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Journal author and editor offer advice for writing articles for scientific journals

Elaine Hull
Elaine Hull
Ushma Neill
Ushma Neill

Writing journal articles can be demanding for an academic writer in any field, but authors seeking to publish their work in scientific journals face unique challenges.

Elaine Hull, a prolific writer in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, and Ushma Neill, an editor for The Journal of Clinical Investigation, offer the following advice for science writers:

  • Find good coauthors. Collaborating with coauthors is often necessary to gain access to the equipment and experimental techniques you need to fully test your hypotheses, so it is very important to develop good relationships with colleagues. Hull urges writers in academia to seek out schools and departments with high levels of collegiality so it is easier to find collaborators.
  • Start with your results section. When you’re ready to write, Neill recommends tackling the results section of an article first because what you end up including in the results section of the paper will influence what you need to discuss in the article’s methodology section and introduction.
  • Be meticulous. Make sure your article is well written and carefully proofread. Hull recommends being as meticulous in your writing as you are with your experiments. “If you’re sloppy with your grammar, it doesn’t reflect well on your work because readers may question if you are also sloppy with your science,” Hull advised.
  • Select a journal. Once your paper is polished, Hull recommends submitting your article to the journal with the greatest impact factor first. “If your paper is rejected at a high-impact journal, you can take any suggestions they gave you and submit your paper to a lower-impact journal after revisions,” she added.
  • Write a cover letter. Your cover letter, which should summarize the main points of your study, is also a great place to recommend reviewers. If there is a particular author who stands out in your field, Hull recommends asking the journal to invite that person to serve as a reviewer. A well-established researcher endorsing your article can help its chances of being published, and rejected manuscripts can benefit from expert feedback. Many journals specifically invite authors to recommend up to three reviewers; just be sure that you have cited their work in your manuscript. It is also okay to request that the manuscript NOT be sent to a particular individual.
  • Make a great first impression. While every section of your article should be high quality, you must be especially careful that your titles, abstracts, cover letter, and figures are excellent before submitting your paper because these four aspects of your article will be responsible for creating its first impression. “When I read a manuscript, I look first at the title, the abstract, the cover letter, and the figures,” Neill said. “Based on those things, I’m going to have a predisposition regarding whether or not a paper should be sent out for review even before I start reading the entire article.”Your title should be clear and succinct and hook a reader’s attention without inflating your findings.Your abstract must convince readers to give your article an in-depth read. Neill suggests using the first couple of sentences to orient the reader toward what they will learn in your paper and the last sentence to provide information about what your results indicate. Be sure not to exaggerate the importance of your results in your abstract.Your cover letter should communicate your message about the implications of your study and how it contributes to your field. It must be polished and must make an editor believe that you have submitted your manuscript to his or her journal first. (Tips on how to avoid revealing that you have previously submitted your paper elsewhere, are provided below.)The figures in your article should be clear, interesting, and very informative. “A lot of people make the figure legends a data dump as opposed to giving an appropriate subhead and orienting the reader to what they should be seeing in that figure,” Neill said.
  • Embrace revisions. Even if your article is accepted by a scientific journal, it is very likely that you will need to make further revisions before publication. After 11 years of serving as a research editor, Neill can only remember two articles that were accepted without requiring further revisions. “Peer review should make manuscripts and studies better because your peers are making valuable suggestions to improve your work. It is appropriate to expect to do some amount of revision,” she said.
  • Recover from rejection. Rather than getting discouraged if your article is rejected, submit it to another journal to find a better fit. If you are submitting your paper to a different journal, take care not to reveal the fact that your paper has been previously rejected and that the journal you are currently courting was not your first choice. “At The Journal of Clinical Investigation, we understand where we fall in the hierarchy of scientific journals,” Neill said, “but at least give us the illusion that we were your first choice—nobody likes to feel like the second choice. It’s an incredibly bad first start.”There are several places where you can accidentally give away the fact that you are submitting to a second-choice journal. For example, file names, labels in headers and footers, and the date and address on your cover letter can all reveal to editors that you have previously submitted a paper. In addition, fending off a particular criticism in too much detail in a cover letter, introduction, or discussion section of an article can indicate that a paper was previously rejected, which may negatively influence an editor’s impression of your work.

More advice for science writers can be found in an article Neill wrote for The Journal of Clinical Investigation entitled “How to Write a Scientific Masterpiece” (

By Dionne Soares Palmer

What is some of the best advice you’ve received for writing articles for scientific journals?