Always keep in mind that a scientific manuscript is written to share original results of a study with the community. If you conducted a study, but do not publish it, the knowledge you gathered is more or less lost – what a waste of your precious time, and what a loss for the community! So, even if it is hard work to get a paper published, we should always try to report what we have (or have not) found out. It is definitely worth the effort!
The structure of a research manuscript
Usually, the main parts of a manuscript are:
However, this is usually not the sequence you write your paper in!
The title should be the shortest possible way to describe the content of your paper. Keep in mind that the title is the most important part of the manuscript for a potential reader to decide if the paper is of interest to her/him. Be on point and do not use fill-words. If you have studied a certain species/ group/ chemical/ region etc. , mention this in the title. If you are unsure about your title, check published manuscripts (best in the journal you prefer to publish in) to get an idea of how the title is supposed to look like.
Usually about 250 words, the abstract is a summary and kind of a teaser for your study. Keep in mind that most people will just read the abstract, as still in many journals, only the abstract is free of charge for a reader.
The abstract should briefly describe the general scope, aims, methods, main results and conclusion of your study. Generally, the reader should be able to assess the major points of your study by just reading the abstract. Although it is located at the beginning of the paper, it is easiest to write the abstract after you are finished writing your paper.
Usually, after the abstract, you are asked to add a list of keywords. The keywords describe the context of your research, e.g. stress, movement behaviour, cortex. Those words are used by the indexing services, and, in addition to the words in your title, add to the chance that people will find your manuscript. Your keywords thus should not already be a part of the title – the more words you use for indexing, the better are the chances that your manuscript will be read by a large audience.
In the introduction, you first highlight the context of your research and then outline broadly what other studies have found. Generally, before you start outlining your study, you need to be very familiar with all work already done in around this topic. Readers, which are unfamiliar with the topic, need to get an overview of what is already known to follow your research. Afterward, you highlight what is still unclear – here is where your study aim follows. You aim to close the lack of knowledge, and need to explain why this is important. Here you clarify your motivation for your study. Also formulate clear hypothesis and predictions for your study, based on the earlier studies. This helps the reader to follow your thoughts, and also gives the further manuscript a clear structure – make sure you keep the order of the hypothesis introduced here throughout the manuscript. In general, the introduction starts very broadly with the study context and gets more detailed until its end, like a reverse pyramid.
The Methods section needs to provide sufficient detail for other scientists to exactly reproduce your study. Thus, it needs to include a lot of details regarding your study objects (e.g. animals, their ages, housing etc.), study side, how the data was collected, which instruments did you use with details regarding company and model asf., and how the data analysis was conducted. Basically, describe everything you have used and done in your study in detail. As this section is quite forward, you might want to start with it before writing the other parts of your paper (but after having clarified aims and hypothesis).
In the result section, you present your results and only your results. This might seem obvious, but quite often results are already discussed and explained in this section. Keep the discussion of your results in your discussion (unless the journal clearly instructs you to do otherwise). To start with your result section, it is best if you prepare the data you like to present in tables or figures. Keep in mind to follow the order of your hypothesis, and have a short introduction what you tested to keep the reader on track. When you are finished with your tables and figures, write the corresponding text for each – be very to the point. Name what was significantly different, referring to your table/figure. (E.g. Dogs were significantly faster than elephants (Tab. 4)). You do not need to name all the insignificant results – it is fine to write: No further significant differences were found (see Tab. 4).
You need to give all the statistical data in your result section – P-values, Degrees of freedom and, depending on the test you conducted, the corresponding other important values. But do not mention them both in table and text – if there are already in your table, you do not need to add them to the text. This makes your results way more readable, and the reader can always check for the statistical results in the table if he is further interested.
Furthermore, keep in mind that statistically, your results are either significant (p<0.05) or they are not. If there are no significant results, do not write e.g. that there is a tendency that dogs are heavier than elephants. That is just not what your data supports. If you have results that are nearly significant (e.g. p=0.059) you can mention and discuss them in the discussion, and suggest that e.g. with a higher N the results would have been significant and that future studies should consider testing more animals (in our example).
Figures and tables
Figures and tables are crucial when presenting your results, and they need to be self-explanatory. This means, even if the reader did not read the accompanying text, he/she needs to be able to understand what this table or figure is showing, and what the results are. As already mentioned, tables/figures should not duplicate the information described elsewhere in the manuscript. Especially for figures, besides a short but on the point legend, you need to make sure that your axis and data scales and descriptions are of an appropriate size. Do not show more than 3-4 data sets at once, and include clearly distinguishable symbols or colours if you show different data sets in one figure. If you have tested a lot of different components, a table is sometimes the better way to present all your data. Nonetheless, if it’s a huge table, it better goes into the supplements and you can highlight the most important (or only the significant results) in a figure. Mention that the complete data set is added to the manuscript in the appendix in the accompanying text in that case.
Start your discussion with shortly mentioning the study context and aim again. After that, work through your hypothesis in the same order you introduced them. Do not simply restate the results — highlight the most significant results, interpret them and explain your conclusions. Stick to what your data shows, and avoid statements that go beyond what your results can support. Does your data support your hypothesis? What are the resulting conclusions? Can further predictions be made? Do your results resemble what other studies have reported? If your results were unexpected, try to explain why, and mention other studies supporting your suggestions. Speculations or interpretations are allowed, but they need to be backed up by facts and other studies. What kind of further studies would be necessary to answer the questions raised by your results?
End your discussion with a short paragraph summarising your conclusions, and emphasize why it is relevant to your field of study.
Did you receive funding for this project? Mention this here. Have colleagues helped you with the project or reviewed the manuscript? Thank them, too.
Make sure your reference list is complete and in line with the style format of the chosen journal. It makes sense to use a citation program, but you have to be aware that you still need to check the references thoroughly, as this programs display the references the way you add them to the program and might be inconsistent (e.g. with/without DOI, full/ abbreviated journal name).
Last but not least: Do not give up! Usually, there is a point where you have a blackout and have read your text so often that you do not really see what you have written there – in that case, do something else! Get you head off it, and come back to the manuscript the next day (or week, or month, depending on your timetable). Even scientific writing is (in parts) a creative process. Good ideas for your manuscript often occur when you do not expect them, so allow space to let your mind wander.
And: Ask for help if you need it. Have a colleague read the first version of your manuscript, and advice you what she/he thinks needs to be changed.
I hope this wrap-up provides some tips to support you in the process of writing your research article! Go for it!