Publish (by the rules) or Perish!

Planning to write a research paper? Make sure you read the journal rules first!

So says Margaret Cargill, whose workshop on ‘Publishing your research’ I attended in November as part of the Society for Experimental Biology’s career masterclass series. Even before you start writing you need to consider which journal you plan to target. This will determine the structure and style of the paper, it will influence the way in which your data are presented, and even the format of your references. So, to avoid a lot of re-working of your paper, or instant rejection by the editor, you can save time and avoid disappointment by paying attention to the aims and scope of the journal, as well as adhering closely to the author guidelines. Choosing a journal may depend on a number of factors, including the importance of your paper’s contribution to the field, the journal’s impact factor and scope. If you aim too high you could be rejected, which will delay publication, so make sure you target your paper well. Reading the ‘Instructions to Authors’ guidelines, usually readily available on the journal website, is highly recommended!

Margaret’s workshop, in which we deconstructed and analysed a variety of journal papers, was a real eye-opener. Did you know there are four main journal structures? See the Figure opposite. Take a look at journals where you’re considering submitting a paper and see which structure they adhere to.

Ø  AIMRaD – the one most commonly used in bioscience journal papers. The paper starts with an Abstract, followed by Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. The width of the each section indicates where you should focus on the breadth of the field and where you should focus on specifics. For example, the Introduction should start with a broad review of the current knowledge of this research field, focussing down towards the end to introduce the aim of your study and the significance of its contribution to the field.
Ø  AIRDaM – this is more commonly used in molecular and chemistry journals.
Ø  AIM[RaD]xC – with a combined Results and Discussion section.
Ø  AIBC – commonly used in mathematical/theoretical journals. The paper starts with the Abstract and Introduction followed by the Body of the paper containing subheadings you choose based on the content of the paper and a Conclusion section at the end. 
Another excellent piece of advice for preparing your paper for publication is to consider the journal referee review form. How will they assess its suitability for publication? For example:
Ø  Is the contribution new?
Ø  Is it significant?
Ø  Do the results support the conclusions drawn?
Ø  Is the paper too lengthy?
Ø  Are all the tables and figures necessary?
Ø  Are the references up to date?
Not all editors and reviewers will read a paper from start to finish in the first instance. They are more likely to skim read it to start with until they decide it is worth a closer look. Margaret presented the results of a recent survey which showed that only 50% of journal editors read the Methods section ‘in place’, with 21% reading it earlier and 29% reading it later. Therefore, this section must be understandable in its own right, without the presumption that the Introduction has already been read. There should be clear links between sections to cater for readers reading in many different orders.
Further Information
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to impart all the invaluable insights and advice Margaret provided during her one-day workshop. This included further detail on effective ways to write each of the sections of the paper, how to write a covering letter, nominating referees, how to deal with reviewers comments and to respond to the editor’s decision letter. However, if you scroll down to ‘Further Reading – Communication’ on my Career Resources website you will find book references to help you find out more, as well as a link to Margaret’s website.
Good luck with your writing and, remember, nothing can beat experience. Read published papers and pay careful attention to the way they’ve been written. Find a good mentor (maybe your supervisor or a more experienced colleague) to help you to learn and hone your academic writing skills in this quite unique and critical area of your research experience.

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