Best practices for scientific writing and publishing

questionsOn October 7, 2015, upon the kind invitation of the Young Researchers Network (LYRN) and the Department of Biology and Chemistry at PSI, I had the pleasure of speaking with students and fellows of the institute on scientific writing and publishing.

As the former Managing Editor of a journal in biotechnology and these days the Program Manager of the health portfolio of journals at Frontiers, sharing my experiences in peer review and publishing with the research community is a real highlight of the job. Some of the questions that I was presented with, both while preparing for and during the presentation, included:

How do I choose which journal to submit to?

With students in the audience, my usual answer to this is, of course, Nature or Science, as inevitably the students and young fellows are the ones that need to conform to the system the most and such high profile publications significantly boost their careers. In addition to the Impact Factor, which remains the measure of quality used by many funders across the world, other factors to take into consideration include the intended audience of the paper (e.g. if you wish to reach a specific community), the ability of the publisher to attract readers to your work through their online platform and indexing of their journals, and whether the journal is open access or provides an open access option.

Importantly, a submission to any journal is a vote for the system. If there is a particular peer-review model that you support, such as double blind peer review? Do you believe that only active scientists and researchers should be the ones deciding whether your work should be published? What about reviewer recognition? Does the journal support your scientific community through grants and working with your professional society? All these may be factors to take into consideration when submitting your next paper.

Which are the most important aspects of writing a scientific paper?

As we all know, there is a serious overflow of information and just keeping up with the titles of papers published in a particular field can be a full-time job. This makes the title of the paper the most important aspect. In real estate, there is the saying “location, location, location” and in scientific writing, there is “keywords, keywords, keywords” – having the right keywords in the title will attract the right people to your paper, not to mention boosting the search engine rankings of the paper.

Having passed the title test with the right keywords, the abstract is the next most important part. The abstract is a condensed form of the paper and needs to engage the attention of the reader without making exaggerated claims. Importantly, both for the title and abstract, it is important to clearly state the findings of the paper, using an active verb, e.g. instead of “the role of compound X on disease Y”, state what compound X actually does: “compound X alleviates the symptoms of diseases Y”.

How do I ensure that my paper will be cited once it has been published?

While choosing a reputable publisher that invests in its digital technologies and also appropriate indexing of the journal plays a crucial part, there’s also much that can be done from an author’s perspective to further boost the impact of your work. One easy way to boost the search engine rankings of your paper is to link to it from your institutional website – remember to do this by clearly stating the title of the paper and embedding the publisher’s URL behind it. The reason I say the publisher’s URL is that directing web traffic to one site has more overall impact than directing it to different sites. Furthermore, use your social media outlets to boost traffic to your paper; you may even want to ask your institution to make a press release on your paper.

Does the editor really read the cover letter?

The answer is a definite “yes”. This is the best place to convince the editor that your paper is not only suitable for the journal but will greatly boost the quality of the journal. The cover letter is also a good place to explain why your manuscript may require additional attention (e.g. if you know that a competitor is about to publish similar work and you need your manuscript to be “fast tracked”) and who would be suitable/unsuitable reviewers for your paper. Conversely, a letter that says “dear editor, please consider my manuscript for publication”, without any justification, seriously undermines the chances of your manuscript being considered positively by the editor.

Is it worthwhile appealing the decision of the editor?

As the saying goes, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”. The same for appealing editors’ decisions. At the risk of increasing the workload of my editor colleagues, decisions are often not black and white and if, as an author, you feel that the editors and reviewers have overlooked pertinent aspects of your work or that the reviewer comments are not impossible to address, I suggest to politely write back to the editor with a concise letter on why your paper deserves a second chance. The emphasis here is of course, polite and concise.

As a publishing professional, exchanging views with active scientists and researchers is crucial in enabling us to provide the service needed by the community. I would like to thank the insightful scientists at the PSI, Xavier Deupi, Martin Behé, Raffael Abela and Jan Pieter Abrahams, who took the time to meet with me and give me feedback on their concerns with research and scientific publishing.

At Frontiers, we greatly welcome the opportunity to interact with our community directly. Do contact us at if you would like a Frontiers Editorial Office staff member to speak at your institution or conference. We look forward to meeting you!




Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: