Getting published in high-impact scientific journals could be hard work, and may even seem an impossible task. But, in fact, it doesn’t have to be that unattainable, says scientific writing coach and editor, Dr Anna Clemens. Over the years, Dr Clemens has helped many scientists to reach their goal of getting published in renowned journals. Wanting to learn more, we talked to Dr Clemens who shared some tips and tricks on how to avoid commmon pitfalls and how to write more efficiently.
Challenges of scientific writing
There is a spectrum of different parts that people find challenging and struggle with, Dr Clemens says. Typically, people that contact me are starting as an assistant professor, a junior professor, or starting a tenure track, and suddenly, they are on their own. During their PhD, or post doc, they typically had a mentor figure with whom they were able to publish articles, she says. But now, they are on their own, and also, they now have other people working for them - people whom they have to mentor. If you haven’t learned a system on how to write, in a course, or by some training, it is difficult, Dr Clemens says. Many people never get any writing training, it is often learning by doing. People figure out a way to write that works for them, but the same strategy doesn't necessarily work for their mentee. It is very difficult to get published, especially in high impact journals when you are on your own and don’t have a big name. This is a big challenge, and it is a critical time for scientists, Dr Clemens says.
What people need help with - structure, structure, structure
Often people don’t really know what the problem is with their writing, Dr Clemens says. A typical situation could be that they are getting rejected by the journals that they are targeting, but they don’t know why. If you are a non-native English speaker, you tend to think that that the language is the problem, but I think most of the time, the main problem is the structure, and knowing how to structure a piece, Dr Clemens explains. People don’t think about the structure of let’s say an article. So, there will be lots of problems with inconsistency and the text being unclear. There could be problems related to the structure itself as well as to the story behind the structure. There could also be problems with the sentence structure and paragraph structure.
A step-by-step process to get published in high impact journals
There is a process which I call the five step process for writing articles, Dr Clemens says. I think it’s important to think of it this way - that writing is a process. Probably, most people don’t think of it as a process, though, and they don’t have a plan for it, she says.
So, the process for writing articles consists of five steps. They are all around a backbone that I call the storytelling framework, Dr Clemens says. The storytelling framework is a framework that helps you structure the paper as a story. I really believe that if you try to tell a story in the paper, it helps you to make it a better paper, and the readers will find it easier to understand. Also, it helps you writing, because if you want to tell a story, then you are confined to the storytelling framework which means you will achieve consistency.
Set the storytelling framework
What we do is that we translate from drama, Dr Clemens says. The story in a drama contains some crucial elements. For example, in a classical story there are characters who are facing a problem - some challenge that they must overcome. That problem is what makes the story a story. The characters attempt to solve the challenge, and this results in some action scenes. Eventually the problem is solved and then we have the part that is called the resolution, Dr Clemens explains. At this point, the characters have solved the problem, and we get to see what happens to them now.
The problem, the characters and the different acts
The drama-structure is translated to the scientific text, i.e., we just take the simplest structure of classic stories and apply it to the scientific writing process, Dr Clemens says.
First, what you need is a clearly defined problem, i.e., you need to identify what the problems is that you are trying to solve. I think, if you just do that, your paper will improve a lot because it makes it really clear to the reader what the motivation for the study is, Dr Clemens explains. Defining the problem, you are planting the seed what the implication of the study is, and why it is significant. This is incredibly important for the reader, who needs to be able to put the research results and findings in a context.
The introduction section would then correspond to the first act in the story. This is where you introduce the characters of the paper, i.e., your research topic. For example, the model system, or the problem that you are working on, is your character. In this section, you want to tell the reader about the character and also clearly define the problem.
Then, the materials and methods section are the action parts of the story. This is where the problem is getting solved. This is the ‘meat’ of the paper.
Then we have what is usually called the climax in a story, where everything is resolved. This is the conclusions part. This could be a separate section, but some papers integrate it in the discussion section. The discussion has an important function as the resolution. This is something that many scientists struggle with - they don’t put their findings into context. Many scientists define the context in the beginning of the paper, but at the end, they are not connecting the overall context. It is very important that the beginning and the end connect. Ideally, we get back to what we started with, Dr Clemens says. We are clearly telling the reader, how much of this problem that we defined in the beginning, that we now have solved. And again, it’s important for the readers to understand where this research fits.
The five-step-process for writing articles - a strategy to stop struggling with manuscripts
So what are the five steps that constitute the writing-process and that will take you through writing a successful manuscript? Below they are summarized:
Step 1: Identify the story - the central message. This is about finding key story elements. Also, decide what journal to publish in.
Step 2: Write the results section. This is the “action part”. Communicate what the figures show, and build the argument. What are the different steps that you are going through when solving the problem that you have defined.
Step 3: Write the introduction. This is where you introduce the topic, i.e. where you introduce the problem.
Step 4: Write the Discussion section. Contextualize the findings and close the circle.
Step 5: Packaging. All the main sections are now in place. What remain are abstract, title and cover letters.
Listen to this interesting interview with Dr Clemens to learn more about the five-step process, and the key activities in each of the steps
Malin graduated in engineering physics in 2006, where her research focused on the QCM-D technology. Since then, she has been scrutinizing the how’s and why’s of the world in general, and the world of QCM-D in particular.