The 5 main questions when writing a research paper

Hi all! Life’s being good in Brookline, even though Spring has not arrived yet. It snowed today, can you believe it? I’ve already been pretty active after a difficult last two months and am loving this new era so much that my next post will be about it. But now, let’s write about a very important PhD life update…

I submitted my first research manuscript from my PhD!

Wow, and if you’re not in research, what does that even mean? Let’s break it down in what is, at least, the usual structure in science, technology, engineering and maths.

A research manuscript is a document, like a report, stating the results of your research. You start by saying what you are researching, your hypothesis and why it is important. Then, you go over and state how you are going to find out if your hypothesis is valid or not. You proceed to present the results (probably with a few figures and tables) and discuss them and then conclude by stating if your hypothesis holds and if you are going to proceed with future studies on the hypothesis or on related fields.

A submission means that I sent the manuscript for a journal to be evaluated, and experts in the field who will read and comment on it, called reviewers, will deem my manuscript suitable for publication in that journal or not. Rejection sucks, but sometimes it’s necessary and a learning curve.

A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is a higher education degree. In Europe, after the Bologna Process for higher education, it’s called the 3rd cycle of higher education studies. In the US, it is part of the graduate school system, which might be equivalent to a Masters + PhD in the European system. In Europe, it generally lasts for 3-5 years. In the US, the whole grad school goes from between 5 to 7 years. For a lot of people, it is the first introduction to a more independent style of research. For others, it’s not their first experience in doing so. It might make you more prepared for a future career in academia, or give you plenty of hard and mostly soft skills should you choose another path.

Off with the introductions! I am not new to the research manuscript submission stage. Searching for me on PubMed yields four research articles and I was highly engaged in writing in all of them, in order to back up my credentials. I just felt rusty, because I was not writing a new paper with original results for one year and a half before I submitted this one. I am going to mix this post with a general feelings overview to everyone and a few technical tips for those who are getting started or wish to improve their writing prowess. Let’s go?

writing academic manuscript

1 – What do I even do with these results?

Yes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell a positive and cohesive story. We spent our time researching our hypothesis and are lost in data. We made our barplots, took photographs of cells, showed some fancy statistics to show, or not, significant trends. You will end up discussing with your supervisor if those results and graphics are really enough to convey an idea clearly. My advice on this is to attempt different ways to visually show the data and to try different programs to produce them. I use either Python or R for plotting, but for those not as acquainted with programming it might not be the best choice. In order to make schemes, I use Inkscape as a free substitute for Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. I will only advocate for open source, freeware software and programming languages, so don’t ask me about the licensed alternatives 😉

It is a good idea to seek help of colleagues and to print out any figures to see if the contrast is enough on paper. Finally, if you are having too much trouble visually showcasing your results, check if your deparment has any image consultation services. I attended one workshop on science visualization at MIT with some free consultations and there is a whole open online course on this, check it out for more tips 😉

2 – Do I really have to make a detailed introduction?

YES. Writing the introduction is highly dreaded by a lot of scientists, because what’s more exciting are the results. Introducing your work well is key for good readability! People will always want to know a background on why you are researching this topic, and it helps a lot if the topic is too specific too. Additionally, a good introduction will improve the chances that your paper is cited by other articles in the future. I’ve done that, quoting articles with good introductions in order to backup ideas for my own introductions on papers. Be sure you read a lot of appropriate papers, which takes us to the next topic…

writing academic manuscripts

3 – How can I even find good articles to cite in my article?

Searching for academic manuscripts is like a needle in a haystack. Sometimes you need to use so many search terms to narrow them down and then you notice that the article you wanted to read is blocked by a paywall because your academic institution does not have access to it…oh my! The discussion on the open acess to scientific publications is a business for later. My personal favorite website is Web of Knowledge. Unfortunately, you can only access this from local networks of universities, or if you have a remote connection. Otherwise, you can do a search on Google Scholar. Make sure to combine different refinements in search terms to narrow down to the articles that are really interesting. Additionally, choose carefully the keywords of your own article, since they will influence the way that these articles will be retrieved by search engines.

If you still can’t find that article you really should read, try to ask to a friend in another country if access is available there, or even ask the authors on ResearchGate. If all this doesn’t work, just try to find a related article that has open access.

4 – Which journal should I submit this to?

A very important thing is to knock at the right door. It’s like any other choice in life. Imagine you are a farmer and grow tomatoes. Probably, a good customer would be a pizzeria or a salad place. However, do you really think you can sell tomatoes to a hairdresser? It’s the same thing with journals. Read the scope well and even enquire the editor in chief of the journal making a small overview of your work and asking if it would fit the journal well. A rule of thumb is to submit your draft to the journal where you have the most references from. Chances are you are reviewing the state of the art in the introduction and using these papers to discuss your findings.

5 – Should I invest all this time? What if the paper is rejected?

As I said before, rejection sucks big time. We all have been rejected in one way or another. Since, during my career, this happened to me more than once, and I even had my fourth research paper be rejected three times before I got it published, I am no stranger. So, my advice within a PhD is to submit sooner rather than later because chances are that the work will undergo major revision or be rejected and needs to be submitted to another journal in the field. Sometimes, this ocurrence tells us that we need to improve our work and take the time for doing so. Remember, PhD is a marathon, not a sprint.

writing academic manuscripts

I guess these are my 5 main phiosophical questions when writing! Since I like writing, it’s not a burden to me. It’s the format that sometimes I have issues with. My hopefully first article of PhD and the fifth of my research career is now under review. So, we’re at the mercy of experts. I am hoping for the best, and I share with you the most adorable meme I ever made 😉

If you are also writing your manuscripts, I wish you all the best! If you are not in the academic field, I hope this gave you a better understanding of how the system works. Don’t forget to follow me in all the social networks for more content over at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest and keep up to date with my new adventures in the US!

Cátia

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