Scientific English as a Foreign Language
Answers to Lesson of December 4, 1997
How to Write a Paper I
Created April 30, 1998, by Nancy Burnham and Fred Hutson
I see a lot of students struggling to write their first few scientific publications. They often waste a lot of time and effort by proceeding in an inefficient fashion. I would like to share with you a good method for writing a scientific publication.
STEP I: Determine the content.
A. Choose a collection of the figures and tables that represent your work. Sit down with your co-authors and discuss them. Agree on:
1. which figures and tables will be included in the paper,
2. the major points and/or conclusions of your paper, and
3. to which journal you would like to send it. The choice of journal often limits the length and determines the ‘flavor’ of the paper…for example, is it to be technique oriented, or materials oriented? Should you use English or American spelling?
B. Refine the scientific content of your paper. On two or three pages, outline your publication. That is, write down the ideas that you would like to express, dans n’importe quelle langue, auf Deutsch vielleicht?, and make sure that the ideas are developed in a logical way. Structure the points by Introduction, Theory, Experiment, Results, and Discussion. Structure is very important, because it helps future readers of your work quickly find the information that they need or want.
C. Give your colleagues copies of the outline, along with copies of the figures and tables that you intend to use. Meet with them after they have had time to review the material, and AGREE ON THE SCIENTIFIC CONTENT OF THE PAPER BEFORE WRITING EVEN ONE SENTENCE OF THE FIRST DRAFT! This separates problems associated with scientific development from problems associated with English.
STEP II: Preparation of the manuscript.
A. One day when you have lots of time, energy and concentration, sit down with your outline and “core dump” your ideas, in any form of English, onto your computer. Do not even stop to look up a word in the dictionary. Do not worry about writing well for the “core dump”. It is more important that you have something to work with, and that you get started. You can be confident that the scientific aspects are sound, because you have already discussed them with your colleagues. At this stage, do not worry about the title, author list, abstract, or conclusions.
B. Another day when you feel fresh, return to the manuscript, and try to improve the English. If in the “core dump” you used some words of your native language, find substitutes in English. If you used one word a lot, look up some synonyms in the dictionary. Once you have an acceptable version, then …..
C. Share the first draft with your colleagues. They can help you with the English (They may have more experience.) and check if there is anything missing from the scientific development. Meet with them to discuss their suggestions, and the title, author list, abstract, and conclusions. Your preceptions of your work may have changed during the course of writing your paper, and now is the time to solidify your ideas about what is important about what you’ve done. The most significant aspects of your work should be found in the title, abstract, and conclusions. This helps future readers decide if they wish to read your paper.
D. Incorporate your co-author’s comments and the title, etc. into the second draft. It is useful at this point to show it to someone outside of your group, who is less familiar with the topic, and who can therefore draw your attention to sections of text that may not be clear.
E. Remember that your publication is your final ‘product’. It shall become part of a permanent archive. Take the time to make it something that you can still be proud of next year. Refine the manuscript, give your colleagues one more chance to make improvements, and then…..
F. Submit! Next week I’ll say a little about what should go into each section of a publication.
There are no firm rules about the exact contents of a scientific publication, but the guiding principle is that you should write so as to aid the reader. Think, therefore, how YOU go about looking at a paper. You read the title, look at the figures, read the abstract and conclusions. Then and only then, if you are still interested, you plunge into the text. As a reader, you would like to see ‘the story told’ in the title, abstract, figures, tables, and conclusions. The text acts only as supplementary material.
In the course of several semesters of laboratory instruction, I have noticed that students are sometimes not aware of the relative roles of the Abstract, Introduction, Discussion, and Conclusion sections of an article. (Theory, Experiment, and Results are obvious.)
An ABSTRACT, along with the title, is entered into literature databases. This is all the information available from a database search. Hence, the Abstract is a distilled version of your paper. It contains the background, rationale, conclusions, and implications of your work.
The INTRODUCTION places your project within the context of societal needs and interests, and with respect to the work of other groups. Try to answer the questions “Why is this study important?” (background) and “Why did we do it the way that we did?” (rationale) For a longer paper, the Introduction will explain the development of your article.
The DISCUSSION compares theory and experiment, explains possible errors, revisits the work of other groups in light of your new results, and mentions possible avenues for future work, in other words, “What are the implications of what you have done?”
The CONCLUSIONS restate the major results. Write the Conclusions as if a reader has read your paper once, filed it away for a year, then wanted a reminder, in more depth than in the abstract, of what your major results were.