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The Scientific Paper: Home

This guide provides information on the process of writing a scientific paper

Plagiarism

What is Plagiarism?

 

The following information is from Nicole Mitchell's LibGuide on "Citing Sources."  This box is placed at the top of this page because it is that important.  DO NOT CLAM ANOTHER'S WORK AS YOUR OWN.  Enough said...

According to the UAB Academic Honor Code, PLAGIARISM means claiming as your own the ideas, words, data, computer programs, creative compositions, artwork, etc., done by someone else. Examples include improper citation of referenced works, the use of commercially available scholarly papers, failure to cite sources, or copying another person’s ideas.

 

In order to avoid plagiarism, use the "3 Step Rule" in your academic writing:

All information from sources must be:

1.   Paraphrased, summarized, or quoted AND

2.   Cited in the same paragraph AND

3.  Included in a reference list at the end of the document

Useful resources on avoiding plagiarism:

The Ethics of Paraphrase (from UAB Graduate School) includes strategies for effective paraphrasing

Is it Plagiarism Yet?  (from Purdue OWL) discusses what needs to be cited and what is common knowledge

The Scientific Paper

Dear Novice Writer,

When I was in your shoes and preparing my first paper, I consulted a book on how to write. I found there a sentence encouraging the reader to do the following:

"After standing in boiling water for an hour, examine the contents of the flask."

I had a pretty good idea what was wrong with the sentence but, at the time I couldn't figure out how to revise it, and the author didn't tell me.

From: How to Write and Illustrate a Scientific Paper (2nd ed.) Bjorn Gustavii.

No one knows how to write a scientific paper without practice and help.  Many science students practice this skill when they are asked to write lab reports. This guide will describe some best practices for scientific writing and give you some additional sources to explore.

Introduction

“There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature citation too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print.”

Drummond Rennie, MD, 1986

Aside from that somewhat cynical statement, exactly what is a scientific paper?  Robert Day's answer is  "A drug is any substance which, when injected into a laboratory rat, produces a scientific paper."

With that definition in mind, this guide is for the student or new academic who, up to this point,  has had minimum exposure to writing the formal scientific paper.  The tabs (TITLE, ABSTRACT, INTRODUCTION, METHODS, RESULTS, DISCUSSION and REFERENCES) on this guide correspond to  the usual parts or headings of a paper.   The information presented there will describe what information that part or section should contain.  The literature of each discipline has a distinctive style.  Most use the IMRaD format (introduction, methods, results and discussion).  This format reflects the basis of scientific inquiry through the identification of questions to be asked and answered; through the statement of a hypotheses; the gathering of data based on observations; and the drawing of conclusions.  The ultimate goal is to write a good scientific article that meets the expections of experts in the field of inquiry.

There are several kinds of writing that fall under the rubric of The Scientific Paper:

  • Peer-reviewed or refereed journal articles (present the results of primary research)

  • Grant proposals (request for a specific project)

  • Literature review articles (summarize research already done in a certain area)

  • Theses and dissertations (present an original topic of research required for an advanced degree)

  • Popular science articles (communicate scientific discoveries to general audience)

Regardless of the kind or purpose, all scientific writing aims at presenting data and/or ideas with precision, clarity, and objectivity that allow a reader to evaluate the validity of the results and conclusions based only on the facts presented.  A well-written paper explains the scientist's motivation for doing an experiment, the experimental design and execution, and the meaning of the results.  Scientific papers are written in a style that is exceedingly clear and concise.  The writer's goal is to inform an audience of scientists about an important issue and to document the particular approach they used to investigate that issue.

If you think that having a command of the English language is not necessary, think again.  Scientists try to be so concise that their English should be better than those in other disciplines.  If English is not your native language, it is a good idea to have a native-speaker proofread your writing.  To quote Robert Day again, "Although good writing does not lead to the publication of bad science, bad writing can - and often does- prevent or delay the publication of good science."

Parts of the Paper

If you have read scientific papers, you will have noticed that a standard format is frequently used. This format allows a researcher to present information clearly and concisely. Scientists communicate new ideas by publishing their research in a specialized format called the journal article

abstract (a summary of the article)

introduction (a brief review of why they chose this experiment)

materials and methods (what organisms and equipment were used)

results (what was found)

discussion (what it means)

references (the list of journal articles and books that the scientist referred to in the paper).

Although not part of the usual form, you can also include Acknowledgements and Special Sections after the References section of the paper.

Guidelines for Reporting Studies

 

   See the Report Results tab of the Reviews guide for information about the different reporting standards.

Tips/Advice

1.  Audience:  science writers need to pay particularly close attention to their audience because readers of science-related writing can have very different levels of knowledge.  Are you writing for an audience that is already familiar with the topic or area?  Are you writing for a broader scientific audience?  Are you writing for the general public? What your readers know or do not know will have a significant effect on both substance and style.

2.  Title: Titles in the sciences tend to be long.  Make sure every word counts.  Titles should be concise, relevant to the research question, and accurately describe the study.  Titles should NOT be a statement of fact...let the reader decide based on analysis of the science involved and the findings.

3.  Headings:  Headings emphasize the systematic nature of scientific enquiry and provide an excellent organizational tool.  In many cases, sections and heading names are predetermined.  The tabs of this guide are the headings typically used in scientific articles.

4.  Jargon:  The word, jargon, generally refers to language that is unrecognizable to most people, either because it is deliberately obscure and needlessly difficult, or because it forms part of the technical terminology common to a discipline.  The "unrecognizable to most people" is to be avoided.  It can sound pretentious and it obscures meaning.  In the sciences, technical jargon or language cannot be avoided.  The main function of technical jargon is compression.  If each jargon term had to be defined or explained, the paper would be considerably longer. 

General Suggestions

To focus your thoughts, (1) write down the three central points; (2) summarize your paper in one sentence; (3) describe your work to a colleague in one minute.

Make an effective outline.  Or a least make a road map of your article.  What points need to be covered and in what order?  What figures or illustrations do you need?  Use the IMRaD format to help you.

If the English language is a mystery to you, whether English is your native language or not, and/or writing is new to you, find a mentor.  Poorly written papers with good science may get rejected if the writing is confusing, muddy, or just plain bad.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, read good writing.  A well written novel can teach constructing effective sentences, vocabulary and plot (outline) construction.  Poetry teaches brevity and how to pack a lot of meaning into a few well-chosen words.  If you want to learn to write well, learn by example from the best.

Authorship and other issues

The following guidelines are from Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals developed by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors.

Authorship

All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify should be listed. Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content. One or more authors should take responsibility for the integrity of the work as a whole, from inception to published article.

Authorship credit should be based only on:

1.   substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;

2.   drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and

3.   final approval of the version to be published.

Conditions 1, 2, and 3 must all be met. Acquisition of funding, the collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, by themselves, do not justify authorship.

Authors should provide a description of what each contributed, and editors should publish that information. All others who contributed to the work who are not authors should be named in the Acknowledgments, and what they did should be described (see Acknowledgments).

Increasingly, authorship of multicenter trials is attributed to a group. All members of the group who are named as authors should fully meet the above criteria for authorship. Group members who do not meet these criteria should be listed, with their permission, in the Acknowledgments or in an appendix (see Acknowledgments).

The order of authorship on the byline should be a joint decision of the coauthors. Authors should be prepared to explain the order in which authors are listed.

Most journals include authorship guidelines in their author instructions like the Annals of Internal Medicine published by the American College of Physicians.  The American College of Emergency Physicians embeds authorship guidelines in its Code of Ethics

Funding Sources and Conflicts of Interest

Part of the ethics of writing is to acknowledge ALL funding sources, especially when even a whiff of conflict of interest could be raised.  This issue is also addressed in most authorship guidelines and organization ethics statements.

The LPU Debate

While the LPU (Least Publishable Unit) will get you lots of papers, scientific papers detailing, outlining or describing each and every step of the research into a particular drug or intervention will also raise red flags at the journal publisher's headquarters.  Unless the article you submit has new and important information about your research, it will probably be rejected.  F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best, "You don't write because you want to say something; you write because you have got something to say."

Plagiarism

Plagiarism - as Michel states in his article, "Do quote all your sources.  The best antidote to plagiarism is always to cite your sources."  (See Plagiarism box at the top of this page.)

 
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