WRITING A SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH ARTICLE
| Format for the paper | Edit your paper! | Useful books |FORMAT FOR THE PAPER
Scientific research articles provide a method for scientists to communicate with other scientists about the results of their research. A standard format is used for these articles, in which the author presents the research in an orderly, logical manner. This doesn't necessarily reflect the order in which you did or thought about the work. This format is:
| Title | Authors | Introduction | Materials and Methods | Results (with Tables and Figures) | Discussion | Acknowledgments | Literature Cited |
- Make your title specific enough to describe the contents of the paper, but not so technical that only specialists will understand. The title should be appropriate for the intended audience.
- The title usually describes the subject matter of the article: Effect of Smoking on Academic Performance"
- Sometimes a title that summarizes the results is more effective: Students Who Smoke Get Lower Grades"
1. The person who did the work and wrote the paper is generally listed as the first author of a research paper.
2. For published articles, other people who made substantial contributions to the work are also listed as authors. Ask your mentor's permission before including his/her name as co-author.ABSTRACT
1. An abstract, or summary, is published together with a research article, giving the reader a "preview" of what's to come. Such abstracts may also be published separately in bibliographical sources, such as Biologic al Abstracts. They allow other scientists to quickly scan the large scientific literature, and decide which articles they want to read in depth. The abstract should be a little less technical than the article itself; you don't want to dissuade your potent ial audience from reading your paper.
2. Your abstract should be one paragraph, of 100-250 words, which summarizes the purpose, methods, results and conclusions of the paper.
3. It is not easy to include all this information in just a few words. Start by writing a summary that includes whatever you think is important, and then gradually prune it down to size by removing unnecessary words, while still retaini ng the necessary concepts.
3. Don't use abbreviations or citations in the abstract. It should be able to stand alone without any footnotes.INTRODUCTION
What question did you ask in your experiment? Why is it interesting? The introduction summarizes the relevant literature so that the reader will understand why you were interested in the question you asked. One to fo ur paragraphs should be enough. End with a sentence explaining the specific question you asked in this experiment.MATERIALS AND METHODS
1. How did you answer this question? There should be enough information here to allow another scientist to repeat your experiment. Look at other papers that have been published in your field to get some idea of what is included in this section.
2. If you had a complicated protocol, it may helpful to include a diagram, table or flowchart to explain the methods you used.
3. Do not put results in this section. You may, however, include preliminary results that were used to design the main experiment that you are reporting on. ("In a preliminary study, I observed the owls for one week, and found that 73 % of their locomotor activity occurred during the night, and so I conducted all subsequent experiments between 11 pm and 6 am.")
4. Mention relevant ethical considerations. If you used human subjects, did they consent to participate. If you used animals, what measures did you take to minimize pain?RESULTS
1. This is where you present the results you've gotten. Use graphs and tables if appropriate, but also summarize your main findings in the text. Do NOT discuss the results or speculate as to why something happened; t hat goes in th e Discussion.
2. You don't necessarily have to include all the data you've gotten during the semester. This isn't a diary.
3. Use appropriate methods of showing data. Don't try to manipulate the data to make it look like you did more than you actually did.
"The drug cured 1/3 of the infected mice, another 1/3 were not affected, and the third mouse got away."TABLES AND GRAPHS
1. If you present your data in a table or graph, include a title describing what's in the table ("Enzyme activity at various temperatures", not "My results".) For graphs, you should also label the x and y axes.
2. Don't use a table or graph just to be "fancy". If you can summarize the information in one sentence, then a table or graph is not necessary.DISCUSSION
1. Highlight the most significant results, but don't just repeat what you've written in the Results section. How do these results relate to the original question? Do the data support your hypothesis? Are your results consistent with what other investigators have reported? If your results were unexpected, try to explain why. Is there another way to interpret your results? What further research would be necessary to answer the questions raised by your results? How do y our results fit into the big picture?
2. End with a one-sentence summary of your conclusion, emphasizing why it is relevant.ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This section is optional. You can thank those who either helped with the experiments, or made other important contributions, such as discussing the protocol, commenting on the manuscript, or buying you pizza.REFERENCES (LITERATURE CITED)
There are several possible ways to organize this section. Here is one commonly used way:
1. In the text, cite the literature in the appropriate places:
Scarlet (1990) thought that the gene was present only in yeast, but it has since been identified in the platypus (Indigo and Mauve, 1994) and wombat (Magenta, et al., 1995).
2. In the References section list citations in alphabetical order.
Indigo, A. C., and Mauve, B. E. 1994. Queer place for qwerty: gene isolation from the platypus. Science 275, 1213-1214.
Magenta, S. T., Sepia, X., and Turquoise, U. 1995. Wombat genetics. In: Widiculous Wombats, Violet, Q., ed. New York: Columbia University Press. p 123-145.
Scarlet, S.L. 1990. Isolation of qwerty gene from S. cerevisae. Journal of Unusual Results 36, 26-31.
EDIT YOUR PAPER!!!
"In my writing, I average about ten pages a day. Unfortunately, they're all the same page."
A major part of any writing assignment consists of re-writing.
- Scientific writing must be accurate. Although writing instructors may tell you not to use the same word twice in a sentence, it's okay for scientific writing, which must be accurate. (A student who tried not to repeat the word "hamster" produced this confusing sentence: "When I put the hamster in a cage with the other animals, the little mammals began to play.")
- Make sure you say what you mean.
- Be careful with commonly confused words:
Instead of: The rats were injected with the drug. (sounds like a syringe was filled with drug and ground-up rats and both were injected together)
Write: I injected the drug into the rat.
Temperature has an effect on the reaction.
Temperature affects the reaction.
I used solutions in various concentrations. (The solutions were 5 mg/ml, 10 mg/ml, and 15 mg/ml)
I used solutions in varying concentrations. (The concentrations I used changed; sometimes they were 5 mg/ml, other times they were 15 mg/ml.)
Less food (can't count numbers of food)
Fewer animals (can count numbers of animals)
A large amount of food (can't count them)
A large number of animals (can count them)
The erythrocytes, which are in the blood, contain hemoglobin.
The erythrocytes that are in the blood contain hemoglobin. (Wrong. This sentence implies that there are erythrocytes elsewhere that don't contain hemoglobin.)
1. Write at a level that's appropriate for your audience.
"Like a pigeon, something to admire as long as it isn't over your head." Anonymous
2. Use the active voice. It's clearer and more concise than the passive voice.
Instead of: An increased appetite was manifested by the rats and an increase in body weight was measured.
Write: The rats ate more and gained weight.
3. Use the first person.
Instead of: It is thought
Write: I think
Instead of: The samples were analyzed
Write: I analyzed the samples
4. Avoid dangling participles.
"After incubating at 30 degrees C, we examined the petri plates." (You must've been pretty warm in there.)
1. Use verbs instead of abstract nouns
Instead of: take into consideration
2. Use strong verbs instead of "to be"
Instead of: The enzyme was found to be the active agent in catalyzing...
Write: The enzyme catalyzed...
3. Use short words.
"I would never use a long word where a short one would answer the purpose. I know there are professors in this country who 'ligate' arteries. Other surgeons tie them, and it stops the bleeding just as well."
have sufficient enough utilize use demonstrate show assistance help terminate end
4. Use concise terms.
Instead of: Write: prior to before due to the fact that because in a considerable number of cases often the vast majority of most during the time that when in close proximity to near it has long been known that I'm too lazy to look up the reference
5. Use short sentences. A sentence made of more than 40 words should probably be rewritten as two sentences.
"The conjunction 'and' commonly serves to indicate that the writer's mind still functions even when no signs of the phenomenon are noticeable." Rudolf Virchow, 1928
Check your grammar, spelling and punctuation
1. Use a spellchecker, but be aware that they don't catch all mistakes.
"When we consider the animal as a hole,..." Student's paper
2. Your spellchecker may not recognize scientific terms. For the correct spelling, try Biotech's Life Science Dictionary or one of the technical dictionaries on the reference shelf in the Biology or Health Sciences libraries.
3. Don't, use, unnecessary, commas.
4. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
Victoria E. McMillan, Writing Papers in the Biological Sciences, Bedford Books, Boston, 1997
The best. On sale for about $18 at Labyrinth Books, 112th Street. On reserve in Biology Library
Jan A. Pechenik, A Short Guide to Writing About Biology, Boston: Little, Brown, 1987
Harrison W. Ambrose, III & Katharine Peckham Ambrose, A Handbook of Biological Investigation, 4th edition, Hunter Textbooks Inc, Winston-Salem, 1987
Particularly useful if you need to use statistics to analyze your data. Copy on Reference shelf in Biology Library.
Robert S. Day, How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, 4th edition, Oryx Press, Phoenix, 1994.
Earlier editions also good. A bit more advanced, intended for those writing papers for publication. Fun to read. Several copies available in Columbia libraries.
William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. Macmillan, New York, 1987.
Several copies available in Columbia libraries. Strunk's first edition is available on-line.
A PICTURE is said to be worth a thousand words. That metaphor might be expected to pertain a fortiori in the case of scientific papers, where a figure can brilliantly illuminate an idea that might otherwise be baffling. Papers with figures in them should thus be easier to grasp than those without. They should therefore reach larger audiences and, in turn, be more influential simply by virtue of being more widely read. But are they? Bill Howe and his colleagues at the University of Washington, in Seattle, decided to find out.
First, they trained a computer algorithm to distinguish between various sorts of figures—which they defined as diagrams, equations, photographs, plots (such as bar charts and scatter graphs) and tables. They exposed their algorithm to between 400 and 600 images of each of these types of figure until it could distinguish them with an accuracy greater than 90%. Then they set it loose on the more-than-650,000 papers (containing more than 10m figures) stored on PubMed Central, an online archive of biomedical-research articles.
To measure each paper’s influence, they calculated its article-level Eigenfactor score—a modified version of the PageRank algorithm Google uses to provide the most relevant results for internet searches. Eigenfactor scoring gives a better measure than simply noting the number of times a paper is cited elsewhere, because it weights citations by their influence. A citation in a paper that is itself highly cited is worth more than one in a paper that is not.
As the team describe in a paper posted on arXiv, they found that figures did indeed matter—but not all in the same way. An average paper in PubMed Central has about one diagram for every three pages and gets 1.67 citations. Papers with more diagrams per page and, to a lesser extent, plots per page tended to be more influential (on average, a paper accrued two more citations for every extra diagram per page, and one more for every extra plot per page). By contrast, including photographs and equations seemed to decrease the chances of a paper being cited by others. That agrees with a study from 2012, whose authors counted (by hand) the number of mathematical expressions in over 600 biology papers and found that each additional equation per page reduced the number of citations a paper received by 22%.
This does not mean that researchers should rush to include more diagrams in their next paper. Dr Howe has not shown what is behind the effect, which may merely be one of correlation, rather than causation. It could, for example, be that papers with lots of diagrams tend to be those that illustrate new concepts, and thus start a whole new field of inquiry. Such papers will certainly be cited a lot. On the other hand, the presence of equations really might reduce citations. Biologists (as are most of those who write and read the papers in PubMed Central) are notoriously maths-averse. If that is the case, looking in a physics archive would probably produce a different result.
Figuring it out
Dr Howe and his colleagues do, however, believe that the study of diagrams can result in new insights. A figure showing new metabolic pathways in a cell, for example, may summarise hundreds of experiments. Since illustrations can convey important scientific concepts in this way, they think that browsing through related figures from different papers may help researchers come up with new theories. As Dr Howe puts it, “the unit of scientific currency is closer to the figure than to the paper.”
With this thought in mind, the team have created a website (viziometrics.org) where the millions of images sorted by their program can be searched using key words. Their next plan is to extract the information from particular types of scientific figure, to create comprehensive “super” figures: a giant network of all the known chemical processes in a cell for example, or the best-available tree of life. At just one such super-figure per paper, though, the citation records of articles containing such all-embracing diagrams may very well undermine the correlation that prompted their creation in the first place. Call it the ultimate marriage of chart and science.
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