Writing your first academic paper

Writing academic papers is important

Stack_of_Copy_PaperIf you are a PhD student in the Geosciences and are wanting to go forward into an academic or research career, then it is imperative that you write papers. The process can seem daunting, but it is excellent training, and seeing your name in print is intensely rewarding. So, here are some thoughts for people starting to write their first academic paper.

Your supervisors would normally be co-authors on anything you write, and they are an excellent source of guidance and knowledge, just waiting to be tapped. Do not be afraid to ask them. It is their job to help you!

1. Choose the right journal

Your journal should be peer-reviewed and ISI-linked (so that citations of your work will be counted on databases). You should aim for the highest impact factor possible, but bear in mind that if your paper is a regional study that is only relevant to Britain, getting it published in a major international journal could be difficult. Ultimately, the citations that your paper receives is a way of deeming its success, so choose a journal that is read by the right people, who will want to cite your work.

It is very important that you choose a journal that will be interested in publishing your work. One first step could be to look at who you have referenced, and see where they are publishing. Also take a look at the journal’s homepage, and see if your work falls within their scope. Do they publish reviews, or only original work?

Other considerations could be, does the journal provide free colour images online? Will you have to pay page charges? Is the journal open access? Can you upload supplementary information or supplementary datasets? How long are the articles typically published by this journal?

2. Writing a paper takes a long time

You should understand that getting a paper out takes a long time. You will need to start writing papers in your second year or start of your third year if you want them to be published by the time you finish your PhD. It can take a year to go through the review and published process, and that’s before you’ve written your paper.

Writing your first paper is likely to be a learning process, and you will go through many drafts with your supervisors. You should not be disheartened if your first draft comes back covered in red ink!

I personally find it very helpful to finish a draft, and then lay it aside for a little while. Coming at it with fresh eyes helps me see the problems and understand the solutions much better.

3. Writing a paper is formulaic

Most papers will follow a rather set pattern:

  1. Introduction and rationale. Here, you should set out your reasons for doing the research and identifiy the key unknowns. You should have identified these already before starting your research project (see Research Design).
  2. Aims and Objectives. Here you should set out your aim, hypotheses to be tested (if relevant; see this blog post), and specific research objectives.
  3. Study Area and Previous Work. It may be relevant here to give an overview of your area, the region’s geology, previous work on the area. You can also use this section to further emphasise your research questions.
  4. Methodology. Here you should have a brief overview of your methodology. Unless your paper is about pioneering a new technique, you should keep this section brief and reference the relevant papers, but it should contain enough information to make the work reproduceable.
  5. Results. In this section, present the results of your work. Some large datasets may be published as supplementary data. You should include some clear figures and diagrams at this stage.
  6. Discussion. In this section, you should place your results in the broader context. This section is often the hardest to write! What are the implications of your work, and how is it relevant to other scientists? What does it mean? Have you identified any more research questions? How has it moved the science on?
  7. Conclusions. In this section, you should summarise what you have found out. You may want to use bullet points. You could consider starting with your aim and summarising a brief rationale in one or two sentences. Then state what you did, then your results, and then your main conclusion: what did you find out? What have you changed? Did you accept or refute your hypotheses.
  8. Acknowledgements. Acknowledge any funding, financial support, fieldwork or lab assistance, people who gave you data or read the manuscript. Do not acknowledge your parents, dog, or informal support from colleagues.
  9. References. List your references in alphabetical and then chronological order. Check the referencing style with the journal.

4. Figures

Your figures should, if possible, be presented in black and white. This makes it easier for people to print out, saves on page charges, and means that your paper will be consistent between the online PDF version and printed version. However, they should be clear, concise, unique and well drawn. Each figure should stand on its own, and should not necessarily need a long caption explaining it.

5. Writing style

Writing style is something that takes time to develop, and we could discuss at length. Your supervisor is the best person to learn writing style. Needless to say, your spelling and grammar need to be impeccable. Other variables are open to discussion. However, there are some pointers.

  1. Make sure you follow the journal’s prescribed format for headings and subheadings.
  2. Make sure you use references appropriately.
  3. Always be precise, do not be vague. Give facts and figures, not vague statements.
  4. Consider whether you are using the active (I caught the ball) or the passive (the ball was caught). Nelson et al., 1996, provide a good example of writing in the active voice. You can also see this article by Gopen and Swann, The Science of Academic Writing. It is more acceptable these days to use the first person in writing, as it comes across as more direct, it is shorter, and can be more interesting to read.
  5. Use ‘which’ after a comma, ‘that’ if you haven’t used a comma.
  6. It is composed of, but it comprises (it certainly does not comprise of).
  7. Try and avoid abbreviations or acronyms, as they can make it hard for the reader to follow you, unless they are very commonly used in your field.
  8. Structure is very important. Reread your article several times to make sure that you have not repeated yourself.
  9. You are writing for your peers. You can expect them to understand key words and concepts. You should use references to outline key ideas, but you should not necessarily need to define words, unless they are very new and original.

6. Writing an abstract

The abstract is possibly the most important part of your paper, and also probably the hardest to write. Leave it until last, when you have a clear idea of your paper’s content and outcomes.Most should be 200-300 words, but check your journal’s guidelines. You should try and be as succinct as possible. There is more information on writing an abstract here.

Your abstract should follow the same basic layout as your paper. Your abstract should start with a clear sentence about your motivation; this should summarised your rationale and it should be a ‘call to arms’! This could be followed by what you did; state your aim, because this is how you answered the problem. Outline next how you addressed these aims; the principal methodologies employed and what data you used. Next you should summarise your key findings, and then place them within the wider context. Why are they important? Finish with your main conclusions.

Here are some more resources:

7. The peer-review process

Once you have submitted your manuscript, it will be assigned an editor. The editor will examine the paper and decide if it is appropriate, within scope of the journal, and of a high enough standard to be publishable. Then she will send it to peer review, normally to two independent experts in your field. They will read the paper and decide whether it would be publishable, normally dependent on the author revising the manuscript in light of their comments. Reviewer’s comments can be quite varied and range from disinterested to commenting on every single sentence, but are usually thorough and helpful. This constructive criticism, although it can be painful, is extremely valuable and will, in the end, make your paper better.

Put line numbers on your manuscript to make it easy for the reviewers.

8. Responding to reviewers’ comments

Once you have received your reviewers’ comments, read them, then put them aside for a day or two and recover from the process! When you come to write your response, you need to answer each one of their points.

Your letter to the editor should be formal and polite. State that you have amended your manuscript thoroughly according to the reviewer’s comments, and that it is much improved as a result. You now hope that it is suitable for publication in journal AAA.

Copy the reviewers’ letter into a new document and make all the text blue. Write your responses in black underneath. The key is to make it easy for the editor to see that you have done everything that you were asked. Give line numbers to make it simple to see where you have made changes. You could also, if they have given you some particularly helpful advice, say that this is an excellent idea, and that you have done as requested.

Sometimes reviewers may not understand your manuscript, or make a point that you feel is not valid. If this is the case, you can rebutt the comment and argue your case. You could state that you have clarified the text in question so that the misunderstanding does not happen again.

9. Acceptance and checking proofs

Hopefully, once you have responded to your reviews, your paper will be accepted! From there, it is but a short step to publication. Once your proofs come, read them carefully. Check all your figures, figure captions, authors names, tables and references (these are typically ignored and having a mistake in them is very embarrassing!). You may have to respond to questions by the type setters. Once you have proof read your manuscript, put it away for 3 days and then proof read it again. And perhaps once more for luck. You will not be able to make any changes after this point.

10. Reviewing a manuscript yourself

Once you have published a paper or two yourself, you may find that you get asked to review someone else’s. That’s a topic for another post, but here are some useful links:

Further reading

Further Resources

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One thought on “Writing your first academic paper

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