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The Oxbridge Editing Blog 29th January 2021

How to correctly format a scientific paper for journal submission

29th January 2021

Publication of an academic scientific paper can be really challenging, especially if you are seeking to publish in an elite journal within your discipline.

Competition can be fierce, and editors could see drafts of hundreds of papers just waiting to be published.

You need to make sure that your paper is selected, so having a plan on how to achieve this is essential for success. Before we get to planning, let’s first look at what a scientific paper actually is.

What is a scientific paper?

A scientific paper is also known as a journal article. It is a piece of writing that usually has specific characteristics and is often published in an academic journal.

This type of journal is different from what you might see in a magazine or newspaper, and it is held to a higher degree of scrutiny. Scientific articles go through a rigorous process before they are published, and it is important that you understand this process before you get started. In this way, you will be prepared for each step, and you will then be able to successfully see your article through to publication.

In this blog post, we are going to take you through the various pieces that usually appear in a scientific paper and discuss some of the things that you might want to focus on. It is important to note, however, that this is just a guide. It is important to do your own investigation into your journal of choice, as there are different rules for each one.

Let’s get started.

Organising your scientific manuscript

Selecting an appropriate journal for publication

Not all journals are equal, and some are more prestigious than others. Your first step in the process of publication is to identify the scientific journal that you seek to publish in. When doing this research, there are a number of different elements that you need to consider.

First, consider the journal metrics, including the impact factor.

The impact factor is a measure of frequency that is based on citation numbers of articles within that journal in a particular year (or spanning several years). Journals with higher impact factors are generally seen as more important to the academic community than journals with lower ones.

Different disciplines will have different interpretations of what makes a quality journal, so your first step might be to look at the impact factor of a few common journals in your field and compare. Typically, journals with an impact factor above 10 are seen as the most prestigious, but with that prestige comes fiercer competition (i.e. more articles to compete against for publication) and the level of scrutiny may be higher.

As a novice researcher, striving for the top academic journals may not be in your best interest. Instead, you might consider choosing a journal that has an average (or above average) impact factor. You might also consider the acceptance rate of the journal to assess your chances of success.

Look too at the length of the article you are permitted to submit. Some journals expect significant articles of 20,000 words or more, whereas others might limit you to 7,000. If you have a very complex methodology or detailed findings, consider a journal that allows for a few more words.

Abstract

The abstract is your first opportunity to interact with the reader. It must contain enough information so that your reader is able to fully understand what you are saying. Look at other articles in your chosen journal to get a feel for what a successful abstract construction looks like.

In the abstract, you should typically not include any citations. You should include your premise, hypothesis, methodology and major findings.

While abstracts vary in length, they are usually somewhere around 250 words.

Introduction and literature review

The introduction and the literature review allow you to position your work in the field. In this section you may outline your research question and hypothesis.

It’s a good idea to think about some of your citations at this point. Include at least a few sources in your literature review that are derived from the journal that you want to publish in (if possible, of course). Some journals tend to combine the introduction and literature review together, where others may just keep them separate. Try and adhere to the format that is suggested.

Methodology

The methods section of your article is really crucial. It offers the framework of how the study was conducted, so every sentence that you write needs to be clear and relevant to your project. You should also describe aspects such as the validity and reliability (if applicable) in this section.

By the time that the reader gets through your methods section, they should be prepared to understand your findings that come in the next section.

Findings and discussion

Just like the introduction and literature review, some journals prefer a combination of findings and discussion together, whereas other journals want them separate. Regardless, your goal here is to present clear and coherent findings.

For some journals, this will mean complex statistical analysis. For others, there will be more summary than statistics. Whatever you choose, make sure that what you are selecting to present is representative of your audience.

For example, some journals in the humanities might not typically include detailed statistics. In a science journal this might be much more common. Knowing your audience is one of the fundamental components to getting your work published, so take care to adapt your work to fit the readership.

Conclusions, limitations, areas of future research

While you are going to have to provide conclusions no matter where you choose to publish, different journals have varying requirements. You should consider whether to also include limitations, and/or areas for future research.

Make sure that your conclusion provides a clear overview of the key themes that were established in your findings. The reader should be able to read the conclusion and have understand what happened. The conclusion should also be readable by a wide audience. While your findings may have complex statistics, the conclusion should provide succinct documentation of your outcomes and how these relate back to your research question(s)/ hypothesis.

Referencing and citation

Referencing is important (obviously). It can be extremely tedious to make sure that all the points and commas are included in your reference list, but there is much more to referencing than just the formatting.

When choosing references for your publication, you are going to want to pick reputable sources. Remember that impact factor we discussed earlier? Select your references from these types of high quality places

If you are writing about recent events, you are also going to want to choose references that are recent (say, from the last decade or so). This places your own work in the current discussion within your field, which is going to be important to an editor when making a final decision.

It’s also a good idea to make sure that you have included at least one recent reference to another author that has published in the journal you are seeking to get accepted into.

Reviewing your scientific manuscript

So you feel ready to submit your scientific article. All you have to do is write it, submit it, and wait for the final acceptance. Right?

Not quite. There are a few more steps in the process before submission. Knowing these steps can be helpful in preparing you to undertake each one.

Submission of the first draft

By the point that you are ready to submit, you may find it really tedious to go back over your work and check for small errors. However, reviewing it could be the difference between it moving to the next stage and it being returned to you.

Here are the things you need to check.

Titles, authors, and contact information

Usually, to make it easier for everyone, journals provide a standard template for potential publications. This will usually have information such as font types, margins, spacing, and a list of rules to follow. Make sure that you apply this template before your first submission.

Furthermore, if the journal notes limitations (e.g. the title must be 10 words or less), make sure that you have met these requirements.

When providing contact information, use your university email address (rather than your personal one). 

Tables, figures, and images

Ensure your tables, figures, and images are formatted to the journal standards. This could mean using the formatting associated with a particular referencing style or other requirements that are set out by the journal. In a journal publication, all tables, figures, and images must meet the same standard across articles, so ensuring that yours are in the correct format is crucial.

Furthermore, if you have an image that is in colour, use colours that contrast with each other. When you switch the image into greyscale, it will still be readable by the audience (it is also worth checking whether colour is permitted in the first place).

Review by the editor

The editor is the first gatekeeper that you need to navigate when you first submit your article. It is the editor’s job to determine whether your article fits the criteria of the journal and whether it is a good fit for the current issue.

If the editor likes what you have written, it generally moves on to the next stage of the publication process (peer review). If the editor reads your work and sees glaring spelling errors, a text that is not formatted correctly, or an article that lacks coherence, your work will be sent back to you. It’ll be ‘rejected’ and cannot go further in the publication process until you get it right.

Editors are very busy people. They are often academics who have full-time jobs in other areas. They are also often senior scholars. Making an editor mad because you failed to read the instructions for the journal is never a good strategy. This is why it is often beneficial to have someone (or multiple people) review your work prior to submission. These reviewers can check for clarity, relevance, and provide a basic copy edit. All of these pieces can help to ensure that you make it through the editor review process.

The peer review process

If your paper reaches the peer review process, you are one step closer to publication.

At this point, the editor of the journal sends your paper to a team of qualified experts. These experts are typically people in your field who have the ability to discern if what you have written would be of interest to the wider academic community.

There are usually between two and four reviewers and each is given an anonymous copy of your work. They read through it (individually) and make comments on anything that they do not understand, and any issues with the methodology or findings. They also make suggestions for improvement. Finally, they make a recommendation – usually, ‘accept’, ‘accept with revisions’ or ‘reject’. They then send their responses back to the journal editor, who then communicates with you, the author.

If your article comes back with some form of acceptance, you’ll likely have to make changes. This can be really challenging. You will get all the comments back from the reviewers and they may provide contrasting remarks or highlight things that you do not want to discuss in your paper. During the alterations period, you must decide which pieces to change and which comments to discard (and provide justification as to why you have done so). The turnaround period here might only be a relatively short time, so it is up to you to work quickly and efficiently.

It is also worthwhile to talk about what happens if you get the ominous ‘reject’ message. Firstly, don’t despair. It can be frustrating, but it is not the end of the road for you. If you get rejected by one journal, look for other similar journals that might be a better fit for your article. Just because one editor says ‘no thank you’ does not mean that every editor will have the same opinion.

Further, if you do get that rejection letter, see if you can talk to a senior academic in your field to try and determine where you went wrong. Writing scientific papers is a learning process, so take the criticism, take a breath, and move on.

Final alterations

If you have made it through the corrections and suggestions phase, you are well on the way to becoming a published author. You are not quite finished yet, though!

By now, you might be absolutely sick and tired of looking at your article. But, this is the point where you have to push through to the finish line. You need to go back to the original instructions provided by the journal to make sure that your article still meets its requirements (e.g. are you still under the word count? Are any new tables/figures formatted correctly, etc.).

You also need to go back and do one final and careful edit, where you proofread for minor errors and address any issues with flow (when adding in amendments, the cohesion of the paper can sometimes be disrupted).

It may be prudent at this point to have a colleague or a trained professional review your final work. This is the final draft that is going to be seen by a global audience. Making sure that everything is as perfect as possible is paramount.

Final thoughts

There are many things to consider when writing a scientific journal article.

You have likely spent months (if not years) collecting, analysing, and organising the data into manageable chunks. You’ve then carefully crafted each section of your article to ensure your contribution to your field is worthy of publication.

The whole process can feel a bit daunting, and perhaps a bit overwhelming. But there are people out there who can help and support you along the way. There will be colleagues in your department that have likely published in similar journals to you. Asking them for their own tips and tricks can always be helpful.

Finally, seeking out professional help is always worthwhile. Here at Oxbridge Editing, our trained academics can review your work, check it for errors and correct them, or work with you on improving the clarity and coherence.

No matter what stage you are in the writing process, there are people out there willing to support you, so take advantage and get ready to submit a really great scientific paper!