How to write a paper
A research paper is one of the most effective ways to share your research with the wider research community, promote your work and potentially generate feedback and collaboration.
The first thing is to start: do not procrastinate, as you risk someone publishing similar work ahead of you. Research which is never published is of no benefit to you, the research community or patients.
Draft the paper as the project is being carried out:
- project design/material from the grant application can be used for the introduction
- methods can be taken from the study protocol
- results can be recorded from your lab book
- the discussion can be drafted following discussion of results with others and review of the literature to put the research in context
Allow yourself sufficient time and space for writing, free of distractions.
Decide which journal to aim for (consult with your supervisor). Aim high. Factors to consider include:
- impact factor, immediacy index, citation half life
- subject area
- open access (this may be a requirement of your funder)
- publication costs (these may be covered by your grant)
Consult the ‘instructions for authors’ This will provide information about the following: format of the abstract (structured versus unstructured), word count, format of images, rules regarding supplementary materials.
Use a simple and concise writing style.
Write the paper:
Title and abstract
- The title should be concise and declarative (rather than methods-focused).
- The abstract must capture the interest of the Editor (who decides whether to send the paper for review) and the interest of the reader (who decides whether to read/cite it).
- Avoid unfounded statements.
- Write the abstract last so that it reflects the whole of the paper in its finished form.
- Why did you do the work? What was the clinical need? What was the gap/limitation of the existing literature?
- What was the hypothesis?
Materials and methods
- Describe exactly what you did so that the work could be replicated.
- Include an ethics reference number.
- This can be divided into sections.
- What did you find?
- Don’t include ‘discussion’ within the results section.
- What do the results mean?
- Revisit the hypothesis.
- Put your results in the context of the existing literature.
- Reflect on the study’s limitations.
- Indicate the potential clinical impact.
- Describe future work.
- Avoid unfounded statements.
Figures & tables
- These should visually illustrate the results.
- The aim is to condense information and save the reader time.
- Figures should be of high quality.
- This may include more detailed methods, tables or figures.
- Readers and reviewers may read the supplementary material, so it needs to be accurate and of high quality.
- Be selective: references should accurately describe the point they are used to reference and ideally come from high quality journals.
- Use a reference manager. Your University may have a subscription and provide training, if not free reference managers are available e.g. Mendeley https://www.mendeley.com
- Follow the recommended referencing style. Check that all of your references are correctly formatted.
- Keep this brief.
- Summarise the hypothesis and key findings.
- Capture the Editor’s interest (explain the novelty/clinical relevance).
Once you have drafted the paper:
- Decide the author list (ideally discuss this at the beginning of a project to avoid potential misunderstanding and conflict). Use the ICMJE criteria to decide whether an individual should be listed as an author or instead in the acknowledgement section of the paper http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html
- Send the draft to all authors asking for their comments. Set a deadline for them to reply, after which you will submit the manuscript.
Be aware that rejection is common. Do not be disheartened. If your manuscript is rejected, use the reviewers’ comments to improve it before re-formatting and submitting it to a different journal.
If you receive the offer of ‘accept following revision’:
- go through and respond to all of the reviewers’ comments
- track changes in the draft
- be respectful and courteous when replying to the comments
- if you disagree with a comment, defend your point and explain your reasoning
Don’t forget to update your CV