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.
There’s an old saying when making presentations: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them”. Whether you like to use this format or not for your talks, it doesn’t take a great leap of logic to see that the basic structure of a paper could also look a lot like this. “Tell them what you’re going to tell them” would be the abstract and introduction, “tell them” is the results and discussion and experimental, then “tell them what you’ve told them” is the conclusion.
In a talk someone can’t easily refer back to what’s gone before, so it’s not a bad idea to recap the main ideas at the end. But in a paper there’s not much point in just repeating bits that can be easily found a few paragraphs above. Therefore, the conclusion section should be much more than just restating the results, and you should aim to bring together your initial ideas, the results that you’ve now got, and how existing knowledge now has to change because of these results.
A conclusion section doesn’t have to be too long and six to eight sentences should probably suffice for most papers. A summary of the main results is a good place to start but it’s not necessary to include much data unless you can pick out one or two key data points that really highlight what you’ve discovered. Next you should briefly discuss whether or not the results you obtained are what you expected, and if not, why not? Do your results give you any insight that may be applicable to the wider field of research? Do they pose questions about a current theory or do they further confirm existing ideas?
Lastly, now you’ve got the results that you have, you should say something about what you’re going to do next. A lot of papers end pretty weakly with a statement like: “The applications of this method are currently under investigation in our laboratory.” While that may be true, it’s much better and much more interesting to be specific. What exactly are you going to try to do next and what about your current results makes you think you’ll be successful? What do you expect from future investigations and are there any hints in the current study that there may be some unexpected twists further down the road?
Remember, the conclusion may well be one of the last parts of your paper that a referee reads, so you should aim to finish on an inspiring note. Instead of just “telling them what you’ve told them”, show them how you’ve changed the way scientists should think about this area of research, that you’ve already figured what’s to follow, and that you can’t wait to get going on the next challenges!