“If the reviewer doesn’t get it, you haven’t explained it clearly enough!” This is one quote from my PhD supervisor that I haven’t forgotten. Getting research funded and published depends to a very large extent on our ability to get the point across. Although scientific texts appear to differ wildly from other forms of writing, a good research paper actually follows the same basic principles of effective communication as a newspaper article or advertising text.
There are some fairly simple guidelines on presenting and structuring written information to get the point across and highlight the key messages that are very useful for manuscripts, thesis chapters, proposals, basically any kind of academic writing. At Functional Ecology, we’ve collected tips and tricks from various sources to help authors effectively communicate their research and ideas. Here are our key points:
1) Know Your Audience
A research paper is about communicating your research in a way that makes sense to others. © Vinch
The central principle for any type of communication is: know your audience. A research paper isn’t just about presenting information – it’s about communicating your research to others. When you start preparing a manuscript, you need to think about who will read it. In the first instance, this is probably a busy editor or reviewer, so you should make sure that you get your key messages across without making your readers work too hard. Good science writing isn’t about using clever-sounding words and sentences, it’s about getting the point across in such a way that readers can understand the research and reach the right conclusion (i.e. the one you want them to reach).
There are some general principles of how to get a message across and to make it stick in people’s minds. These can be adapted to science writing and remembered with the acronym SUCCES:
- Simple — keep it simple by finding the main message and sticking to it
- Unexpected — use the unexpected to grab the reader’s attention (eg. a knowledge gap, unforeseen consequences, an unusual feedback…)
- Concrete — make the central concept easily grasped and remembered
- Credible —support your interpretation and discussion with evidence
- Emotional —stimulate interest and highlight the relevance of the study to make people care about the research
- Story — people enjoy and remember stories, so a good manuscript is a narrative about your research, with a logical train of thought
Although you’re constrained by scientific convention and the fixed format of most journals, you can still tell a simple, concrete and credible ‘story’ (non-fiction) about your research. You can use elements of the unexpected to show the novelty of the research and help the reader remember your paper by tapping into emotion (eg. curiosity, amazement).
2) A Different Take on Manuscript Structure
The title gets people reading the paper, so it should be brief and clear, summarising the main finding of the paper (think of a newspaper or magazine headline). It’s wise to avoid questions, convoluted sentences and too much detail. The title should be simple and concrete, and it can also incorporate something unexpected. The most important part of the title should come first because the second half may not appear in a list of search results. (See also Fox & Burns 2015)
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