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HQP Workshop: Writing a scientific paper

Silva21 HQP workshops are designed to explore different topics in either the field of forestry, research or life as a scientist. The goal of these workshops is to help HQPs develop new skills, share their expertise and to maintain interactive collaborative meet ups on a regular basis.


Workshop objective: outline efficient, effective writing styles for peer-reviewed scientific paper.


This workshop was developped using a presentation by Nicholas Coops and Joanne White with permission. To view the original videos of this presentation see Part 1 and Part 2.


Content:


For a copy of the original presentation as part of the Silva21 HQP workshop, click the image to the right


 

Aspects to consider

There are many things to consider before beginning to write your scientific paper. The first, not being related to your own writing at all, is the fact that there are many systemic barriers in academic publication including language, proficiency, financial constraints and institutional resources. For this reason, publication is not equally accessible for all academics.


If you are priveleged to publish in academic journals, then it is important to consider diverse perspectives in scientific (as well as research questions, methodologies and interpretations). This could include accessing traditional ecological knowledge of the study site, traditional methods used by Indigenous communities, etc. You could also consider adding a Land Acknowledgement in the final paragraphs (i.e. before Financial Acknowledgements) to acknowledge the land on which you conduct research and wrote your paper. Academics should now be using inclusive language such as gender-neutral language and avoiding stereotypes. For example, "unmanned aerial vehicle" may also be termed "unoccupied aerial vehicle" or, simply, "drone". Lastly, since writing and publishing scientific articles may be more difficult for those with English as a second language it is important to consider mentorship and collaborative writing for underrepresented groups in academia.


Before you start writing

Think about why writing a scientific paper is important to you? Are you doing it simply because it is required of your graduate studies or employment? Or are you considering it as an opportunity to develop your communication skills and contribute to the scientific community? The latter can be ways to approach scientific writing so it feels less daunting. It is also great practice for critical thinking, analytical skills and future writing tasks such as grant and proposal writing.


For whatever your reason, before you start writing it is important to consider the structure of scientific articles. The good thing about the structure is that it is usually consistent between most journals and is laid out in a consistent format. For this reason, it makes writing a scientific publication like baking a cake according to a recipe! If you follow all the instructions of each step, at the end you'll end up with a cake. The same is true of a scientific paper!


One component that is difficult to grasp (but makes writing easier once it is mastered) is the writing style in which scientific findings are published. This straight-froward, short-sentenced, and sometimes robotic tone, can be an unusual style of writing for most people regardless of their native language. But the good thing is that once you learn how to do it (and practice it often), it becomes easier and writing becomes a much faster process.



Before you start putting words on paper, you should also consider aspects of your article such as:

  1. The scope of your article (i.e. is your research applicable to a single species, a region, or a whole country?)

  2. The audience you're speaking to (e.g. ecologists, forest managers, practioners, scientists, policy makers, etc.)

  3. The application of your research (i.e. will your findings help to devleop new methods, new technology applications, or help foresters manage stands better?)


These components will ultimately help you determine which journal to submit to. This will also help guide the style you write in and the content you focus on. You can also use the layout of previously published articles within these journals to guide you through the structure of your paper.


Other things to consider when selecting a journal are things such as the impact factor, the turnaround time of publication, whether or not it is open access and the direction of your career path (i.e. if you hope to continue to develop new methodologies or software, you want to stay in a more technological-focused journal rather than an applications journal).


Another important tip is to have a reference manager before you start writing to make your citations easily accessible and your bibliography a piece of cake. You can read our other blog posts in English and French on how to utilize these.


Other things to consider before you start writing include:

  • Make an outline - this can really help guide your writing and even sentence structure within each paragraph.

  • Consult the literature to gain an understanding of background information and data (even make use of your literature review), the context of your research, common methods used and important aspects to consider for the discussion.

  • Plan your analysis; what data do you need to collect for the research and then what statistical analyses do you need to interpret it? This gives you your results!

  • Make your appropriate figures and tables

  • Consult your co-authors - use their expertise throughout the process and not at the end stage.


Remember, as Nicholas Coops says, "writing is a process, not an afterthought." If you consider all of these components and work on them throughout your research, rather than once all the experiments are done and it's time to write your thesis, it will make your writing (and your life!) a lot easier and get the work done faster!


While you're writing

The following is an exerpt from the previously mentioned presentations by Nicholas Coops and Joanne White (see here for Part 1 and Part 2). We have added Tips and Tricks based on the HQP workshop.

Section

Function

Preferred Style

Rules of thumbs

Tips and Tricks

TITLE

Indicates content and main finding

Short and sweet


Purposeful (targets specific audience, journal)

Avoid redundancy 


Include keywords

Use ChatGPT to give you ideas for short, concise titles. Make it your own and avoid obvious puns

ABSTRACT

Principle objectives and scope of investigation (only 1 - 2 lines) Describe methods, summarize results, principle conclusion

Past tense, active/passive voice, short concise sentences, no jargons or citations

What was done? What was found? What are the main conclusions? Important summary numbers Should stand alone Keywords

Write the abstract last so you have a full clear understanding of your paper

INTRO

Introduce topic, define terminology Relates to current knowledge: what has been done& Indicates gap: What needs to be done& Provides focus (purpose) and research objectives

Present tense to establish knowledge Past tense for literature review Active voice Focused overview of literature (Only 4 paragraphs!)

Use high-impact references that will also be used in your discussion Follow logical sequence Emphasize why the topic is importance

Intros are often way too long because you’re often writing the discussion Last paragraph starts with “In this paper, we will...”

METHODS

Provides enough detail for researchers to be able to repeat the study Describe the data Describe methods used Who, what, where, when, why

Past tense Passive/active voice Correct and internationally recognized style and format (for units, variables, materials, etc)

Mention everything that is important to the results No need to explain the accepted techniques Flow diagrams help outline the methods (even if not used in the paper)

This is the easy part - do this when you’re fed up with the more challenging sections

RESULTS Pro Tip: Part 2 of the video gives a really good example of a simple way to break down the strucutre of the results section!

Gives summary results in graphics and numbers Compares different results (quantified and statistical tests)

Past tense, active voice Uses tables, graphs, illustrations

Present summary data related to the objectives (not all the research results) Call attention to most significant findings; do not mention methods, or analysis/interpretations of results

Step 1: make your figure. Step 2: Write results in 3 lines (starting broad, then narrow, ending in specifics)

DISCUSSION

Explains discrepancies and unexpected findings Agreement (or not) with previously published work States the important implications of results

Present tense Past tense if referring to results Active voice

Do not recap results Make strong statements (avoid “it may be concluded”) Do not attempt to hide unexpected results - they can be the most important ones Not new results

If the introduction describes the world before your paper, the discussion describes the world after your paper Make clear linkages between 1) your claimed outcome, 2) your stated objective and 3) the big question your paper asks.

CONCLUSION

Answers research questions/objectives State limitations of the study State importance of findings Announce future research

Past tense (for referring to this study) Present tense for musings of future work

Summarize concisely Describe how it represents an advancement in your field Avoid repetition with other sections and speculation Do not overemphasize or overstate the impact of your work

Do not introduce any new ideas or concepts

REFERENCES

Provide a list of related literature and sources of information Support the ideas in the paper

Depends on journal; check the formatting requirements

Cite primary source rather than review papers Make citations count

Ensure your reference manager is complete before writing. If you need to fix errors in an inserted bibliography, fix the error in your reference manager rather than the text in Word.


Tips for submission

When it finally comes time to submit your paper, don't underestimate the amount of time this process requires. Allow yourself a few hours, particularly the first few times you do this. Follow the submission guidelines and include a cover letter to the editor.


It is often now recommended to suggest reviewers for your paper. If given this opportunity, take it! This increases the likelihood your paper will be published bceause as the expert in your field, you know other experts. These other experts are more likely to accept the revision because it is interested to them and likely to provide a more useful review with helpful comments for improvement.


When your paper gets accepted with revisions (we're using positive thinking here with 'when' instead of 'if'), responding to comments can be a tedious process. However, it is necessary and will hopefully improve the quality of your work and the final version of your manuscript. Be sure to prepare a rebuttal document that clearly shows all comments/questions and individual responses to each. Remember to be constructive, positive and tactful. Reviewers do not get paid and are taking time out of their work to help you contribute your work to the scientific community. Therefore their feedback should be respected, even if you do not accept every comment or incorporate every single suggestion. Below is an example of the first few pages of one of my rebuttal documents.



In this document it may also be helpful to include the manuscript number, title and name of the corresponding author (ie. yours), use a table of content to guide the reader and differentiate between the comment (i.e. in bold) and your response (i.e. regular). Remember, the editor wants to publish your paper, so make it easy for them by being detailed and thorough.


Writing a paper can seem like a daunting task. But if you ask any early career scientist or researcher, they will tell you it gets easier with time. This is because there is a consistent structure, language and flow to the process. The more you practice it, the easier and faster it will become. This is always why I recommend to practice writing and always be writing something. This helps keep you in the groove so that you can avoid approaching a submission deadling with dread.


Other resources


 

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to reach out to me at amy.wotherspoon@ubc.ca 

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