Writing and Revising Articles for Science Journals

On March 24th 2011, the Author Development Program in the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence sponsored a faculty panel discussion on Writing and Revising Articles for Science Journals on Emory’s campus. Three prominent researchers who have served as editors of science journals shared insights on the topic: Professor Ora Strickland of the School of Nursing, Associate Professor John Nickerson of the School of Medicine, and Professor Elaine Walker of the College of Arts and Sciences. Amy Benson Brown moderated the discussion.

The panelists first considered what distinguishes submissions that make it past an initial screening at journals. First and foremost, they concurred, it must be clear how the research contributes to the field. What is unique or innovative in this research? The quality of the writing also matters. Is the prose clear, accessible to its audience, and compelling? Is the central thesis immediately apparent?

Though excellent writing does not guarantee submissions will survive the first round of scrutiny, poor writing can sink an article—even one with some highly promising ideas. To improve article drafts, gathering feedback from colleagues is often a good step. Some researchers also find it helpful to engage the services of a freelance copyeditor editor before submitting an article.

Getting feedback from mentors and colleagues, however, is vital when deciding whether or not to submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal. Researchers need to assess the depth and potential relevance of the data in the paper. Even after a round of revision, authors should step back and look carefully again at the big picture. Does the hypothesis clearly correlate with the data?  Is it clear how the data speaks to and supports the hypothesis?

To make such judgments, expertise in the relevant standards for data and research protocols is essential. In addition to reading each journal’s guidelines for submissions, prospective authors should also read carefully a variety of articles recently published in the journal, noting the depth, for instance, of the statistical data. Also, it is worth noting who serves on the editorial board for various journals and considering those researchers’ own work and interests. How does this paper’s topic relate to some of their lines of inquiry?  Does the paper cite their work, where appropriate?

The panelists underscored the importance of paying attention to the academic reputations and rankings of journal also, especially for authors seeking tenure or promotion.  Citation indexes offer a general measure.

Researchers also should aim to present findings in a way that conveys some confidence in the work. Since the stakes around publication are high and the process complex, it’s no wonder that articles by junior researchers tend to be troubled by vagueness. Some “limitations” sections of articles even rival the “findings” sections in length. New researchers may feel somewhat hesitant to state their findings. They may feel unsure of the merit of their own ideas and tend to be self-deprecating, especially if they are female, since women have generally been encouraged by their culture to be more self-effacing. This caution, however, can hinder clarity and minimize the significance of the work.

One common obstacle to developing a sense of confidence can be the fear of receiving poor or mixed reviews. The panelists stressed that while peer review is an important process, it is not without flaws. Furthermore, a mix of praise and criticism in assessments from reviewers is common and can be constructive. Considering feedback from peer review can allow researchers to widen the lens through which they see their own work; and responding to particular concerns can strengthen articles. Successful authors—even if initially disappointed or upset with suggestions from peer reviews—only respond in a professional manner. Take time, the panelists urged, to address each point or question raised. Also, pay particular attention to what the journal editor, in particular, communicates about the article. What is he or she really looking for, in terms of revision?

Researchers may also wish to consult general guides to the process of publishing papers in journals. A few recommended by the panelists include:

How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper by Robert Day (Cambridge University Press, 2008),

Academic Scientists at Work by Jeremy Boss and Susan Eckhert (Springer, 2006), and

The Chicago Guide to Science Writing by Scott Montgomery (University of Chicago Press, 2003).