text • When correcting text try little and often rather than long boring sessions • Get a friend to read your work
Don’t worry too much! • Many international journals now employ copy editors and proof readers who pick up most errors before publication • Often this will convert your English into American English (with spelling to match)!
Common errors • Keep track of singular and plural forms • Remember data is the plural of datum! • Hence, “these data suggest…” • A series of 900 complex and boring experiments was designed • “none are” or “none is”?
Tense • Keep track of tense • Most experiments and procedures will be described in the past tense • A good way to separate what you have shown from what others have reported is to mix tenses in your writing • This is common in a discussion section • For example: The protein was non-functional after modification of the terminal residue. This result is consistent with that reported by Bloggs et al (Ref) and indicates….
“Instructions to authors” • Read these before you start writing! • All journals have a house style • Examples: • The BMJ insists all papers are written in (active) first person • I demonstrated that…. • Most pure science journals tend to require (passive) third person • These data demonstrate that…. • Don’t worry if MS Word complains about “passive voice”. This means you are correct!
Oooops Dear John Kirby I looked at your manuscript closely and at first glance it seems to be rather long. The limit of articles is 6,500 words as stated in the instructions. Therefore, I would like to know the exact word count of your paper and if it is too high to shorten the manuscript to meet the guidelines. Sincerely yours
Writing a scientific paper • First question • Have I got sufficient data to support my conclusion? • Have a look at a typical journal in your field • What do the results sections look like? • In my field they seem to contain about 2 tables and 6 figures
The next step • When you have decided what you are trying to communicate set up a mock results section • Label several sheets of blank paper: • Table 1, 2 etc • Figure 1, 2 etc • Roughly sketch what data will go on what page • Shuffle the pages into a logical order • Does it seem complete • Yes? Write the paper! • No? What else do you need to do?
Choose your journal • Look carefully at a selection • Which is most appropriate? • Talk to your supervisor(s) • No point going for Nature unless everyone agrees it is worthwhile • Consider the impact factor • Not all journals are equal! • The impact factor is a measure of how often an average article in a journal is cited
Writing the paper • Read the instructions to authors • What sections should the text be divided into? • Often: • Title • Abstract • Introduction • Methodology • Results • Discussion • References • Figure legends What do you do first?
This is what I do • On a 1000 mile journey, the hardest thing is the first step. • Make the first step easy! • The methodology is often easiest to write as is simply descriptive. • Order this in the same way as you will present your results
The next step • I usually write the results text next • This is also descriptive as you simply describe your data (figures and tables) • “These data show that something is higher/faster/larger than something else (p<0.001)”. • A common error is to add discussion and interpretation to this section • This leaves nothing for the discussion section!
The home straight • I usually then write the introduction • Details why you did the study (not what you found) • Then the discussion interprets your results and places into context with the literature. • End with a nice ‘take home’ message in the final paragraph
Crossing the line • Figure legends should be ‘stand alone’ • The title should be clear and attract attention • You need to lure readers to your paper amongst all the others • Similarly, the abstract should be very clear with simple messages, clear results and snappy conclusions
References • Use Endnote (or similar) to output the references in the correct format • But, which references do you cite? • High impact factor journals • Avoid citing reviews (unless to save you from reviewing) • Avoid over citation of yourself • Write what you know and then reference the text or you will need to stop every few words to find a paper in the heap on your floor!
A knotty problem • Who will be included as authors (and in what order) • This can cause some dispute! • Some journals have a clear policy • Some supervisors or research groups also have a policy (ask) • Remember all authors carry full responsibility for the content
The mechanics of publication • Submission • You may need to learn how to use an on-line system like ‘Manuscript Central’ • The decision • Rejection. Learn from the referees comments and try again • Revision. This is common. Answer the referees questions carefully (maybe generate some more data) and you’ll be OK • Immediate acceptance. This is rare!
The mechanics of publication • Submission • You may need to learn how to use an on-line system like ‘Manuscript Central’ • The decision • Rejection. Learn from the referees comments and try again (a different journal) • Revision. This is good. Answer the referees questions carefully (maybe generate some more data) and you’ll be OK • Immediate acceptance. This is rare!
Errors and glitches • Check proofs VERY CAREFULLY! • Then check them again • Then ask your co-authors to check them • Then ask everyone you can think of the check them
Conference abstracts Problems • You often need to describe work in progress months before the meeting • Acceptance is highly competitive and • You want to be accepted as your travel grant depends on giving a presentation!
More on abstracts • Follow the rules • Strict word or (even character) counts etc • Make whatever you hope to present sound as good and positive as possible • Avoid empty statements like: • These data will be discussed • This work is still in progress
Even more…. • Choose a punchy title • Write a brief introduction. Maybe only 2 sentences • Very briefly describe the methods • Show ‘solid’ data (with statistics if needed) • The conclusion should show how you have answered your original question.