Writing A Scientific Manuscript: The Path to Publication (Hopefully!)
Before I embarked on the journey of writing a manuscript, my understanding of the writing and publication process was fairly vague. This was all that I knew:
A) You worked on a project and ended up with some data that, hopefully, told a story.
B) You wrote about it in the sections that are traditionally in a science paper: the introduction, the material and methods, the results, the discussion, and the conclusion.
C) You send it to a journal that either accepts it or rejects it.
Pretty straightforward, right? That’s what I thought too, until I started the writing process. Before working in different labs and enrolling in a graduate program, my only experience with academic research came from volunteering in a laboratory outside of my undergraduate classes. I completed a 3 month internship shortly after obtaining my undergraduate degree, where I spent the whole summer gathering data. My PI asked if I wanted to continue with the project and take charge of writing the manuscript, and I liked working on this project so much that I said yes. At this point, I had almost zero knowledge of the publication process but it was a challenge I was willing to take on.
If you Google “How to write a scientific manuscript,” a long list of articles come up, from tips and strategies to in-depth step-by-steps. I am still in the process of refining my final product, but these were some of the tips I used to create a full-length, complete draft.
Know what your question or hypothesis is
I worked on my project as a summer intern, so I had no previous knowledge about this project and did not come up with it myself. I had a ton of learning to do! At the end of the summer, I had all this data with a general idea of what the project’s aims were, but I was still not sure of what question I wanted to answer. However, along the way, I finally developed a clearer sense of what the main point of my manuscript was going to be, but it was definitely challenging to write when I felt like I was scrambling around in the dark. Before you even start to write, know what your project’s aims are and be able to summarize it in a statement. Keep this solid, concrete statement in the back of your mind as it really helps guide your writing. Carve out a trail for your manuscript and follow it! Sometimes you’ll take detours, sometimes you’ll get lost, and sometimes you’ll walk off the trail for a little bit, but you can always come back to that main path.
Write the Materials and Methods section first
I don’t know about you, but I really struggle with writer’s block especially when it comes to science. How do you know what to write? What if you don’t have enough knowledge about a specific subject? Does it sound too science-y? Not science-y enough? It’s definitely hard to figure out how to start writing. Starting off by writing the introduction may seem like the most logical first step but sometimes that can be daunting, especially with all the information that’s required in that section. Starting off by writing the materials and methods section can be helpful in relieving writer’s block because the information is so wonderfully objective. What did you do? What specimens or computer programs did you use? What species did you test on? Write it all down!
Have your references and sources ready
If you’ve already completed your project and have some data, chances are that you’ve already read some relevant papers and did the appropriate research. I found it really helpful to create a spreadsheet with paper titles and authors in one column and main points of the paper in the second column. That way, any time you need to cite a source for something you’ve written, you can refer back to that spreadsheet and see which papers talked about whatever you’ve just written down. I initially made the mistake of writing something, then stopping to find and read relevant papers to cite, then getting distracted or tired (reading scientific papers is a whole other process), then losing my train of thought and ultimately forgetting what I was writing in the first place. It was an organizational disaster. Don’t make that mistake!
Writing is a constant learning process. Working on a manuscript takes lots of time and effort as well as strong organizational skills, feedback from your colleagues and PI, and perhaps lots of caffeine. Publication is definitely a goal to work towards but try to enjoy the writing process along the way. This manuscript is a culmination of all the hard work you’ve put into your project, and now it’s time to write it all out and let people know about your research. Good luck!