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Practical Tips for Writing a Journal Article Prepared by Matthew Richardson NSF GK-12 Fellow University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 2007.

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Presentation on theme: "Practical Tips for Writing a Journal Article Prepared by Matthew Richardson NSF GK-12 Fellow University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 2007."— Presentation transcript:

1 Practical Tips for Writing a Journal Article Prepared by Matthew Richardson NSF GK-12 Fellow University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 2007

2 Disclaimer Please remember as you read this that I am a scientist. My publishing experiences have been largely with scientific journals and many examples I give will be science- oriented rather than education-based (and I also use examples from some of my publications and cite them, at the risk of seeming vain, in order to avoid copyright infringement). I feel, however, that many of the following suggestions apply to many journals, educational, scientific, or otherwise.

3 So you think you have an idea for a manuscript? Background research –Is there an audience for your idea? –Is your idea high-quality? Quality test for an education manuscript: do you use the idea and would the idea be a good project 10 years from now (since so much is available electronically, projects can be accessed for longer periods and must be useable for longer periods)? Run it by colleagues who will critically review your idea. Would they use it in their classroom?

4 More Background Research –Has your idea already been published by someone else? Check all appropriate sources. Even if someone previously published your idea, your work still may be publishable: –Can you extend the idea? –Can you refute some of the information in print? –If it is a controversial topic, even supporting the published paper could make your paper publishable. –Is your project in a different environment or research system than what is in print? »E.g., An educational study that used rural students as their subjects may end up with different results than if they had used urban students.

5 Where to submit? Before collecting data or writing the manuscript, get an idea of appropriate venues for submitting your manuscript. –Do not initially tailor your idea and format to fit only one journal. Read a range of journals to get a sense of what type of information you will need for publication. Qualitative data? Quantitative data? Student feedback Statistics? Photographs? Permission slips from students? Permits for using city, state, or national lands?

6 After you complete data collection, but before writing the manuscript… Select the venue –People in academia try to publish in what we call “high-impact journals.” These journals are well-respected because of the quality of the articles. There is a system that ranks the impact of journals. If you are familiar with the rankings and use them to select a venue, fine, but let’s discuss better ways to pick a journal.

7 How to pick a journal Best way: Is your work appropriate? If not, the manuscript will immediately be rejected by the editor and will not be seen by reviewers. –Visit the journal’s website. They often list their “aims and scope” and tell you what types of articles they do and do not publish. E.g., You use a great “how-to” project in your biology class. Many educational journals, such as Teaching Issues in Experimental Ecology, are focused on educational theory and do not accept “how-to” articles. There are venues for practically every type of paper, however, you just need to do your research.

8 Other ways to tell if your work is appropriate for a particular venue… –Does your work meet the quality standards of the publication? E.g. Top journals only publish important projects that have statistical results shown to be highly significant. If your data are fuzzy, it is best to aim a lower. –Do you cite other articles from the journal? A journal that you rely on heavily for background research is often an appropriate place to submit your work. Get bonus points: Journals also like it when you cite them because it may increase their “impact.”

9 Have OCD when it comes to details Before you begin writing, read the author guidelines (on-line or in a hard copy of the journal). While you are writing, follow the author guidelines and formatting exactly. –I have never known someone to be rejected solely on formatting, but there are always stories of someone getting rejected, or at the very least, irritating editors, because formatting was ignored. Read other articles from the journal and check formatting. The author guidelines are often vague, but each journal has its own formatting and copying formatting from (recently!) published works is a sure way to get everything correct.

10 Common sections of a scientific article (In the order they normally appear) Title Abstract Keywords Introduction Materials & Methods Results Discussion, Conclusions or Implications Acknowledgements References cited Tables Figures Which sections do you need for the journal you selected?

11 A good title tells what the paper is about Informative: describes the subject and perhaps the organism used or research environment Specific: differentiates your research from other published papers on the subject Concise: gives only important details

12 Informative Poor – “A Biodiversity Lesson” Better – “Teaching students about biodiversity by studying the correlation between plant and arthropod biodiversity”

13 Specific Poor – “The life of kingsnakes in Illinois.” Better – “Habitat use and activity of prairie kingsnakes (Lampropeltis calligaster calligaster) in Illinois.”

14 Concise Poor – “The effects of a juvenile hormone analog, pyriproxyfen, on molting, development, survivorship, longevity, and reproduction of the apterous form of soybean aphid (Aphis glycines). “ Better – “Effects of a juvenile hormone analog, pyriproxyfen, on the apterous form of soybean aphid (Aphis glycines).”

15 Abstract 1) Start with motivation or justification if space allows (makes the reader think the paper might be interesting) 2) State the objective 3) Summarize essential materials and objectives 4) Summarize results, but statistics not normally presented. 5) End with important conclusions and implications. –#2-5 Makes the reader want to read the paper because it is interesting.

16 Abstract The abstract should be a stand-alone summary of the entire paper. –Although it appears first, write the abstract last. Be specific and concise. –Many journals have a limit on length.

17 Common mistakes in abstracts Different font sizes Duplicate words –E.g., in the in the Punctuation errors Poor grammar/word choice References in the abstract

18 Common mistakes in abstracts Use of numerals to start a sentence –E.g., 12 children took part in the study. Use of words that do not exist Undefined abbreviations Contradictory information Poor structure

19 Key words Often come at the end of an abstract. Used for indexing purposes (search terms that will help someone find your article) and thus, often should not overlap with the title (the title is normally automatically included in databases). –E.g., The title is, “Effects of Grassland Restoration on Local Abundances of Small Mammals and Snakes in Illinois.” Potential key words for this article could include key species, habitat, and restoration methods such as, tallgrass prairie, deer mice, blue racers, and prescribed burning.

20 Writing the body of the paper An effective writer is clear in their message. An effective writer anticipates potential questions from reviewers and readers and answers those questions in the paper. An effective writer correctly interprets their data and delivers an accurate message. An effective writer uses efficient formatting and writing to save the reader time.

21 Introduction Start with a “hook” to interest the reader. Summarize background research. Point out what is lacking in the published literature (where is the gap in knowledge?)

22 Introduction State your objectives or hypotheses and how it fills a need. –Justify your work. Some journals also want a preview of your results at end of the intro.

23 Materials & methods Give a complete description of all materials and methods that are essential to that particular publication. –Often you do a lot of work and not all of it is necessary to include. Only put things in the materials and methods that will be important for interpreting the results. –A complete description should allow someone else to repeat your project.

24 Materials & methods Use appropriate statistics and discuss what tests you used. For equipment it is often necessary to report the company and its location in parentheses following product. –E.g. A veterinarian implanted Model SB-2T transmitters (Holohil Systems Ltd., Carp, Ontario) into snakes. Use appropriate abbreviations for units of measurement.

25 Materials & methods Use singular rather than plural. –E.g. Instead of…“We located snakes every 48 h until they moved to the hibernaculum area and ceased most activity.” Use …“We located each snake every 48 h until it moved to the hibernaculum area and ceased most activity.”

26 Results Everything you say you do in the methods should have an entry in the results. –Exception: Information in tables or figures should be referred to, but not repeated, in the text. Statistics are often difficult to understand, so clearly present them.

27 Results – writing numbers Use Arabic numerals for a number with a unit of measurement. –E.g. 193 d, 9 g, > 2 m Do not start a sentence with a numeral. –E.g. 20 students participated in the activity.

28 Results – writing numbers Spell out numbers less than 10 if not associated with a unit of measurement, but write the numeral for numbers 10 or greater. –E.g. In group two there were seven students. –E.g. In group two there were 10 students.

29 Discussion, conclusions, or implications Explain the results of the work in terms of the objectives stated in the introduction. Do not repeat data. Support your conclusions with published literature.

30 Discussion, conclusions, or implications Contrast your conclusions with published literature. Describe limitations of your work. Describe implications or applications of your work.

31 References cited This section is the most difficult to format. Each journal has different formatting instructions for citations. Read the author instructions for appropriate formatting and check recent issues. Check to make sure every space, period, comma, etc. are perfect. This section can drive editors mad if not properly formatted.

32 Tables and figures Each journal presents these in different ways. Check their instructions and recent issues. Tables and figures should have enough detail to stand alone (i.e., should be understood without reading the paper).

33 Tables and figures Present only important data. Use as many as necessary, but not more than is necessary. Avoid complex tables and figures.

34 Improve your writing… The next slides present general information to keep in mind for all sections of the paper.

35 Tense? Introduction, Materials & Methods, and Results: paste tense Discussion: present tense

36 Paragraph structure Discuss only one subject in a paragraph. Start with a good topic sentence that creates a smooth transition from the preceding paragraph. Use appropriate sentence structure –Just like the overall paper, the sentence structure should be concise. Avoid excess verbiage and compound sentences.

37 Paragraph structure Use consistent style Use the same organizational pattern for successive sentences Use parallel structure –E.g., use “than” or “as” in a comparison –E.g., use “whereas” or “however” in a contrast –E.g. In lists, “Captured mammals were weighed, marked, and released,” NOT “Mammals were weighed, marked, and captured mammals were released.” It is not easier for the reader if you vary style, format, or construction of your paragraphs and sentences.

38 Make your writing easier to read Choose the right words: –That are accurate (say what you mean) –That are appropriate (fit well with the other words) –That are familiar (easy to read and understand)

39 Examples of familiar words Instead of… –Commence –Prioritize –Finalize –Terminate –Utilize (this word drives some reviewers crazy) Use… –Begin –Rank –Finish –End –Use

40 Avoid jargon Use technical terms only when necessary Say it simply and in plain language

41 Avoid passive sentences Instead of… –“Sheet checks involved lifting up sheets and collecting all snakes found underneath.” Use… –“We checked sheets by lifting them up and collecting all snakes found underneath.”

42 Tighten, tighten, tighten your writing It costs money to publish. These costs are absorbed as page charges by the writer (I have paid $55-$120 per page) or the publisher. Either way, tighten your writing to keep it as short as possible (remember, this makes it efficient for readers, too).

43 Tighten your writing Eliminate waste words (words which say nothing). –Especially the word “the” which is overused. If you edit your writing and just eliminate the word “the” when possible, it will tighten your writing. Eliminate vague words (words that cannot be quantified or do not add to your understanding).

44 Eliminate redundant words (words whose meaning are already clear) Instead of… –different alternatives –completely eliminate –refer back Use… –alternatives –eliminate –refer

45 Use one word for a phrase Instead of… –due to the fact that –prior to the start of –on a regular basis –despite the fact that –in the event that Use… –because –before –regularly –although –if

46 Write in the first person In many English classes we were taught to avoid writing in first person. In journals, however, you did the work and you must write in first person. This also helps your writing to be more direct and easily understood.

47 Ethics in publishing Never fabricate data. Never falsify data. –E.g. Do not throw out data points that “do not look right.” Do not plagiarize. –Reword (and even then attribute the source). –Direct quotes are rarely used, but make sure you use quotation marks and properly cite the source.

48 Authorship issues – who gets to be an author? While this may not seem directly related to writing, I have had authorship dilemmas at every stage of my academic career, so I am including it. Authorship is not clearly defined by many journals or societies and different labs adhere to different policies.

49 Authorship For inclusion as an author, they normally must make a substantial contribution in one (or all) of the following areas: 1) Conception of the ideas or experimental design. 2) Execution of the study 3) Analysis or interpretation of data 4) Writing of the manuscript The person who writes the bulk of the manuscript tends to be first author.

50 Who is not an author? Contributing only the following is not enough to be an author: –Editing of the paper –Providing funding, equipment or lab space –Being an advisor But, advisors often do contribute in other ways, too. –Lab technicians: While they often do the bulk of the labor, they normally do not have intellectual input into the project. The acknowledgements section is where you thank the people who contributions in these ways.

51 Authorship order Normally authors are listed in decreasing order of their input. –The senior author is the first author. They normally had the largest input into the project. –Exception: sometimes on multi-authored papers from a lab, if the head of the lab is not the senior author, then they are often listed last, which signifies their position. –The first author is normally the corresponding author because they know the most about the project.

52 How the review process works… When you finish the paper, follow the journal’s submission instructions. Most journals want the manuscript sent as an e- mail attachment or they have a website for uploading the article. You submission is assigned an editor who is responsible for finding reviewers (normally 2-3). After the reviewers weigh in, the editor makes the final decision about the acceptance of the manuscript (the editor normally follows the reviewers’ recommendations, but not always). The review process can be slow. Reviews will normally take months. If you do not hear from the editor by the end of 4 months, it is appropriate to contact the editor and kindly ask for an update.

53 How a journal will respond There are normally three responses you get from a journal. –Accepted with no revisions (pretty much never happens) –Accepted with revisions (the editor and reviewers will list specific items that need to be addressed before final acceptance) –Rejected

54 If you get rejected… Do not despair, it happens Read what the reviewers wrote –Fix the problems (unless they are really fatal problems that doom the project) Research other “lower impact” journals that would be appropriate Reformat according to the journal’s instructions Resubmit

55 References Grossman, M Techniques for writing and presenting a scientific paper. University of Illinois, Urbana, IL. 186 pp. Richardson, M. L., and J. Hari Teaching students about biodiversity by studying the correlation between plant and arthropod biodiversity. The American Biology Teacher. (Submitted) Richardson, M. L., and D. M. Lagos Effects of a juvenile hormone analog, pyriproxyfen, on the apterous form of soybean aphid (Aphis glycines). Journal of Applied Entomology. (In press) Richardson, M. L., J. D. Brawn, and P. J. Weatherhead Effects of grassland restoration on local abundances of small mammals and snakes in Illinois. Ecological Restoration. (Submitted) Richardson, M. L., P. J. Weatherhead, and J. D. Brawn Habitat use and activity of prairie kingsnakes (Lampropeltis calligaster calligaster) in Illinois. Journal of Herpetology. 40(4):


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