Anatomy of a Good Scientific Article: 4 questions to ask

The thoughts you are reading came together while I was thinking about articles I have written, read or reviewed for publication. It is based on both experience and tips I have received from professors and peers in the past and I look forward to revising it based on feedback I receive.

As a science researcher, it is important to perform valuable work but equally important to know how to translate your ideas to an audience (general or scientific) or your research will get buried in obscurity. After all, how can people find out about the good work you are doing if they don’t read about it, and how can they read about it if you don’t write about it. More importantly, even if you write about it, how can you interest people enough to want to read your work? In this article, I will be more focused on writing for an audience with some science background.

My former advisor (and current boss) once said, that in getting a PhD, you get to read over 100 articles and I can attest to that fact (see pic below). So let’s just say that I have a lot of experience reading research articles.


Stack of some papers I have read + collection of 457 files and counting in my Papers directory (click on the image above to enlarge)

While most journals provide a template these days, the suggestions I am providing will be useful in thinking about how to approach dissemination of your research i.e. writing or presenting your work. Essentially I would like to boil it down to: Why, How, What and Where.

Why did you do it? aka Introduction and Significance. Your very first sentence/statement should be direct enough to interest and capture someone who has a scientific background but has no idea about your work. Imagine that your audience is an undergraduate student trying to do an assignment, a fellow graduate student performing a literature review or someone on your physics dissertation committee from the chemistry department. This initial sentence should be followed up with thoughts on why anyone should care about your work. It isn’t just good enough that it is interesting because that is subjective. At this point, you try to make a connection to some bigger problem (mentioned in your first sentence) that needs a solution. The phrase “There is nothing new under the sun” applies here. Even if the research is ground-breaking, it will be steeped in some prior assumptions or thoughts. This is also where you show a good handle on the current status of the field and that you aren’t just re-inventing the wheel.

Note: In a journal article, it also plausible to state the why before you state the what. This way you have stated the problem and what you would like to do to approach it. The above written could however help in fleshing out your thoughts for how specific your paper would be. Sometimes the what has to be broken down into 2 or 3 pieces and be in separate publications.

How did you do it? aka Methods. This is where some articles go from excellent to just average, because authors are obscure about how they performed their research. The importance of publishing your results and methods is not only to show what you are doing but so someone else can repeat your work and get similar results. You want to answer questions like: What tools were used? How many trials were performed? Where did the materials come from and how pure where they? What programs were used and were the default options changed? Was there any statistical analyses done? Again, it should be clear enough that it can be repeated by someone else.

What did you find? aka Results and Discussion. This is often the bottleneck in a lot of research as good analyses are required to correctly interpret what has been studied. This is why it is important to know what you are trying to do, what has been done before and why you are using the method you have chosen. In trying to interpret your results, first state what you found and then state if it is something that compares with prior data or is completely different. Each finding should be explained to the extent that your data is reliable. When results seem not to agree with the picture you are creating, state why this could be so.

Where will you go from here? aka Conclusion(s) and Future Direction. In this section of your paper, you should condense your findings to 2 – 3 statements so that someone who is seeing your paper knows what it is about without reading the whole thing. Sometimes, this will help the reader decide if they will be reading the paper and if it will aid them in their field. In addition, you should project how your article can be improved upon based on questions that your results have raised or the next logical step in answering the why of your research.

In the end, an essential and inescapable part of scientific research is being able to express your thoughts and findings in writing. Hopefully, these ideas will help in getting your thoughts and results out on paper. Ultimately, the more you write, the better you will get at it.

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