Science communications: Publishing a scientific paper


  • Julie C. Kiefer

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah
    • Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, 20 North 1900 East, 401 MREB, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84132
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Publications are the lifeblood of academic science. They are essential to the scientific community as records of research completed, building blocks for new research, and templates for new ways of thinking. Publications are also essential for individual job security. Frequently they are considered a gauge of productivity that is taken under heavy consideration for hiring, promotion, and funding decisions. Consequently, completed research is of little value unless preserved in publication. Yet publishing can be a challenging prospect, particularly in the face of abundant competition. Here, five panelists, John Fallon, Ph.D., Min Han, Ph.D., Janet Rossant, Ph.D., Cliff Tabin, Ph.D., and Yoshiko Takahashi, Ph.D., offer their advice on manuscript preparation and negotiating the publishing process. Developmental Dynamics 239:723–726, 2010. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

As with any profession, good career advice in academic science is hard to come by. Even when immediate colleagues are generous mentors, those from outside circles may offer new and fresh perspectives. Recognizing these realities, Developmental Dynamics is launching “Tips for Success,” a new series exploring issues in career development. Tips will present sound advice from successful scientists at various stages in their career trajectories. Tips for Success articles will center on one of four themes: science communications, mentoring, management, and career advancement.

As a peer-review journal, we at DD thought it appropriate to kick-off the series with advice on publishing. What does it take to get your work into print? Presented here are tips from a panel of experienced academic scientists. Each has a respectable publishing record, and some have also served as journal editors. Their collective wisdom reveals that good practices include attention to detail, creativity, and perseverance. Importantly, constructive communication with colleagues and journal editors can give authors a distinct advantage.


“The key to publishing starts long before you write a paper. It starts when you choose a project in the first place,” says Cliff Tabin, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Genetics at Harvard Medial School.

All too often, the decision of what to research is based on taking the next “obvious” step that follows from what has been done before. Before going down a predictable path, pause to reflect on where the road will lead. Will the research be of value to the scientific community? “I never think, ‘What's needed to get published?’” notes Tabin. “I think, ‘What's needed to do good science?’” Solid work that pushes the knowledge base into new realms of thinking is more likely to attract the attention of editors upon submission of the manuscript, and of its readership upon publication.

Just as important to consider is whether the research topic is captivating to the authors. A topic that excites the authors may fuel creativity, drive deeper inquiry, and sustain them through tough and tedious times. “If you focus on answering interesting questions, the papers will take care of themselves,” says Tabin.


Resist the urge to rush data to publication. Instead, strive to publish complete stories with airtight conclusions. Min Han, Ph.D., Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, illustrates this concept with a specific example. “To describe the function of a gene in development, you would hope to have genetic and descriptive data to reveal the physiological functions of the gene, and also to have molecular and biochemical data to tell the biochemical function of the gene product, or the mechanism of the genetic function.”

If you can find a way to include it, the all too elusive “wow-factor” can add allure to the standard storyline. “If a ‘killer’ experiment can be performed in a reasonable time frame with the personnel and tools at hand, then it is worth waiting,” says Janet Rossant, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Program, The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada.

Unfortunately, extenuating circumstances can get in the way of ideal research goals. Competition with other labs, grant and promotion deadlines, and departure of key personnel are but some of the factors that may precipitate premature publication. “As long as the paper addresses a significant question and the results advance the science in the field, publishing papers with incomplete stories is still justified,” says Han.


Issues of authorship bear careful consideration even though they should not affect the review process. These issues can be a point of contention because there are no hard and fast rules. To avoid conflict, PIs should set lab standards and make them clear to potential authors at the earliest opportunity.

The most basic question to resolve is, who deserves to be on a paper? “Anyone who contributed to the research should be recognized,” states Han. “Sometimes a person who made a specific effort on the project but did not get usable results should still be recognized as a co-author.” Tabin adds, “I would add a dog on the street as an author if he contributed as a scientist to the work in the manuscript. Degree or position has nothing to do with it.” Both Han and Tabin also agree that those who perform general lab duties should not be listed as authors unless they also performed work specifically directed toward the research presented in a manuscript.

Tabin abides by these standards even if it means that his name will be omitted from publications. “I never put my name on a paper just for sending out a reagent or animal, unless it was made specifically for the purpose of the study.”

Another consideration is authorship order. “The only criterion one should use in assigning authorship is relative scientific contribution,” says Tabin. The question of authorship order can become tricky if the scientist who initiated the study left the lab before it was complete. “In some cases, I let the person who finished the work be the first or co-first author,” says Han. He adds that one way to recognize exceptional intellectual contribution is by listing the scientist, usually a postdoc, as corresponding author. Although assigning authorship can be a juggling act, it is a nonnegotiable matter. “The PI needs to be the one to make these decisions because they have the objectivity and a professional perspective,” explains Tabin.

When is the best time to make decisions about authorship? John Fallon, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Anatomy, University of Wisconsin, does this as early as possible. “In my laboratory, we identify a lead investigator for a study as soon as we know the study will be done. The lead manages the experiments and collaborations. It is understood that he or she will write the first draft of the manuscript to be submitted,” he explains. “If the lead investigator does not write the first draft of the manuscript, then the person writing the manuscript would be the first author.”

In contrast, Tabin feels that authorship decisions are best made at the time that serious work on the manuscript begins. “Before then, one does not know how much work each individual might end up contributing. This can change from initial expectations depending on the directions science takes you.”

He makes an exception, however, when collaborating with other labs. “In collaborations, authorship is often established at the start of the project, to assure parity between groups or that interests of junior scientists in both labs are protected.”



The Abstract is a brief summary of the purpose behind the work, results, and conclusions. Although short, it is a crucial part of the manuscript, notes Fallon. “You should write it last, after the other parts are close to final form. And take your time.”

A well-written abstract will help the manuscript to be fairly evaluated during the submission process because managing editors and potential reviewers may be chosen solely based on the abstract. “A poor abstract could result in a potential advocate-reviewer deciding they will not review your manuscript,” says Fallon.


The Introduction explains the rationale for the work and sets the stage for what follows. “Give the reasons why you are reporting this study,” says Fallon. “What is the history? What is your view of the status of the problem addressed? Taken together can you offer a testable hypothesis or model that will shed light on this area of research? Or maybe someone else has offered the hypothesis, and you propose to test it.” It is important to be succinct, as unnecessary detail may distract from the story you are trying to tell.

Materials and Methods

The Materials and Methods is a list of specialized reagents and reagent providers (when appropriate), and a brief description of experimental procedures, including citations. Composing this section first can be a relatively painless way to plunge into the writing process. The section should have sufficient information so that the scientific merit of the work can be judged, and methods can be replicated in future studies. If necessary, some experimental details can be included as a supplement.


The Results is an objective report of the data. However, it will make little sense unless it is put into context. Why you did each experiment and what it means should be made clear. “I often read Results in which the authors just describe the data. I'm then left asking, ‘So what?’” remarks Yoshiko Takahashi, Ph.D., Professor, Graduate School of Biological Sciences, Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Japan. “I make it a practice to end each section of the Results with a conclusion that leads to the next question that will be addressed.”

The data will also be easier to follow if presented in a rational order. “Have a starting point and a finishing point. Tell a story,” says Fallon. “You should not organize this section by the order in which you did the work. Instead make the narrative a logical progression.”

Figures and Tables

Figures and Tables are a pictorial narrative documenting major results. As such, put your very best representative data on the page and make sure they are well labeled. “Never assume that everyone can identify the ‘Thingus’ in a figure,” says Fallon. Incomplete tables, sloppy figures, or figures that are difficult to interpret can call into question the quality of research behind the paper.

It can be helpful to make figures directly following experimentation. This allows for the opportunity to ensure that just the right specimen is available to photograph, or that an experiment can be easily repeated in order to get it. Once made, figures are also a useful gauge to assess whether experimentation is complete. “Looking at the figures makes obvious what data are missing,” says Takahashi. “They help me to outline the paper. When the figures are set, the manuscript is 90% done.”


The Discussion is the place to interpret the data and explain their implications. “Begin the discussion by making a clear, and succinct statement beginning with, ‘The data in this report demonstrate… or support the hypothesis…’,” suggests Fallon. “The purpose of this is to tell the editor, reviewers, and eventually the community why what you reported is important.”

Most of the body of the Discussion should be spent explaining the significance of the work. “It should not repeat the results but focus on the key findings in the paper, how they relate to previous work and how they move the field forward,” explains Rossant. Make sure to explain how the results fit in the context of the big picture. “Integrate what you have found with this field of research, including other cells, tissues organs that use similar mechanisms,” says Fallon. This boosts the significance of the work, may increase interest in the paper, and diversify its readership.

Takahashi notes, however, that a common mistake to avoid is overinterpretation of the results. Similarly Rossant warns, “Do not get tempted to speculate on the whole state of the field, with no new insights derived from your work. Every speculation invites referees to ask you to do some experiments to prove your speculations.”

Common ways to end the section are with a discussion of what should be done next, or with a model that integrates the new findings into the field as a whole. “Models help put work into a clear framework and give a clear take-away lesson,” says Tabin. “Include one if, and only if, it makes what you are trying to say clearer.”

Cover Letter

The purpose of the cover letter is to help editors understand the importance of the work since they may not have the necessary background to evaluate it rigorously. “The cover letter is your chance to persuade the editor that your paper really is a substantive contribution to the field,” says Rossant. “If appropriate, also indicate that it will be of wide interest. Try to list some of the communities who will read and be influenced by your work.”


A sometimes overlooked, but paramount, aspect of manuscript preparation is that it should be well written. “Sometimes good science is not discernable in a poorly written manuscript and it will be rejected,” says Fallon.

Good writing skills are something any trainee must learn, but it can be a particularly difficult task for non-native English speakers to write in English. “The language barrier is a serious disadvantage,” recognizes Han, who is also adjunct professor at Fudan University, Shanghai, China. “Getting help on manuscripts from people with good English skills is the practical solution. One may even hire professionals to edit the papers.”

More importantly, those who have difficulties with English should find ways to improve their language skills. “If you don't, weak writing ability will become a major obstacle to your scientific career,” warns Han. Takahashi notes that scientists can practice English by participating in scientific discussion in the lab, giving oral presentations at official meetings, and reading articles written in English.

It is also incumbent upon PIs to help trainees strengthen their skills, “I try to edit the draft and keep sending it back until it is right. The temptation to write it oneself is sometimes overwhelming, but it does not help the trainee,” says Rossant.

New trainees who are both inexperienced at English and at thinking like a scientist should learn these skills one at a time. “I think that the young scientist should learn how to think logically first in their own language,” suggests Takahashi. “If they cannot think logically even with their mother language, they certainly cannot do so in a foreign language.”


No matter how carefully an author reads her own manuscript, it can be difficult to evaluate the work impartially. For this reason, it is always a good idea to have colleagues proofread it before it is sent out for review. “This kind of prereview saves time in the review process by pointing out inconsistencies, breakdowns in reasoning and scholarship, along with awkward writing style and outright mistakes,” says Fallon.

He adds, “In my lab we read our manuscripts aloud to each other while it is projected on a screen that everyone can read. You can actually hear the various clangers that occur in any manuscript.” It can be particularly enlightening to have the manuscript prescreened by colleagues that are not directly involved with the work, such as other lab members, or even better, other experts in the field.


The manuscript should be written with a particular journal in mind so that their specific guidelines can be followed. Although for some, the process of writing a manuscript draft helps authors to think through data interpretation, and clarifies to which journal the manuscript belongs.

For the inexperienced author, the number of journals to choose from can seem overwhelming, making it difficult to select the right one. Fallon offers these suggestions, “Ask colleagues who know your work, or who have read the manuscript, for their opinion. Talk to colleagues at meetings where you present your work and ask, ‘Where do you think I should send this?’ Talk to editors at meetings; they want to attract the very best manuscripts and are there to answer that kind of question. Alternatively, send an inquiry with a succinct summary of the hypothesis, data, interpretation, and effect on the field to the editor of your candidate journal.”

It may be tempting to take a gamble and submit a manuscript to a high-profile journal even when it is doubtful that it is a good fit. But this strategy can work to your disadvantage. “First of all, you will lose time going through the review process. This would be not so good if you have known competitors. Second, reviewers tend to raise the bar in reviewing for a high-profile journal. The same reviewer could be asked to review the paper in the next journal you submit to and such a negative feeling may carry over,” notes Han. “When you send the paper to a high-profile journal, you need to believe that the paper belongs there.”


Once the manuscript is submitted, it may seem like the hard work is done. But often the next phase, the review process, can be just as challenging as the first. Authors can feel vulnerable when their work is closely scrutinized, particularly if they believe referees misinterpreted their work or intent. “Never respond to unreasonable comments by attacking the referee. They will probably be getting your paper to re-review and you want them on your side,” says Rossant.

If you believe that a referee's demands are unreasonable, then explain why, and if possible come up with a compromise. For example, if a referee misinterpreted certain conclusions, then re-write corresponding sections. Alternatively, consider offering to withdraw the part of the manuscript in question. If demands are excessive, then meet the most relevant demands, and explain why you chose not to meet them all. If the referee won't accept a compromise, then don't be afraid to discuss it with the managing editor, whose duties include acting as arbiter between the authors and referees.

One way or the other, it is in the authors' best interest to avoid letting a manuscript linger too long in the review process. “Endless rounds of revisions and then sometimes a final rejection can be both demoralizing and dangerous. The paper may be overtaken by new studies that have built on the foundations of the unpublished work in the first paper,” explains Rossant. “Most people do talk to some degree about unpublished work at meetings—we are always encouraged to do so. But delays in publication may lead people to think twice about sharing results.” 1

Figure 1.

Top row (L-R) Min Han, Ph.D., Yoshiko Takahashi, Ph.D. Bottom row (L-R) John Fallon, Ph.D., Janet Rossant, Ph.D., Cliff Tabin, Ph.D.


Developmental Dynamics gratefully thanks the five scientists who graciously shared their wisdom and insight into the publishing process, and Tala Fakhouri, Ph.D., for her helpful suggestions.