(Mid-week ramble!)

How did you learn to write a scientific paper? (Also: how did your first paper go?)

This brief thought is inspired by a discussion over at Occam’s Typewriter, at Cath Ennis’ place (aka ). There she was pointing (grumping?) at some long-winded phrases in papers she was helping others with.

Somewhere in the discussion there’s this exchange between us (links and emphases as in original):

? says:
It boggles the mind how few people seem to have read any scientific papers before attempting to write their own!

(I’m not referring to this specific manuscript, but rather to a general pattern of people just not seeming to understand the conventions of the format)

Grant says:
’It boggles the mind how few people seem to have read any scientific papers before attempting to write their own!’

I find that very hard to imagine. They ought to have been reading papers since senior undergraduate classes, surely. Mind you, I can imagine plenty not thinking about how to write a paper, though, bad as that is.

? says:
That’s just what I’ve inferred; I don’t see how anyone could read more than a handful of papers and then still commit some of the formatting and other atrocities I’ve seen over the last few years. But like you said, people may just have a problem generalising what they’ve read and then applying the standard format to their own papers

Grant says:
I’m with you now :-)

You’d hope it’d occur to students one day they’ll be writing one of those things. Hmm. I might blog about an aspect of this ;-)  (Not tonight, soon-ish.)

Seems I wasn’t right about that last one as I’m writing it tonight.* Ah, well…

How were you taught to write papers?

My memory is way too vague now. I recall there being little bits of it a different stages, but I can’t remember being formally taught to write research papers as such.

I have this fuzzy recollection that we were made to write up some undergraduate laboratory ‘stuff’ in a basic paper format. (I’m quite sure of it, really, but like most people my undergrad years were a blur of schedules, lectures, labs. and everything else in between.)

Thinking back I don’t think I connected these exercises with the research literature in any real way at the time, that it was just how we were ’supposed’ to do it. I think this was in part because at that point we had no real exposure to the research literature. We were still getting formal lectures and reading those enormous textbooks that seem designed to try give skinny students weight training on the side.

It makes me think that those ‘write-up’ exercises would have meant more if we’d been shown a few papers first, let us see that research papers were the lifeblood of the research industry.

Perhaps part of the problem was not having been taught the history the scientific method thing. It’s got a bit to do with why research papers are laid out as they are. Y’know, learn what’s established thus far, develop your hypotheses, how you’re going to test them (and why those tests are appropriate), then results, etc.

It’s more than saying ’it’s done like this’, it’s showing why. A sort of taught-course equivalent of that writing advice of ’don’t tell; show’.

Either way when I came to write my first ‘proper’ research paper I’d long forgotten those exercises. I’m willing to bet that’d be the same for many others. There’s a decent gap between undergraduate studies and your first paper. (In my case longer than most through working for a couple of years in between undergraduate and postgraduate studies.) A Ph.D. student might not write a paper until their second or even final year.

On the face of it it seems simple enough when you’ve read lots of papers, as most Ph.D. students have. Roughly speaking there’s a title, a summary that you try cram the main messages into a set space, an introduction that sets the scene and lays out what you aim to investigate, then what you got up to (Materials & Methods), rounded out by a discussion that examined the results and pulled them all together, followed by a list of the research papers you’d cited in the text.

Nothing to it! Ha. I don’t think there is an easy way to appreciate much work it is to write a paper until you do your first one.

That leaves me with another question that I might ask readers who have written research papers to share to those who have not – how long it would typically take you to write a research paper?**

Perhaps also: advice you’d give to students writing their first paper.


* I was in the midst of a longish article, Structure in Our Genomes, it’s the sort of thing that needs time. This I can write without having to find illustrations and think so much about how to lead non-biologists to what I’m saying.

** I once similarly asked readers how long it took them to write a science blog post.

Other articles on Code for life:

What aspects of biology need to be explained better?

On alternatives to academic careers and ’letting go’

Seeking science-y reading?

Teaching kids critical thinking