How to write a journal article

I posted a little while back with some tips on how to respond to peer review comments, giving tips on structure, content and tone. I clearly jumped a few steps, because this assumes that you’ve already written an article, submitted it to a journal, have received   comments in return, and the sticking point is only how to frame your response.

There are many writing hurdles to leap before beginning to mount a response to reviewers, such as writing the damn thing in the first place. In this post, I’m going to be pulling together a few threads from my own experiences of learning to write journal articles. This is necessarily a science-focused approach to writing journal articles, which means paying a lot of attention to figures and wrangling a herd of co-authors.

1 Work out your story

A paper usually starts out as a hundred fragments of ideas and an equal number of pretty figures that have been churned out analysing data. It can be overwhelming to look at folders on your computer of similarly-named plots or a desk piled with printouts of figures. It’s best to step back and start by mapping out the story your data tells. Strip away the detail and ask yourself the important questions – what is the main finding? What has been done before? How is your study different/new/better?

After you’ve mapped out the story, you can build in details that will form an argument that will flow from the introduction right through to your suggestions for future work in the field. Make sure you write your map down, so that you can keep referring back to the main elements of your story and don’t get bogged down in details. This will also help you keep perspective on the value of your contribution to the literature. It can be easy to become dissuaded, and to think your paper is no different or better than previous publications and is a worthless time sink. Your map will help to keep you cheerily heading in a sensible direction.

2 Know your audience

This is some advice that I find easier to give than to follow. It really helps to decide early where you intend to submit your paper. I tend to come up with a little seed of an idea and expand on that, growing it simultaneously in multiple directions. Eventually I will settle on a somewhat suitable journal and re-write my paper in the appropriate format, with the necessary length and number of figures. This is a waste of energy and time.

It is much better to start by thinking about who you would like to communicate your story to and what is the most appropriate venue for this storytelling. Does your research bridge multiple disciplines or span several geographical regions? Does your research necessitate rapid communication? Does your story need a long form to demonstrate complex methodologies? Do your personal and professional values favour open access publishing? Do you have limited funds available for covering page charges and require a free or modestly priced journal? Thinking through and making these decisions in advance can save time and energy, and lead to a tighter paper.

3 Pay attention to your figures

In my papers, the figures form the skeleton that I flesh out with words. When I have my paper map sorted, the figures are the landmarks along the way. I look into the author guidelines for the journal that I have chosen as my destination and find out how many figures I am allowed to include. I plan out the figures I need to place my study into a broader context, and to demonstrate my analysis and findings. I can then write the introduction, methods, results and discussion around these figures.

The making of figures also requires a lot of attention. Make sure they are publication quality, that your colour scales are appropriate, your font size is large and the resolution is clear. Combine figures into multiple panels to show similarities and contrasts, but not to jam more into less space. Use differing plot markers and colours to draw attention to the most important aspect of the figure. Just as your paper tells a story, so to does each figure; make it obvious what each figure is revealing to the reader. I also like expansive captions that draw out important information, but this is a personal choice and other people strongly favour concise captions.

4 Decide who is in and who is out (but be flexible)

Deciding what constitutes authorship is a perennial source of academic discontent. Often students and postdocs are placed under overt or surreptitious pressure to include numerous peripheral researchers as co-authors on their papers – the lab manager, the ex-supervisor, the ex-supervisor’s wife and best mate, the random dude your ex-supervisor met on fieldwork back in 2006. While universities have strict policies and procedures regarding co-authorship, these are rarely useful and rarely followed. A student is seldom in a position to pushback on pressure to include a suite of hangers-on.

Nonetheless it is valuable to work out in advance who has contributed enough to be a co-author and who is merely an acknowledgement. Try to make these decisions for yourself, and if that includes appeasing others for the sake of your sanity, that’s also ok, because being generous (and sane) can be a good academic quality. Just be aware that a more expansive author list scales to a longer editing and revising process that might make you want to throw your laptop out the window.

5 Step up

Your co-authors are a valuable resource in writing your paper, but don’t forget that in my mixed metaphor, you are the only one carrying the map and/or telling the story. You must decide which of your co-authors’ comments are implemented, you must propose the timescales of the paper writing and the point at which you have reached your destination. When ideas for the paper begin in wildly different places, it is quite ok to step up and send a polite email to your co-authors with a paper draft saying “this is what I intend to submit and am keen for minor comments by this date, but please let me know if you would prefer your name is removed.”

6 It’s not a Nobel Prize

Eventually you will become sick of looking at your draft and it will seem entirely worthless. This is the point when I like to submit it. The drafting and re-drafting doesn’t end with submission, it is really just beginning. Be respectful of editors and reviewers by submitting a well written and considered draft but don’t waste time by endlessly tweaking it. Let it go, it will go through many more changes before it is published.

And don’t forget to allow plenty of time for the actual submission. Some journals have intuitive submission systems where you essentially fill in your details and drag and drop your manuscript. Others require you hand over your credit card, kidney and first-born son. Be prepared for either and don’t start submitting at 4.45 pm on a Friday afternoon before heading off on Christmas holidays.


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