Getting Started with your Research Paper: the Challenge

In November, we organised Academic Life’s first ever Facebook Challenge! It was three days long and aimed to help the participants Getting Started with their Research Paper! Every day had a specific relevant theme and related tasks that the participants had to complete and submit in order to receive feedback. I personally really enjoyed the whole procedure, from organising the material with my assistant (Dr Athina Frantzana) to giving feedback and answering questions in the daily live sessions. And from the feedback we received, it seems like the challenge achieved its purpose and the participants learnt from it while also having some fun!

Here, we have gathered for all of you the most important tips and advice from each of the three days of the challenge. I hope you find them useful and they make the beginning of drafting your research paper easier and more enjoyable!

Day 1: What is the message of your paper?

When we start writing a paper, we usually want to write about everything we have done. However, it is important to think about the key message that we want to convey with our paper and focus more on this rather than the very specific details. The key message needs to be crystal clear and fit in a sentence that is easily understood when read by other people (not just yourself!)

If you struggle to minimise all you want to say in a sentence, try first reading other people’s papers, and understanding their message. Write a paragraph explaining what a paper is about, then cut it down to three sentences, and then down to one sentence. Finally, do this for your paper, and you will get the one sentence with the message of your paper! You might find it difficult to write a paragraph for a paper that you haven’t written yet, so maybe instead try to create a list of bullet points, which may include key words or short sentences of important material of your paper. Then move to the three sentences and then to one sentence, as explained earlier.

Finally, be careful with the use of too much technical language. Depending on your intended audience and the journal you are planning to publish your paper in, adjust your language and avoid jargon as much as possible. For, example if you are aiming for a journal like Nature, your message has to be understood by the wider scientific community, and possibly by the general public. However, try not to oversimplify your language when it needs to be more specific, to avoid confusing or misleading your audience.

Day 2: What is the right journal for publishing your paper?

Ideally, if you have done extraordinary science, you should aim to publish your research paper in the best journal, the one with the highest impact factor amongst the journals of your research area. However, this might also mean that you will have a lower chance of being published, because there will be more competition, i.e. it will be more difficult to publish in Nature or Science than in other more specialised journals. But what does impact factor mean exactly? It is a number that represents the popularity and size of readership. In the best case scenario, you should aim for higher impact factor journals, especially if your research is scientifically significant to the general community.

Other parameters to consider when choosing journals are: the speed of publication, which is how quick the publication process is and how quickly you want it to be, for example, in the case you want to add it in your CV for a Postdoc application; and how technical you paper is, which means that if it is highly technical, it needs to be published in a more specific journal. The choice of the journal affects the way you are going to write your paper. As we mentioned earlier, if you aim for an audience from various backgrounds of the broader scientific community, you will have to use more accessible language with limited use of jargon. Reading some papers published in the chosen journal could help you identify the background knowledge of the readers, so you can adjust your content.

Make sure that you familiarise yourself with the guidelines of the journals of your choice, i.e. the format of the figures, templates etc. For example, in some journals, the methodology/experiments part is not included in the main paper content, but it is added as supplementary material. Also, make sure you read and understand the rules and guidelines regarding copyright and reproduction of your paper’s material.

Please try to submit the best draft you can, and follow the criteria for acceptance required by the journal of your choice, so the referee process is as smooth as possible. Also, do not submit the same manuscript to more than one journal at the same time, until the case you receive a rejection from the one you submitted first. Finally, you need to understand that if you have published in a journal before, it does not play a role in the acceptance of your new paper. It does help you though that you are familiar with the writing and submitting process from before.

Day 3: Prepare your display

In order to decide if we should invest time to read a paper, we often first look at its figures and read their captions to get an idea if this paper is relevant to our research and worth reading. Figures are crucial but often overlooked part of drafting a paper, so it’s important to put a little more effort on deciding the appropriate number of them and writing good quality captions. Figures and tables should be able to stand alone, so a reader can understand what they say without having to read the whole paper.

There is usually a limited number of figures that you can include in the main paper. Of course, different journals give you different options, that’s why it is important to choose the journal first and avoid preparing figures and tables that you eventually won’t be able to use. In review papers you might have space for more figures and tables. In research papers, try to minimise the number of figures and tables, even if you are allowed more; unless they are all absolutely necessary. Ask yourself “is this figure really critical for conveying the message of my paper?”.

After you decide the number, start preparing the figures in the best possible quality, i.e. label axes, include units and appropriate legends etc. Be careful with the use of colours, considering how they will look in a Black&White printed version. Sometimes you cannot avoid using and printing in colour, especially when you have a lot of different data to present in the same figure, so make sure you explain what all these colours mean in the legend and/or the caption. One thing to avoid is an inappropriate combination of colours for the data and the background, that might make your data not easily readable. Also consider the size and the resolution of your figure and make sure it’s readable when printed or when magnified in the electronic version. Finally, make sure you make effective use of your figure space, for example, if the legend fits in the figure, do that and present a larger figure rather than a smaller one with a side legend.

And then write the captions. Captions seem like a trivial part, and that’s why they are often one of the most problematic ones in a paper. Remember figure captions should always be placed below the figure, and table captions above the table. Similarly with the rest of your paper, captions’ language should be tailored to reflect the type of the chosen journal and its readership. In the caption, describe where the data come from, explain error bars, legends, axes and units, and all the elements of the figure. However, it is important to also explain what the figure tells us and how it contributes to the research. As mentioned earlier, the reader should be able to look at the figure and read the caption, and be able to understand what it means without having to read the rest of the paper’s text. But try to keep the caption short and tidy.

These are some of the main points discussed during the challenge, and the attendees found the related tasks helpful in order to achieve all these important details that lead to better drafting of a paper. However, it definitely takes time and practice to become a better academic writer, so keep an eye for the next challenge or course!

Of course the Hands on Writing Online Course is always available for you to register for more tips and advice!

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