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Writing a Publishable Journal Article: A Perspective From the Other Side of the Desk

So you?ve written and rewritten your paper. You?ve shown it to your co-authors and your supervisor, and rewritten it again--how many times now? ... 10, maybe 15? Surely, it?s time to test the waters, to take the plunge and send it off to the journal.

But how can you be certain that the journal?s editor and peer reviewers will agree that your paper merits publication? First and foremost, you need to make sure that your paper presents worthwhile original science, clearly and concisely.

For the past 15 years that I?ve worked as an author?s editor and journal copy editor, I?ve observed a recurrent pattern of problems in the papers I?ve edited. Most are related to clarifying the study?s significance, maintaining focus on the main point of the paper, and getting all the right information in the right places.

To avoid the common pitfalls and increase your chances of getting your article published, use this checklist when you revise your next paper.

Checklist for Writing the Publishable Paper


Does your title summarize the main point of your paper?

Your title may be the only part of your paper that gets read--first by the journal editor, later by your readers. So make its every word count.

Your title, the most concise summary of the main point of your paper, should contain all the key elements of your study ... all in 100 characters and spaces or less. (That?s what many journals require.)


After the title, the Abstract is the most concise summary and the second-most read portion of your paper. Some journal editors use the quality of the Abstract as a measure of whether a paper merits peer review.

Is the significance of your study clear?

To help editors and peer reviewers understand the original contribution your study makes--and therefore want to publish your paper--you need to indicate the context and rationale for your study in the background section of your Abstract. Write this information so that it implicitly helps clarify the significance of your study. But be careful. You need to keep it succinct; include only the most essential, relevant points.

Does your Abstract have a clear statement of purpose?

Without a precise statement of your objectives, readers of your Abstract will have trouble understanding why you did your study and assessing whether you accomplished anything worthwhile. Make sure you haven?t substituted background information for a clear statement of purpose.

Is all the information in the Abstract consistent with the information in the rest of the paper?

You?d be amazed how often those pesky little details--data, conclusions, and other key points--in the Abstract seem to contradict information presented in the rest of paper. Make a habit of cross-checking all the information in the Abstract to the text, tables, and figures as part of your final review before submitting your paper to the journal.

And remember--nothing should appear in your Abstract that does not appear elsewhere in your paper.

Have you stated your main conclusion?

Your Abstract must contain an explicit statement of your main conclusion. Don?t leave it up to the journal editor, peer reviewers, and readers to infer the original contribution your study makes.


Have you reviewed the relevant literature in your Introduction?

Reviewing just the right amount of literature in the Introduction requires the balance of a tightrope walker. How much is too much? When does the literature reviewed really belong to the Discussion instead?

The Introduction is not the place to demonstrate that you know all the literature in your field--a great temptation, I grant you, especially if you?ve just completed your dissertation. You need to review only the key, most relevant, most authoritative literature that provides specific context for your study. Focus on the current state of knowledge about the specifics of your topic. A good rule of thumb is to focus your literature review on key terms drawn from your purpose statement.

Is the significance of your study clear from your Introduction?

Does your study pass the so-what test? You must clarify why yours is more than a ?me-too? study. As you review the literature to provide rationale for your study, progress through what is known to what is unknown, indicating the gaps in or limitations of the current work, orchestrating the information so that it is clear why your study is important ... because it will plug those holes and address those limitations, of course.

Have you stated the specific purpose of your paper at the end of your Introduction?

The purpose of your paper should naturally drop out of your well-orchestrated literature review. A precise statement of the objectives of your study will describe more than just your topic; it will indicate the why, the raison d?être, of your study. This statement should interrelate the dependent and independent variables, as well as what you studied (species, population, or materials).

Remember--your purpose statement is essential to the focus of your whole paper. Without it your paper will become a loose and baggy monster. Anything peripheral or irrelevant to your purpose statement should be omitted from the text.

Materials and Methods

Have you described all selection criteria in your Methods?

You must include all the selection criteria, inclusion and exclusion, that you used to determine the eligibility of subjects for your study. Be specific. These details will help readers understand whether your sample is appropriate and to which groups your results and conclusions may be generalized.

Have you described all the methods you used?

Reproducibility is the cornerstone of good science. You need to describe all your methods in the Methods, including methods of data analysis, in enough detail that another expert in your field could replicate your results. No result should appear in Results without a corresponding description of the method that yielded it in Methods.


Have you stated the overall answer to the purpose of the study in Results?

The first portion of the Results, after the description of the sample population?s characteristics (if yours is a clinical study), should provide the overall factual answer to the question implied in your purpose statement.

Is the Results logically organized?

The organization of your findings should be obvious. You have three basic choices: organization 1) by chronology or type, 2) from most to least important, or 3) in the same order as that of the Methods.

Have you presented your findings in one place only?

You must present your results in either the text or the tables, or the figures. If you can summarize the information in a few sentences, the text is likely the most appropriate place to report your findings. If precision is important and the data are copious, a table is the best method of presentation. If the relationships or trends in the data are important, a figure would be more appropriate.

The written portion of the Results that refers to the findings presented in tables and figures should not repeat that information. Rather, this text should help the reader see and understand the main factual trends and relationships in the data presented in the tables and figures.

Have you omitted all interpretation of the data?

In Results, stick to the facts. Present the factual trends and reserve all discussion of their meaning and significance for the Discussion, unless, of course, you?re writing for that rare journal that collapses Results and Discussion into a single section. As always, let the instructions to authors be your guide.


Is the answer to the study question buried somewhere in the Discussion?

Begin the Discussion with the answer to the question you posed in the Introduction. Don?t launch into a long-winded theoretical or mechanistic explanation of your topic. Resist the temptation to provide molecular and genetic explanations for everything; consider carefully whether the nature of your study warrants such an explanation.

Have you explained the meaning and significance of your results rather than merely repeating them?

Writing a good Discussion is hard work. This is the section that exercises your critical thinking skills. Here you must synthesize the meaning of your findings with those of others, clarifying your study?s contribution to the field. Never merely reiterate your results. Explain how they fit with those of other studies, extending, refuting, or confirming their findings. And make sure that you are not presenting any result for the first time in the Discussion.

In a Nutshell ... ?

Ultimately, to get your paper published, you need to persuade the journal editor that your study makes a unique contribution, that it has a ?discernible point,? as one journal editor labels it. This discernible point should be the thread that stitches your paper together--from Abstract to Introduction through Methods and Results to Discussion. If you keep in mind that everything in your paper should contribute in some way to making or clarifying this point, whether information from the literature, or methods or data from your study, you should enjoy the great pleasure of adding a new publication to your CV.