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

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Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.