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7 Tips for Better Scientific Manuscripts



7 Tips for Better Scientific Manuscripts

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

As a reviewer for several scientific journals, Professor Ian Wilson has seen some of the best manuscript submissions—and some of the worst.

Wilson, who serves as Hansen Professor of Structural Biology and chair of the Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), shared manuscript writing tips at a recent workshop titled “Manuscript Writing, Submission and Publications: An Editor’s Perspective.” The workshop was sponsored by TSRI’s Career and Postdoctoral Services Office.

Here are some of Wilson’s tips for submitting scientific work to journals:

Don’t fail in the abstract. First, said Wilson, don’t repeat your study title as the first sentence of your abstract. “That’s a waste of words,” he said. Instead, explain what question you were trying to answer in the study, and do not go into detail regarding methods. For a guide on writing abstracts, Wilson recommended “How to construct a Nature summary paragraph.”

Rewind and rewrite. Wilson stressed the need to return to the title and abstract after finishing the manuscript. Concepts can change as one writes, new data can come out and certain points might have been left out. Go back and make sure the title and abstract still fit. After all, he said, reviewers usually have to decide whether to review your paper based on just the title and abstract.

Tailor your paper to the journal. Wilson reminded authors to format their titles, abstracts, text and references for the journal they are aiming for. Reviewers notice when a paper is formatted for a different journal, and it can color their view of whether the paper is suitable for publication in that journal or whether it has have already been rejected by another journal.

Don’t just data dump. More and more journals are giving authors a chance to share large datasets and additional figures in their “Supporting Online Material.” Wilson said authors should go back and revise this material after reading reviewer comments to ensure it is relevant. Authors should also make sure this material is referred to in the manuscript itself.

Friends aren’t usually the best reviewers. When journals ask for suggested reviewers, it makes sense to suggest scientists in competing laboratories who are experts in the field, said Wilson, because they will understand the big picture questions you are trying to address. In fact, he’s noticed that when scientists suggest only their friends as reviewers, they tend to get harsher reviews because their friends aren’t as knowledgeable in the field

Make the edits, even if you get rejected. Wilson has seen many authors get rejected from one journal and then submit to a new journal without making the suggested edits from the first review. “That’s a huge faux pas,” he said. Most fields have a small pool of reviewers, so there’s a good chance you’ll get the same reviewer—who won’t be happy to see previous edits ignored.

Pay it forward. Finally, said Wilson, remember to thank your reviewers and editors for their time. “It is a lot of work,” he said. Wilson also recommends that scientists try to review at least one paper for each paper they publish!

To find more career support and upcoming workshops, visit the TSRI Career and Postdoctoral Services Office website.

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Professor Ian Wilson shared manuscript writing tips at a recent workshop. (Photo by John Dole.)