What is a scientific paper?
A scientific paper is a report of original research. The purpose of writing a scientific report is to present clean results that are clearly and unambiguously attributable to the researchers who performed the work, and to convince readers of the validity of those results.
Because papers in scientific journals describe work performed by scientists outside their own groups, they need to be clear enough for an expert in the field to understand it. Although other scientists will not be able to repeat all the experiments described in most papers, they should be able to follow them without difficulty.
The jargon used should be defined when first introduced, and should not include words found in everyday English (such as ‘cell’ or ‘regulation’). Unnecessary technical jargon may make paper more difficult to read and more difficult to place. This can result in a paper not being published, or even it being rejected by the journal.
A good scientific paper must be entertaining as well as informative, and should also contain some original contribution of information that has not been presented elsewhere.
Formatting – How to format a scientific paper
A scientific paper is typically organized into sections:
- Materials and Methods (including Results),
- Acknowledgments (optional),
- Competing Interests (optional).
- Appendix (include raw data, statistical analysis etc.)
The title page is the first page of any document; on this page you provide some brief information such as your name(s), department, institution (the affiliation of all authors), address(es) and telephone number(s). For example:
Department of Cellular Biology and Anatomy,
University of Alabama at Birmingham;
The title of a scientific paper should be brief and informative and contain only the most important keywords. It should give readers an idea of what your study is about. It should be brief yet descriptive. Avoid overly-hyped titles such as ‘Miracle breakthrough…’ as these will only draw negative attention from reviewers and editors!
This is a one or two paragraph summary of your work that briefly describes what you did and how you did it, with no technical information. The abstract appears on an unnumbered page after the title page; there is no heading for the abstract (unlike other sections, which get section headings). The abstract should be able to stand alone from its introduction section in another journal or publication without loss of meaning.
An abstract in scientific paper writing will typically describe:
- what was done
- why it was done
- why it is of interest to the reader.
This section should provide, in non-technical language, a context for your work. What is already known on this topic? Why was this study done? If you are proposing an original hypothesis, state it clearly and briefly in this paragraph. One or two sentences will suffice; if you must deviate from standard scientific nomenclature, define your terms here so that the expertise of the reader is assumed. The introduction appears on an unnumbered page after the abstract and before the Materials and Methods (or Results).
In analyzing data collected from a large-scale midwestern epidemiological study on cancer risks among Native American women, several groups have reported that exposure to certain pesticides correlates with a significant increase in cancer risk. These studies have been criticized for using a case-control design to generate the exposure data, instead of a more accepted method such as retrospective exposure assessment.
In this study we develop and apply a framework for exposure assessment to retrospectively determine exposure levels from easily obtainable records of specific farming practices and other characteristics. We compare retrospective exposure assessments with direct measurements of pesticide concentrations in farmworker urine samples (n=90) collected during the midwestern epidemiological study described above, both at the time that the individuals were working on farms (1989–1992) and years later (2003–2005), after these same individuals had acquired different jobs.
Materials and Methods
This section is typically divided into subsections describing the experimental design, laboratory methods, statistical methods used to analyze data, results obtained from these experiments, data collection details, etc. The materials and methods are always presented in past tense; they are never written in the present tense like you would speak them (e.g., do not use “we performed X-ray crystallography…”). Use active voice; never passive voice. For example:
We collected samples of dried paint chips measuring between 0.002 and 0.5 inches in length from two different sets of surfaces within single homes (kitchen cabinets, window frames) using a small adhesive tape-loop device…
Discussion: This is where you provide your interpretation of the results described above; this should be clearly stated in non-technical language with references to figures and tables (e.g., Figure 3). Discussion should answer, or at least make an attempt to answer, questions raised by the abstract; it should not summarize the background or results sections! A good discussion provides significance, novelty, potential applications (if any), strengths/limitations of your work
Example: For performing super-resolution fluorescence imaging of DNA molecules on fixed cells or tissue samples using total internal reflection microscopy (TIRF), we selected the Olympus FV1000MPE/IX81 microscope with a 60x, 1.49NA water-immersion objective lens and a high numerical aperture aspherical condenser.
This is where you list all of the references cited in your manuscript. The journal will typically have a limit on the number of references that can be included; check with your publisher before preparing your paper to ensure that all publications cited are indeed included in your reference list.
Only include publications that are relevant to your work; eliminate any reference whose primary focus is related, but not directly pertinent to your manuscript.
We had difficulty in obtaining many of the samples used for this study and would like to acknowledge funding from (1) and (2). However we were unable to obtain every single sample used in this study and had limited supplies of some chemicals; we would like to thank (3), (4), and (5) for their generous donation of several critical reagents.
Use a standard format such as:
Author, Initials., “Title,” Journal Name [Internet], vol. no., Month YYYY, pages <http://xxxxxx>. Sample reference:
Overbye, D., “Human Race Has Left its Fingerprints All over the Universe,” New York Times [Internet], Jan 1998, pp. 1–4.
Once you have finished writing your paper and are satisfied with the content of each section (abstract, introduction, materials and methods/results/discussion), it is time to start formatting your manuscript using a standard word-processing program or LaTeX (if required).
There are many rules governing how manuscripts should be formatted; some journals will ask that specific items be emphasized in their corresponding section headings within the paper (e.g.,’ names of authors, years of publication), so be sure to check with your publisher before sending them the manuscript. Use the following templates for our journals:
If you have any questions, please contact the editors of your journal. If they are not available, try contacting a member of the Editorial Board.
How to write a scientific paper step by step
Here is the step by step guide on how to write a scientific paper. There are two variants which you can choose from, depending on your field of study:
- Writing a scientific manuscript for the first time
- Editing or rewriting an existing document
In this guide, we will focus on writing a scientific research paper or scientific research paper for the first time.
Step 1: Identify the purpose
The purpose of the paper needs to be established. – This can be done by answering this question: Why do you need to write this paper?
Here are some possible answers:
- To provide a new approach or method for physical, chemical or biological investigation that can be tested easily before being published as a separate research paper.
- To present the results of your tests and experiments so they would be available to other researchers for further studies.
- To review the literature on a particular topic to determine what has already been found out about it, particularly if there have been conflicting findings in the past.
To avoid redundancy of research writing, you must consider whether others have already made significant contributions towards your goal for doing this project. If yes, then why are you investigating again? What is different about your work? How will the world be better if your experiments are successful?
To support an assumption, hypothesis or theory by providing evidence.
To provide new ideas for future research projects which you feel may benefit society in some way.
Think about why you need to write this paper and then formulate that into a statement of purpose. This will be the backbone of your work so choose your words carefully!
Step 2: Problem Statement
A problem must be identified or posed. State the issue for which you are setting out to solve.
Here is an example: Many studies have been done to compare consumer preferences between organic and conventional produce. However, none of the studies we reviewed provided a clear reverse causality explanation for their findings (Reverse Causation). Consumer preference may not be caused by differences between organic and conventional produce but instead may result from intrinsic characteristics of each type which influence how consumers perceive them (e.g., sensory properties, price, etc.).
To identify a problem correctly can make or break your research paper. If you don’t pose the right issue then you won’t give yourself enough room to work with and it can appear as if your conclusions were already made before you even started the experiment!
Step 3: Provide Background Information
Provide information about your background, including education and position.
Here is an example: My education includes a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the University of California, San Diego and a master’s degree in Plant Pathology from the University of Rhode Island. I have been with ABC International (a technology company dedicated to food and environmental safety) for ten years as senior scientist and lead on many successful projects.
Step 4: Formulate a Thesis Statement
Make a thesis statement that introduces your hypothesis or purpose for conducting this research. For use in writing a dissertation paper, this should be an abstract that summarizes your arguments, research questions, methodology, and conclusions.
Step 5: Identify Project Scope
Identify the scope of the project in terms of time, data sources, subject populations, personnel required, equipment needed, or any other limitations. This will help with writing up your results in the future. Include relevant references to other studies.
Step 6: Write Literature Review
Write the literature review, which includes an explanation of previous research with regards to the issue at hand. Assemble your citations using appropriate styles for each source.
Step 7: Write Methods Section
Describe your methodology in sufficient detail that someone else could reproduce it exactly as you did. This is where you will demonstrate how you collected data, what data sources were used, if any equipment was needed or modified, including instrumentation and computer programs, etc.
Include references at the end of this section to all materials used in your study except those that are common knowledge. It is not enough to simply indicate the name of a test without explaining how it works or providing a reference for its use; likewise, make sure you do not assume that your readers know the formula for a statistical test you used.
Step 8: Results Section
Describe and discuss your results in an organized, coherent way. Your discussion should be based on the methodology section of the paper, not on figures or tables. Start with your strongest piece of evidence and work toward your weakest; try to include counter arguments against yourself and acknowledge any limitations. If there is conflicting data, explain why you think yours is more valid than theirs. If their study had different parameters than yours did, explain what those were and how they might have influenced the outcome.
To demonstrate mastery over the subject matter, it will help to qualify your statements with relative amounts such as “most” or “many” rather than “all” or “never.” Rely on statistics only when they are convincing, and try to provide graphs or tables of data for each of your main points so that the reader can easily verify your claims.
Step 9: Write the Conclusion
Note any conclusions you have drawn from the results of the study. Do not offer advice or solutions at this point, as doing so would indicate an unethical attempt to promote a personal agenda.
Discuss possible future research in this field; note relevant citations with current studies that you could build on with your own work. You should also include recommendations for further reading if there is great material available on the topic but outside the scope of your project (i.e., books, web resources, videos).
State the significance of your contribution to the field. If there is overlap with other studies in your literature review, briefly acknowledge them and explain how yours contributes uniquely to the study of this topic. NOTE: This step should only be included if you followed steps 1-9 in a sensible order. It is common for inexperienced writers to forget about this until after they have drafted an entire paper and attempt to add it in at the end; however, doing so renders it useless since it can neither serve as a conclusion nor make up for deficiencies elsewhere in the body of the text. In fact, students who submit papers containing such a statement will receive 0 out 10 points on their assignment unless they make corrections before submitting a revised version.
Step 10: Write the Acknowledgements
In the acknowledgements section, thank people who contributed to this project but did not meet the criteria for authorship on a scientific paper (i.e., funding agencies, computer programmers).
Do NOT thank family members or friends unless they actually helped you with your research in some way; doing so is considered unprofessional and can lead to embarrassment if they learn about it.
If you have any words of wisdom for future scientists, include them here and emphasize how you hope they apply what you learned to their own work.
Step 11: Proofreading and Editing
Have a colleague who you feel is an objective party review your paper. They should be able to point out any glaring inconsistencies or mistakes that may have occurred due to your lack of familiarity with proper scientific writing style. Most universities require independent evaluations before accepting students for admission into graduate programs, and some offer free services provided by student tutors in exchange for work experience points on their transcripts. If these options are unavailable, check here for proofreading help or pay someone yourself to write your scientific paper for you. The ideal proofreader should have some background in science, but it is not a requirement as long as they are able to find and correct even the smallest of errors.
- Guide: Writing the Scientific Paper – Writing@CSU
- Writing a Scientific Paper: INTRODUCTION – Research Guides
- How to Write Guide: Sections of the Paper – Bates College
- Writing Scientific Papers – colby.edu
- Scientific Papers | Learn Science at Scitable – Nature
- Guidelines for Writing a Scientific Paper – SDSU College of Sciences
- 1 What is a scientific paper? – BSCI 1510L Literature and Stats Guide – Research Guides at Vanderbilt University
- Research Guides: Publishing in the Sciences: How to Write a Scientific Literature Review
- A Guide to Writing a Scientific Paper: A Focus on High School Through Graduate Level Student Research
- How three MIT students fooled the world of scientific journals
- How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists | Impact of Social Sciences
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