by Dr. Price, ScienceDocs Editor and Writer
Your study’s completed and you’re about to put the final touches to your paper. What are the essential tips that every researcher should consider before they submit their paper to a journal?
The following tips in writing research papers are based on some of the most frequent mistakes that researchers make. Therefore, taking them into consideration will help to set your paper apart from the competition.
1) Ensure that there is consistency throughout every aspect of the paper
If you fail to correct inconsistencies in your paper, you risk distracting your readers from the point that you’re trying to make and, in doing so, your paper will be more difficult to follow. Circumvent criticisms from the peer reviewers—and ensure that they can focus their attention on providing you with the most constructive feedback—by making everything as reader-friendly as possible.
A key mistake that many researchers make is to try to avoid repeating the same terms by using synonyms or near-synonyms. However, this approach can lead to ambiguity, as it can indicate that there are slight differences between the elements that you’re referring to, especially when you’re referring to variables and study subgroups. Therefore, you should ensure that you use consistent terms when you’re referring to the same elements, including in the tables and figures.
For example, if you use “lab results data,” “laboratory factors,” “biochemical characteristics,” “plasma factors,” and “blood sample characteristics” to refer to the same set of test results, they can all be replaced with a term such as “blood test results.”
Moreover, if you list a series of elements, they should be “syntactically and conceptually parallel,” as recommended in the widely-adopted Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2009, p. 63). This is recommended because the sequential repetition of matching elements in a single sentence can augment a reader’s ability to process the sentence as a whole. In fact, there is evidence that the repetition of similar syntax in a single sentence increases the speed at which readers process the sentence (Frazier et al., 1984). In addition, when you mention the series (such as a list of variables) for a second time, the elements should be referred to in the same order, so as not to distract the readers.
The following series are examples of syntactically and conceptually parallel elements:
- A series of nouns: Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, and Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium
- A series of infinitives: to be more physically active, to be less likely to smoke, and to have a lower body mass index
- A series of dependent clauses: where they went, how often they attended, and what they did
Another point to note is that, the first time that you mention a resource that was used in your study (e.g., a medicine, medical device, reagent, piece of equipment, or software package), the manufacturer’s name and address (in the form of the manufacturer’s city and country) should be added in parentheses. Regarding the manufacturers’ names, ensure that company suffixes such as “Inc.” or “Ltd. Co.” are used consistently. In addition, when referencing a brand name of a medicine or medical device, check the journal guidelines on whether the generic name should be used first, followed by the exact proper noun (in parentheses), as it is written in the product literature. In all subsequent references to the medicine or medical device, only use the generic name. When discussing software packages, add the version number to each reference in a consistent manner. Lastly, for cases in which the manufacturer is based in the USA, add the abbreviation for the state.
The following are examples of how to consistently reference resources:
- furosemide (Lasix, Hoechst-Roussel Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Somerville, NJ, USA)
- NanoDrop 2000 Spectrophotometer (Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc., Wilmington, DE, USA)
- IBM SPSS Statistics for Windows version 22.0 (IBM Corp., Armonk, NY, USA)
- Stata version 14 (StataCorp LP, College Station, TX, USA)
A further issue to be aware of is that, in accordance with the international standards set out by the International Organization for Standardization (2009), symbols representing physical quantities and variables should be italicized but symbols representing labels or units should not be. A good rule of thumb to differentiate between quantities and variables versus labels is that the former can be given values whereas the latter cannot.
For example, use “N” (which indicates the total sample size) and “n” (which indicates the size of a subsample) rather than “N” and “n,” and use “Student’s t‐test” rather than “Student’s t‐test.”
Moreover, symbols for genes, mRNA, and cDNA should be italicized (e.g., IGF1). In contrast, gene names that are written out in full (e.g., insulin-like growth factor 1) and symbols for proteins (e.g., IGF1) should not be italicized.
2) Resolve any statistical issues
Many researchers find statistical analyses to be the most challenging aspect of carrying out academic studies. Be aware of, and avoid, the following elementary mistakes that can detract from the credibility of your statistical analysis in the eyes of the peer reviewers.
First, remember the dictum “correlation does not imply causation,” which emphasizes that a correlation between two variables does not prove that one causes the other. For instance, the results of a regression analysis of observational data do not necessarily provide irrefutable evidence for or against a cause‐and‐effect hypothesis. Researchers often inadvertently make causal claims about their findings by using terms such as “causes,” “influences,” “determines,” “affects,” “risk factors,” and “protective factors,” despite not having established causality. To avoid this mistake, consider using terms such as “associations,” “correlations,” “risk markers,” and “protective markers” instead.
Furthermore, when comparing the means of two groups, always mention the comparison group rather than assuming that it will be obvious to the readers.
For example, instead of writing something such as “previous research showed that the value increased in individuals with heart failure,” replace this with something such as “previous research showed that the value was greater in individuals with heart failure compared to healthy controls.”
In addition, when discussing odds ratios, clarify the reference category used in each model. This is particularly important when discussing non-binary variables such as age group and ethnicity as, in these cases, the reference group is not implicit because researchers do not always select the same reference groups.
When referring to null results of statistical tests, the correct term to use is “non-significant” rather than “insignificant,” as “insignificant” will indicate to your readers that your results are inconsequential. By the same token, avoid using the term “significant” to mean “considerable” or “substantial” unless you make it clear that you’re using the term in a different context, e.g., by using expressions such as “clinically significant” or “economically significant.”
Lastly, where appropriate, remember to mention confidence intervals when you discuss your estimates. Confidence intervals have advantages over P-values as, while they both indicate whether the null hypothesis should be accepted or rejected, a confidence interval provides additional information about the range in which the true (unobserved) population value lies with a particular probability (often 95%).
3) Optimize the presentation of the tables and figures
Tables and figures are often the first part of your paper that readers will look at, in order to get an overview of the purpose and findings of the study. Therefore, the tables and figures should be meticulously constructed so that the readers can understand them without referring to the main text.
A key way of ensuring that tables and figures can be easily interpreted is to place any abbreviations used in each of them—along with the associated full terms—immediately below the table or figure. In fact, journal guidelines generally stipulate that researchers should comply with this approach.
Another point that journal guidelines often insist on is that explanations for each table and figure should be provided immediately below the table or figure, with identifiers such as superscript a, b, and c to direct the readers to the relevant explanations. Alternatively, typographical devices such as the asterisk (*) or dagger (†) may be used; the conventional order of these symbols in English is as follows: *, †, ‡, §, ‖, ¶. However, as many researchers use asterisks to denote P-values, e.g., * for 0.05 and ** for 0.01, using superscript letters may be less confusing for your readers.
When finalizing the tables and figures, don’t forget to systematically review all the numbers in them to ensure that they match those in the main text, and verify that the fonts used in the figures are large enough to be read easily by those with less-than-keen eyesight.
Lastly, if you engage an editor to review your paper before you submit it to a journal, ensure that the text in the figures is checked, as this is frequently overlooked.
4) Double-check that nothing’s in the wrong place or missing
Preempt your paper being returned by the peer reviewers along with a long list of edits by checking and double-checking that nothing’s in the wrong place or missing.
First and foremost, check that all the information is in the correct section of the paper. A very common error is to bring up the statistical methods for the first time in the “Results” section instead of explaining them beforehand in the “Methods” section. Furthermore, ensure that the “Results” section is dedicated to the findings of the study, not the interpretation of the findings or comparisons of the findings with those of previous studies. Equally, ensure that all the findings (including negative findings) are mentioned first in the “Results” section before they are brought up in the “Discussion” section.
Another problem that editors often encounter is the use of too few citations. To avoid this, go through each section thoroughly to ensure that all the findings from previous studies, unusual statistical methods, and paraphrases of other researchers’ hypotheses or arguments are fully referenced.
Other details that are often missed out are those related to the collection of the data or samples (e.g., blood samples). Ensure that you provide precise details for the readers. For example, note when the study was conducted (e.g., if the study is a randomized controlled trial, state when it was started and completed), explain where the data or sample collection occurred (e.g., state the hospital, city, and country), and include a detailed description of how the data or samples were selected (e.g., include details about whether they were selected by random, convenience, or purposive sampling).
Abbreviations should only be used when they would help you to communicate with your readers. Therefore, if a term is used fewer than three times in a stand-alone section (e.g., the abstract and the main text), it is often best to write it out in full each time. If an abbreviation is repeated three or more times in a stand-alone section, define it the first time that it’s mentioned in the section and, from then on, only use the abbreviation. To inspect the abbreviations that have been used in a Microsoft Word document, open up the “Find” dialog box, click “More,” check the box labeled “Use wildcards,” and search for “[A-Z][A-Z]” to find words that contain at least two uppercase letters (e.g., “ANOVA”) or search for “[a-z][A-Z]” to find a lowercase letter followed by an uppercase letter (e.g., “QoL”).
Lastly, ask someone who wasn’t directly involved in your study to skim through the paper and provide feedback on anything that you’ve missed. In particular, ask them whether they would have difficulty in repeating your study based on the “Methods” section.
American Psychological Association. 2009. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Frazier, L., Taft, L., Roeper, T., Clifton, C., Ehrlich, K. 1984. Parallel structure: A source of facilitation in sentence comprehension. Memory & Cognition, 12(5), pp. 421–430.
International Organization for Standardization. 2009. ISO-80000-2: 2009, Quantities and units – Part 2: Mathematical signs and symbols to be used in the natural sciences and technology. [online] International Organization for Standardization. Available at: <https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:80000:-2:ed-1:v1:en> [Accessed 11/14/2016].
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