Have you ever struggled to write up your results into a publishable paper only to get it rejected? Richard Threlfall, Managing Editor, Asian Journal of Organic Chemistry, gives some insider tips on how to improve each section of your article and increase your chances of getting published.
What Happens Next?
So you have written your paper, re-written it, and finally sent it. Its fate now rests in the hands of the editor and reviewers. The things that editors and reviewers look for can be summarised in four points:
1) Innovation – What does this manuscript offer that I can’t find elsewhere?
2) Hypothesis – Is there a good reason for doing this work? What question does it answer?
3) Evidence – Does the data and the explanation support the conclusions?
4) Writing – Is the manuscript well written? Do I have to work hard to understand the main results?
First of all, an editor/reviewer will read the title. This sounds like a basic thing, but titles make the first impression, see our earlier article about writing titles for some tips on this. Is it interesting? Is it informative? Does it show that this paper makes an impact in the particular field of research? Does it engage them and get them reading the rest of the paper? A common criticism from referees is that the title of a paper doesn’t match its contents, so watch out for this.
The next thing that will be considered is the overall concept of the manuscript. How does it fit with what is already known? What advances in knowledge does it offer? What is innovative about this work? Is it controversial or are the results unexpected? If you are discussing a new concept or something that is likely to be controversial, it is advisable to explain the context of your research very carefully. In this case, consider spending a bit more time on your introduction, see our earlier article on introductions for some tips on this. This way you give the reviewer all of the background information and you might highlight something of importance which they hadn’t thought of or weren’t aware of themselves.
Once the editor or reviewer understands the concept of the manuscript, they will, of course, examine your results and the experimental evidence for your claims. Reviewers are not unreasonable with their expectations for experimental results, as long as you explain them well. As a basic example, if the yield of a reaction is 50 %, then you should explain what happens to the other 50 %. Even if it is as simple as a difficult work up and you show that you have taken reasonable steps to optimise the yield, this is fine. Your aim should be to avoid the reviewer asking questions like “I wonder why they didn’t try X?” or “Why do they need to use 20 equivalents of that reagent?”.
Editors and referees will check that your experimental data and supporting information is consistent with your claims, for example, with structure assignments. Missing characterization data is another common criticism from referees, so double check that you have included everything required. Also consult the journal’s author guidelines for their requirements with respect to characterization data. Referees are good at finding even very small inconsistencies in analytical data, so don’t ignore them if they are there. A reasonable discussion of anomalies in data, even if you have ambiguous data, is much better than ignoring it completely.
Finally, if you are submitting a paper in English, try to have it proof-read by a native speaker if possible. There are also professional manuscript editing services available that will do the same, but you will have to pay to use one of these. Checking the language is just as important as checking the scientific data because even if you have the most revolutionary data that the scientific world has ever seen, if the editor or referees can’t understand it they are unlikely to appreciate its significance.
Remember, you have the best knowledge of the research that you have done – this makes you the expert! Things that are obvious to you may not be obvious to someone else who has not spent so long working on them. Therefore, it is up to you to explain your research thoroughly and clearly so that the editor or reviewer knows how important it is. Explain as completely as you can and try to leave no questions unanswered!
- Next month: We give a (very) brief guide to language usage in scientific writing.
- See all Tips for Writing Better Science Papers
Also of interest:
- Whitesides’ Group: Writing a Paper,
G. M. Whitesides,
Adv. Mater. 2004, 16(15), 1375–1377.