Summary: Ten simple rules for structuring papers

Good scientific writing is essential to career development and to the progress of science. A well-structured manuscript allows readers and reviewers to get excited about the subject matter, to understand and verify the paper’s contributions, and to integrate these contributions into a broader context. However, many scientists struggle with producing high-quality manuscripts and are typically untrained in paper writing. Focusing on how readers consume information, we present a set of ten simple rules to help you communicate the main idea of your paper. These rules are designed to make your paper more influential and the process of writing more efficient and pleasurable.

Mensh, B. & Kording, K. (2017). Ten simple rules for structuring papers. PLoS Computational Biology, 13(9): e1005619.

Thank you to Guillaume Christe for pointing to this paper on Twitter. While I’m not convinced that the title should refer to “rules” I thought it was a useful guide to thinking about article structure. I’m also aware that most people won’t have time to read the whole thing so I’m posting the summary notes I made while reading it. Having said that, I think whole paper (link here) is definitely worth reading. And, if you like this you may also like this table of suggestions from Josh Bernoff’s Writing without bullshit. OK, on with the summary.

First, there’s this helpful table from the authors as a very brief overview.

https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article/figure?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005619.t001

Principles (Rules 1–4)

Rule 1: Focus your paper on a central contribution, which you communicate in the title. Adding more ideas may be necessary but they make it harder for the reader to remember what the paper is about. If the title doesn’t make a reader want to read the paper, all the work is for nothing. A focused title can also help the author to stay on track.

Rule 2: Write for flesh-and-blood human beings who do not know your work. You are the least qualified person to judge your writing from the perspective of the reader. Design the paper for someone who must first be made to care about your topic, and then who wants to understand your answer with minimal effort. This is not about showing how clever you are.

Rule 3: Stick to the context-content-conclusion (C-C-C) scheme. Aim to write “popular” (i.e. memorable and re-tellable) stories that have a clear beginning, middle and end. While there are many ways to tell stories, each of which engages different readers, this structure is likely to be appropriate for most. Also, the structure of the paper need not be chronological.

Rule 4: Optimize your logical flow by avoiding zig-zag and using parallelism. Only the central idea of a paper should be presented in multiple places. Group similar ideas together to avoid moving the reader’s attention around.

The components of a paper (Rules 5–8)

Rule 5: Tell a complete story in the abstract. Considering that the abstract may be (is probably) the only part of the paper that is read, it should tell the whole story. Ensure that the reader has enough context (i.e. background/introduction) to interpret the results). Avoid writing the abstract as an afterthought, as it often requires many iterations to do it’s job well.

Rule 6: Communicate why the paper matters in the introduction. The purpose of the introduction is to describe the gap that the study aims to fill. It should not include a broad literature review but rather narrow the focus of attention to the problem under consideration.

Rule 7: Deliver the results as a sequence of statements, supported by figures, that connect logically to support the central contribution. While there are different ways of presenting results, often discipline-specific, the main purpose is to convince the reader that the central claim is supported by data and argument. The raw data should be presented alongside the interpretation in order to allow the reader to reach their own conclusions (hopefully, these are aligned with the intent of the paper).

Rule 8: Discuss how the gap was filled, the limitations of the interpretation, and the relevance to the field. The discussion explains how the findings have filled the gap/answered the question that was posed in the introduction. If often includes limitations and suggestions for future research.

Process (Rules 9 and 10)

Rule 9: Allocate time where it matters: Title, abstract, figures, and outlining. Spend time on areas that demonstrate the central theme and logic of the argument. The methods section is often ignored, so budget time accordingly. Outline the argument throughout the paper by writing one informal sentence for each planned paragraph.

Rule 10: Get feedback to reduce, reuse, and recycle the story. Try not to get too attached to the writing, as it may be more efficient to delete whole sections and start again, than to proceed by iterative editing. Try to describe the entire paper in a few sentences, which help to identify the weak areas. Aim to get critical feedback from multiple readers with different backgrounds.


And finally, here’s a great figure to show how each section can be structured using the guidelines in the article.

https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article/figure?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005619.g001

Notes on academic writing

Earlier this year (January in fact) I spent a few days away on a writing retreat to help develop academic writing skills for new academics. I made a few short notes during that process that for some reason didn’t make it onto the blog. Here they are…

Completed the following articles:

  • Wikis and collaborative learning in a South African physiotherapy department
  • Developing reflection and research skills through blogging in an evidence-based practice postgraduate physiotherapy module

Observations on personal development re. writing skills:

  • Keep track of references (including page number) from the outset. I wasted a lot of time having to go back and read through articles just to find the point I was checking.
  • Know what journal you’re going to write for, so that you can begin using their formatting. I also wasted a lot of time because I wrote the entire article using APA Style, then realised that the journal I was submitting to required Chicago Manual Style.
  • Begin the article with clear aims and objectives. Write the article with the aims and objectives next to you. Don’t include anything that isn’t directly relevant to the achievement of those aims and objectives. I spent a lot of time exploring ideas that were eventually culled because they weren’t relevant to the article’s aims and objectives.
  • Keep your writing “tight”, meaning simple and concise. Ask how you can get your point across with as few words as possible. Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. Seems like good advice.
  • As much as I like to believe that I can do everything using just a computer, sometimes it’s good to print out a draft and go through it with a pen. Oddly enough, things can look different when it’s in a physical form.
  • Applying a theoretical framework in the beginning and building around it is easier than trying to manhandle it into the article at the end.

Sharing my article for open peer review

I’m interested in how changes in the internet are forcing changes onto institutions that haven’t traditionally responded well to change. One group that’s finding the transition especially hard are the publishers, especially the academic publishers. A little while ago I wrote an open letter to the South African Society of Physiotherapy, asking them to move towards an open access format. My proposal wasn’t exactly welcomed 🙂

There are clearly some problems with the current peer review model and I’m interested in exploring some of the alternatives. With that in mind I’ve taken an article I’m currently working on and that I’m planning to submit for publication, and instead of only sending it to my usual critical readers, I thought I’d try something different. So I’ve uploaded it onto Google Docs and made it publicly available for anyone to comment on.

This isn’t open peer review in the sense that it’s a transparent review of a paper by the journal reviewers, but is more like “open feedback” prior to publication. I have had a few colleagues raise their eyebrows when I suggested this, and I’ve had to try and convince them that I’m not crazy and that the vast majority of people are not going to “steal” my paper (please don’t steal my paper). In terms of any issues that might arise from this debate, I’ve tried to cover my bases with the following:

  • If you make comments that cause me to significantly change the direction, scope or focus of the paper, you will be acknowledged
  • If you add a significant portion of the content of the paper in lieu of the above point, and it’s included in the final publication, you will be added as an author (at this point, don’t ask me what “significant” means…I’ll probably take it to another open forum to decide the matter should it arise)
  • If you add ideas that originated from your own research and they are included, you will be cited
  • If you feel that there should be other criteria in this list, please add them to the Google Doc

So, if you think this is something you might find interesting to participate in please consider giving me some feedback, preferably in the form of comments. In the words of WBY:

“I have spread my dreams beneath your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams…”

Here’s the public article on Google Docs: The Use of Wikis to Facilitate Collaborative Learning in a South African Physiotherapy Department

Note: if you go to the document and see that it’s been trashed with spam, etc. please consider letting me know via this blog post

UWC writing for publication retreat – day 3

Today is the last day of our writing retreat. We had a short session this morning briefly going over the Method, Results, Discussion and Conclusion, before going back to our rooms to spend the last few hours writing. Coming from a more quantitative background, I’m having some difficulty writing up my qualitative responses, so looking forward to feedback (via Google Docs) from my group members.

Here are my notes from this morning.

Data interpretation and alignment

  • Go back to the journal review and decide if this journal accepts your type of paper
  • What type of data is typically presented in that journal?

Method

  • Recognise that there’s a wide range of methods
  • Make sure your methods are aligned with the literature review
  • Explain why that method was used
  • Summarise → “this is what other people have said about this method”
  • “This is what I did” → descriptive account

Data presentation

  • Use only data that is aligned with your introduction and literature review → aim for congruency
  • Let the data speak for itself
    • It should be comprehensible on it’s own
    • It should indicate a general trend
    • Save extended interpretation for the Discussion
  • Avoid data density and overkill
    • Select appropriate data; emblematic data
    • Avoid repetition and tedious prose explaining what is already evident
  • Group data into themes or patterns
  • Think about what sort or data you have e.g. interviews, survey results, observations, and how best to present that. Present data in user friendly ways e.g. graphs and other visuals

What will you do with your data to make sure that you “surface” the message you want to convey?

How do you convince your readers that you’ve designed a rigorous study?

…we collect minds and then we can…” (Student response in an interview about groupwork, a direct translation from another language)

Qualitative studies

  • What can we do to reduce the power differential between students and lecturers, and what strategies did you put in place e.g. focus groups?
  • Be transparent about the process i.e. make issues visible so that the reader can be aware of them
  • How do you get around the problem of interpretation? What is real and what is the researcher creating connections where none exist?

Discussion

Make a compelling argument. What this means and why it’s important

  • Validate and defend your findings
  • comparisons and interpretations
  • Find your niche

Conclusion

“This is what I did, what I found, and some things I might do next”

  • Summary and argument
  • Possible avenues for future research

Return to rewrite the Abstract and Introduction to ensure alignment

How will I align my analysis of the data to the rest of the paper?

What do you think are the best ways of presenting your data?

UWC writing for publication retreat

I’m just finishing up the first day of a 3 day “writing for publication” retreat, hosted at the Mont Fleur conference centre just outside of Stellenbosch. We spent the first half of today covering some of the underlying ideas and concepts around the first sections of an article, which was useful for me because I write what I think sounds good, rather than having a more nuanced understanding of what exactly it is that I’m writing.

After this we spent a few hours getting everyone signed up to Google Docs and sharing the articles we’re currently busy with among our respective group members. We’ll be using Docs over the next few days to provide feedback to the other participants. Even though I’ve done this at a few workshops now, I’m still amazed at how there are always a few more complex cases that take up the bulk of the total time spent.

I’ll be writing an article based on a presentation given at the HELTASA conference in December last year, which was based on a survey I conducted of my fourth year students following a wiki based assignment I’d given to them earlier on in the year.

Here are my notes from the day’s session.

Identify a journal

Identify your journal early on in the process of writing, rather than trying to force an article into a journal

Publication = joining the conversation

  • Who is already participating in the journal (reviewers, editors)?
  • Who decides who can join in?
  • Do you know anyone who is participating?
  • Who has been excluded and on what grounds?
  • What is under discussion?
  • Who do you need to know in order to join

Know the aims and scope of the journal. Does your material suit the journal’s agenda

Email the editor to ask what the interests of the journal are

Finding an argument could involve responding to another publication by another author

Genre = type of expression which has features that all examples of this type share, they shape the thoughts we form and the communications by which we interact

Browsing articles in different publications may give you an idea that’s more creative than you might be used to

Argument = trying to convince your readers of a particular point that you’re trying to make

Abstracts

This was a short exercise where we were asked to “Write your abstract as a bedtime story”. Here’s mine (the underlined sections were provided as cues):

Once upon a time researchers believed that the use of emerging technologies in clinical education would magically create better teaching and learning practices.

But I began to wonder what this magical process was, and if it was as simple as everyone made it out to be.

So what I did was to conduct a small experiment in one of the classes I teach, where students used a wiki to collaboratively construct articles on paediatric conditions.

I discovered that there was little difference in student behaviour as a result of using the wiki, and that the technology wasn’t the problem.

This changed the way I think about integrating technology into my teaching practice.

It was just an idea to begin thinking about the abstract in a different, slightly more creative way.

Make your abstract, concrete. It’s an advertisement for the rest of the work. Is it going to make your reader follow through?

Your work isn’t only about the content and form, it’s also about establishing your identity as an academic. What does this work say about who I am?

Questions to ask about the abstract:

  • What conversation is the researcher in?
  • What is the researcher’s stance?
  • Does the voice sound “expert” enough?
  • Is the research clear?
  • What is the argument? Can it be made stronger?
  • Is the “so what/now what?” question answered?
  • Will the reader want to read the rest of the article?

Begin by establishing a context and / or a conventional idea, and then challenging it.

Identify areas where you should be tentative, and areas where you can be definite.

Some characteristics of an abstract:

  • Locate – what is the relation of this paper to the bigger picture
  • Focus – what questions or problems that will be explored
  • Report – summarise the major findings
  • Argue – open out the argument and indicate a point of view, returning to the angle e.g. the theoretical framework → closing the circle

Introduction

Introductions tend to follow a set pattern, regardless of the discipline. But, be careful of sticking too closely to any one formula or pattern

Create-a-research-space (CARS) model:

  • Establish a territory → highlight work already done in the field
    • Claim centrality
    • Make topic generalisations
    • Review previous research
  • Establish a niche → what are my questions / comments on the topic?
    • Counter claim
    • Indicating a gap
    • Identifying a gap
    • Continuing a tradition
  • Occupy the niche →
    • Announcing present research
    • Outlining the purpose of the present research
    • Announcing principal findings
    • Stating the value of the present research
    • Indicating research article structure

Peer review

A critical friends asks provocative questions and takes time to fully understand the context

Giving feedback:

  • Provides an audience
  • Direct and explicit questions and comments
  • Constructive, rather than destructive
  • Look for meanings, but don’t take over

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Faculty writing workshop

I just got back from an academic writing workshop at the Houwhoek Inn (their site needs some serious work). The point was to go there with an idea of an article you were going to write, spend 3 days writing it and getting feedback from the other participants and to end up with a draft that would be suitable for submission to a journal with minimal revision.

My article is based on a survey I did among the physiotherapy students in our department last year that looked at the knowledge and use of some of the most popular social software, including Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Digg, Delicious and Wikipedia. The idea was that if we’re going to use some of these services (like social bookmarking by subject, module, class, etc.) then it’d be useful to have an understanding of what the students already know and use. It would give us an idea of what kind of preparation we’d have to do before starting, as well as what level of use we could initially expect from the students.

It’s going to take me a little while to get feedback from the journal editor and reviewers, so it won’t be out anytime soon. I’m hoping that it’ll be published in the next few months though.

Here’s the abstract:

Institutions of higher learning are under pressure to respond to the changing needs of today’s learners and the use of information and communication technology has been at the forefront of that change. The use of social software that enables people to interact with each other in a dynamic way, has been identified as one possible approach. This survey sought to identify the knowledge and attitudes of South African physiotherapy students towards the use of social software in a physiotherapy department. The design was a cross-sectional, descriptive survey that took place in a university physiotherapy department in the Western Cape, South Africa. It included 135 students and used a self-developed questionnaire. Results showed that these students had a superficial understanding of social software. They did however, show an openness to new approaches and a willingness to interact with lecturers outside the traditional classroom setting. A lack of access to appropriate technology was identified as one possible factor for their lack of understanding. Any attempt to incorporate social software tools into this department would have to include significant training and support.