Scientists worldwide publish 1.5 million articles per year in scientific journals. Ideally, they all want to get their research results into high impact journals such as Nature or Science. So how do you write a top scientific article?
Nine tips from top publisher Rik Leemans and information specialist Wouter Gerritsma.
Of course your article should be good quality. But the first question the scientific publisher will ask is, is it news? There are always several researchers or research groups doing similar research. Make sure you get your results out fast.
2. Write for a target group
The most common mistake made by researchers is to just want to get the article written, rather than to write it with particular readers in mind. Get to know your target group and the jargon used by the journal, otherwise your article will be rejected because it is out of sync.
3. Get to the point
Once a journal editor accepts your article, it will go to reviewers. These are busy people. Rik Leemans reviews articles for the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. When he first started, he used to take an hour per article; now he makes up his mind in ten minutes. So make sure you make your point clearly and fast.
4) Give the reviewer the benefit of the doubt
If you get a lot of criticism back from the reviewers, take the time to rewrite the article. You might disagree with a reviewer's criticisms, but always explain what you have done with them. Otherwise, the reviewer has to search to see whether you have taken any notice. That will irritate him (he is in a hurry, remember) and irritation could make him more critical.
5) Aim for a high impact journal
Everyone wants to get their article into a high impact journal. It is very good for your publication and citation scores. But do not count your chickens before they've hatched: only 0.5 percent of the articles submitted to Nature are accepted, and only 20 percent of those accepted get cited afterwards.
6) Improve your network
Collaboration with (other) excellent researchers pays: it improves your track record. The most cited article by Rik Leemans (1,200 times) came out of an international workshop. 'That one is seen as a world-class article because it was written by excellent researchers and the results were easy to apply.' But remember: the impact of an article written with international colleagues is higher than that of one written with compatriots. And the latter is cited more often than an article by an individual.
It pays to cite other researchers. The more you cite your colleagues, the more they will cite you. It's 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours': researchers are very human. And don't forget to cite yourself. Self-citations don't count towards your citation score, but they do make other researchers aware of your earlier work. According to information specialist Wouter Gerritsma of the Wageningen UR library, Wageningen researchers are too modest on this point. In a quarter of their publications, they don't refer to their previous work at all.
8) Stick to the same name
Many researchers are inconsistent about their name. So F. (Fons) Voragen, A.G.J. Voragen and F.G.J.Voragen turn out to be one and the same professor of Food technology. The same goes for the name of your department. If this is not clear there's a big chance a search engine will miss your article. 'Web of Science' scans two or three organizational levels with your name. Don't give the search engine a choice, stick to two. Gerritsma has an extra tip for women: publish under your own name, especially if you are married and later to be divorced.
9) Make your research broadly accessible
Why are you publishing actually? In 40 percent of cases, researchers are motivated by career considerations or the need for research financing. But 78 percent are aiming to make the world a better place. If you are among them you surely want a lot of people to hear about your results. To increase accessibility, researchers are making increasing use of open access sources, which particularly benefit researchers in developing countries. Use the social media to make your research accessible too. Put your publications on LinkedIn and Facebook. Publish your 'Research ID', with your main publications, on the internet.
The tips in this article are based on the mini-symposium How to Write a World-class Paper, run on 26 October by Dutch publisher Elsevier and Wageningen UR library.
'Ask big questions'
How do you get your article into one of the big-name journals? We asked biochemist Dolf Weijers, who published three times in Nature last year, and once in Science. 'You have to have the guts to ask big questions. In every scientific field there are big research questions still unanswered. There is a big risk that you won't find an answer to them either. But don't be afraid of that. If you do find an answer, you have the ingredients for a top publication. Along with creativity and hard work, a 'big question' is a requisite for a top publication. The chance of a small question leading to a big answer is small, after all.'
Weijers' big question was: how do plant cells in the young embryo known what they should become? In order to answer this question, he needed to know how the stem cells are formed in the plant embryo. He published his answer to this question in Nature in March.