Monday, January 26, 2015

How to Write a Scientific Paper

As I enter the latter stages of my PhD, I'm working to summarize all the stuff I've done over these past four and a half years in a series of publications that will ultimately become my thesis. This sounds daunting and tedious, and it most certainly is...but not for the reasons you would think. Here is a guide for all you first-time paper writers out there!


Beginning to write the paper can go one of two ways:

1) you want to publish your work because you feel that you have finally gathered enough data to make an important contribution to the scientific literature
2) your advisor comes to you saying we need to publish this paper RIGHT NOW or your sworn enemy lab will scoop you

Gather your data. Discover that you didn't write down the one piece of relevant information that you need in your lab notebook. Panic, then try to rationalize how you can write the paper without that one critical piece of information.


Frantically write the paper

Wait three months while the paper sits on your advisor's desk

Try to find your advisor. Discover that he has left the country for a month without telling anyone.

While you are waiting, perform an experiment that you think will support your paper's conclusions and add to the breadth of data. Experiment contradicts your previous results, and you need to change the entire paper.

Re-write paper in a frenzy and send out revised version

Wait again, as your advisor has gone to a conference for the week.


Receive edits from your advisor. Re-write the entire paper for a third time. 

More Edits.


Co-author who hasn't said anything up to this point suddenly decides that everything is wrong in the paper and it needs to be rewritten. Re-write the paper for a fourth time.


Endnote library crashes.

You decide to accept all of your advisor's edits because you are now nauseated by looking at this paper and don't care anymore. Time to submit! 


Almost there!

Attempt to fit your text into an excessively complicated Word template that was last published in Word 2003. Discover that Word 2003 and Word 2013 really don't like each other. Don't even get me started on Mac/PC compatibility.

Even though you already included your figures in their template, the journal requires that you upload every figure and table individually. Your image size will exceed the file size required for figures. Sucks. You're getting JPEGs, jerks.



This never happens just by itself. If your paper is simply "Accepted", there has likely been an error. 

Accepted with major revisions or Accepted with minor revisions

Major and minor are clearly in the eye of the beholder. Either category can range from redoing figure captions to redoing the experiments that the entire paper was based on.

Reviewer #3 will think your paper is terrible no matter what. Get out your thesaurus and figure out the most tactful way to say "You are an idiot" without insulting the editor.


Try submitting to our sister journal that no one has ever heard of! Impact factor: 0.5


Appeal the decision. Fight! Fight! Fight! This may or may not be successful, so proceed with caution. 

Congratulations! You have successfully written a scientific paper! Elapsed time: 18 months


  1. THIS. IS. MY. LIFE. right now!

    We should start a support group.

  2. Yes! "Hi, my name is Beth, and it has been 12 months since my last paper."