Structure your writing

Whether you are writing a manuscript for submission to a peer-reviewed journal, or for a book chapter or report, your text requires structure. It is self-evident that a description of how, when and where you carried out your research should be in the Methods section, and your findings in the Results section. But in practice ensuring that each part contains the required details, and no more or less, can be challenging, especially for authors with less writing experience.

This section introduces the standard structure of an article reporting laboratory or field research, and thus includes Methods and Results sections. But much of what is written here—especially regarding the Introduction and Discussion sections and the other elements of a piece of writing—is nevertheless applicable to writing for other formats.

Preparation

If you are writing for a peer-reviewed journal, it is wise to choose your target journal before starting to write. Read the journal’s Guidelines for Authors2 For an example, see those of Oryx. carefully, and follow them exactly. Journals are idiosyncratic: each has its prefered citation and referencing style, layout, and figure and table formats and sizes. A few moments studying the style of your chosen journal will be repaid handsomely. Some journals include templates for particular manuscript types,3 For an example, see the article template for Oryx. which will save you time and ensure you have included all the required material, and in the specified order.

Title

As the title and the Abstract will be the first parts of your article to which potential readers are exposed, it is essential to ensure these parts are informative and appealing. The title needs to serve two principal functions:

  • Provide a summary of the content that is sufficiently interesting to attract readers

  • Facilitate search engine optimization to ensure your article will be indexed efficiently, and thus be discoverable

The title should be a succinct description of the work. As a general guide, use no more than 20 words. An optimal title could apply one of several strategies to maximize readership:

  • Pose the research question

  • Summarize the main conclusion

  • Appeal to the interests of a general readership

  • Appeal to the interests of both a general and a specialist readership

There is some indication that citations are lower for articles with titles that include country names (Abramo et al., 2016) and that are longer (Letchford et al., 2015) but higher for titles that include a colon (van Wesel et al., 2014). But a comparison of time periods before and after 2000 suggests that more recently citation rates are higher for articles with longer titles, possibly because this increases their discoverability (Guo et al., 2018). It would be wise, however, not to be overly influenced by these lines of evidence as the research has been across different disciplines and time periods. Appeal and discoverability, the latter driven by search engine optimization, should be your main considerations.

Here are some potential alternative titles for the same article:

The conservation status of the elephant bird on Madagascar4 Uninformative and potentially unappealing

Is the elephant bird extant on Madagascar?5 The research question

The elephant bird is extant on Madagascar6 The research conclusion

Conservation on islands: is the elephant bird Aepyornis maximus extant?7 An appeal to the interests of a general audience, combined with the research question

On balance, the last title fulfills our requirements most completely. As well as appealing to the broad readership with an interest in conservation on islands, it also includes keywords for the study, thus maximizing discoverability.

Author details

Provide the names, institutional affiliations and full postal addresses of all authors. It would be wise to include the imageORCID8 ‘ORCID provides a persistent digital identifier that distinguishes you from every other researcher and, through integration in key research workflows such as manuscript and grant submission, supports automated linkages between you and your professional activities ensuring that your work is recognized.’— From ORCID identifier9 e.g. imagehttps://orcid.org/0000-0001-5044-2585 of all authors (if your co-authors do not have an ORCID identifier, encourage them to register for one). Use of ORCID is now mandated by some journals, at least for the corresponding author.

Abstract

As with the Title, the Abstract will most likely be one of the first parts of your article to which potential readers are exposed. The Abstract is not only an integral part of your article. Following publication it will take on a life of its own, indexed and presented by search engines, so it needs to be self-contained and self-explanatory.

Another type of abstract: Tête---Pablo Picasso, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.Figure 2: Another type of abstract: Tête—Pablo Picasso, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

A journal’s Guidelines for Authors will indicate the word limit for an Abstract, typically in the order of 200–300 words. The Abstract should:

  • Summarize the main text
  • Be comprehensible without reference to the main text
  • Not contain any references or undefined abbreviations
  • Have few if any numbers or statistics

The contents should include, in the following order

  • Background to the research (placing the work in context)
  • Aim(s) (clear statements of purpose or hypotheses)
  • Methods (what was done, where and when)
  • Results (a summary of the main findings)
  • Conclusions (the most important consequences of the work, with any recommendations)

Keywords

A journal’s Guidelines for Authors will indicate the total number of keywords that you may provide (typically 8–10 pertinent words or phrases). You would be wise to use as many as possible, in alphabetical order. With the need to optimize your article for search engines being paramount it is no longer the case that keywords should exclude words used in the article Title. Rather, they should do so.10 Here is a selection of potential keywords for our elephant bird research article, repeating some of the keywords from the Title: Aepyornis maximus, biogeography, distance sampling, elephant bird, extinction, island, Madagascar, transect

Introduction

If you have search engine optimized your article, and your Title and Abstract are informative and appealing, the next part of your article that a reader may encounter is the Introduction. Of this section it is the opening paragraph that is critical.

This first paragraph should generally place the study in its broader context. One possible approach for this paragraph is to ensure that it does not include details of the specific place or species being studied; i.e. concentrate on describing the broader picture and context.

Subsequent paragraphs should consider the current state of the particular field of research in light of key literature on the subject, and, if appropriate, introduce the species and/or geographical area of the research being presented.

The final paragraph should normally contain your research question(s)—preferably framed as hypotheses—or at least the aims of the study.

The tense in this section should be appropriate to the situation. For matters that are ongoing and correct at the time of writing, use the present tense:

There are >760 bird species in Bhutan.

For something that occurred in the past and that is complete, use the past tense:

In 1992 the organization initiated a community based-monitoring programme.

Study area

This should include a brief description of the geographical area in which your research was carried out, with relevant information such as vegetation type(s), mean annual rainfall and temperature, altitude range, seasonality of climate, geomorphology, topography, pedology and other matters, as appropriate. The actual content will depend on the focus of the study.

Location of the study site at LuiKotale, on the south-western edge of Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo (a modified version of Figure 1 in @beauneWhatWouldHappen2015).Figure 3: Location of the study site at LuiKotale, on the south-western edge of Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo (a modified version of Figure 1 in Beaune (2015)).

This section will usually require a map figure (e.g. Fig. 3) showing the location of the study area, and of individual camera traps, transects or sample collection sites, as appropriate. For advice and help with the preparation of publication quality map figures, see Map with a message.

The tense in this section will vary. When describing the situation particular to the time when your work was carried out, use the past tense:

Mean monthly rainfall during the period of our study was 112 mm.

But when describing the general situation use the present tense:

Mean annual rainfall in the Park is 129 mm.

Methods

The Methods should include a clear description of how and when you carried out your study. This section must be sufficiently clear and detailed to enable somebody to repeat your study without your input.

Provide a comprehensive description of the study design and methods, and details of any equipment used. Only include the make and manufacturer of equipment if it is specialized and not in common use (you do not need, for example, to provide the make and manufacturer of equipment such as binoculars, telescope or GPS, which are now all standard field equipment).

Include a full description of any statistical or modelling methods used. There is no need to mention that data were entered into a spreadsheet or database, as this is standard procedure, but you do need to specify any statistical software used for analysis, and the version.11 e.g. R 3.6.0 (R Core Team, 2019)

The amount of information you need to include about a method will depend on how well-known the technique is. For well-known methods the name and a reference will generally suffice. Less commonly-used methods will require a brief description and a citation, and novel methods will require a detailed description.

You will mostly use the past tense in this section:

We walked the transects twice per month in 2017.

Results

In this section, present only the findings of your study. Any comments on your results, and any interpretation, belong in the Discussion.

Your key findings form the framework for your results, with each key finding usually supported by one table or figure, or possibly a group of tables and/or figures, depending upon the complexity of the research. The first step in drafting this section is therefore to prepare your tables and figures (see Present your data). As they provide the framework, you can then use them to structure and guide your writing.

The text should lead the reader through the framework, summarizing the main findings, clarifying the findings where necessary, and drawing attention to points of note (such as signficant or non-significant differences).

When presenting numbers, either in the text or in tables, indicate the units. In the text you would do this as:

Total forest cover comprised 1,245 km2.

The camera-trap rate was 0.01 per 100 trap days.

Sightings were grouped into 100-, 200- and 300-m classes.

Mean tree height was 7.05 ± SD 1.34 m.

Table 1: In this example the units (days) are indicated parenthetically in the column heading.

Site Sampling effort (days) Individuals per 100 trap-days
Forest 923 0.342
Reserve 789 0.076
Savannah 419 0.152
Wetland 772 0.086

For a table (Table 1), indicate the units in the column or row headings (i.e. do not repeat them after each value).

Statistical results can either be included parenthetically in the text, if they are few in number, or summarized in a table, if they are extensive.

The Results should not usually contain any references to literature (this would imply interpretation, which is the role of the Discussion), and should be written in the past tense (as in the above examples).

Avoid repeating data in the text that are provided in the figures and tables: the tables and figures contain the details and the text presents a summary.

When you cite tables and figures avoid emphasizing them, but rather emphasize the finding (citing the table or figure parenthetically).

For example:

A total of 33 species of mammals were hunted, of which only 11 were reported by hunters during formal interviews (Table 3).

rather than

Table 3 shows that, during formal interviews, hunters only reported hunting 11 species, although 33 species were hunted in total.

Ensure that all tables and figures are cited in the text, and that they are cited sequentially.12 The first citation of Figure 1 should be before the first citation of Figure 2, and not vice versa.

Wolf photographed by a camera trap in Muntii Metaliferi area, adjacent to Zarand, Romania. Credit: LCC Project/FFI.Figure 4: Wolf photographed by a camera trap in Muntii Metaliferi area, adjacent to Zarand, Romania. Credit: LCC Project/FFI.

Some journals require that each table and figure be presented on a separate page at the end of the text, others will require that tables and figures are embedded at an appropriate position in the text. Check the Guidelines for Authors of your target journal.

Only incorporate photographs (which in some journals are referred to refer to as plates) if they are part of the evidence: e.g. a species photographed with a camera trap (Fig. 4), or photographs of a forest before and after fire.

Discussion

The Discussion picks up where the Introduction, in which you stated your hypotheses or aims, left off. Your Results provide new insights into the problem or question outlined in the Introduction. In the Discussion you interpret your findings bearing in mind what was previously known about the subject, and put these new insights into context.

It may be helpful to start with a brief summary of the main findings. If the purpose of your study is to test a particular hypothesis, you could refer to this in the first paragraph, indicating whether the hypothesis was accepted or rejected.

Second and subsequent paragraphs should discuss and compare your findings with other studies and/or studies in the same or similar areas (and/or under similar conditions, for example). The final paragraphs should focus on the wider implications of your work, and any management implications and /or recommendations. If further research is necessary, be clear why, and explain what type of research is required and, if appropriate, who will carry it out.

The tense of this section will be mixed:

Previous studies highlighted the negative effects of overhunting.

This study provides information on the nesting ecology of the elephant bird.

Climate change continues to be a threat to the elephant bird.

Future research will include additional nest surveys.

Author contributions

Most journals require a brief statement that specifies the contributions of each author (indicated by their initials), in a form such as:

Study design and fieldwork: JS, JH; data analysis and writing: all authors.

Acknowledgements

This section section should include a brief statement of thanks, in non-effusive terms, to those who have provided assistance, and to sponsors, funders, protected area managers or government departments, as appropriate. Following peer review it is good practice, and courteous, to include acknowledgement of the reviewers (after all, they are not paid for their critiques: reviewing is part of the general spirit of academic community service).

Either in this or a separate section (depending on the journal’s specific requirements), provide details of all sources of financial support, for all authors, with grant numbers if relevant. If there was no specific funding, provide a statement such as:

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency, or commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Conflicts of interest

Most journals require authors to indicate any known financial, professional or personal relationships with the potential to bias the research presented. Where any conflicts do exist, provide a simple statement such as

JS: none; JH: received funding from an organization that may be affected by the research reported.

Where there are no conflicts for any authors a simple statement of ‘None’ will suffice.

Ethical standards

All reputable journals require that research with human or other animal subjects follows accepted norms, and most journals will require an explicit statement to this effect. For work with human subjects, journals may require that authors have followed the ethics guidelines of a relevant professional society.13 For example, those of the British Sociological Association Some journals have their own ethics guidelines.14 For example, see those of Oryx

Research involing human subjects, the handling of animals or the collection of specimens would normally be expected to have received ethical clearance from the instituion of the lead author. Some journals may have specific ethical requirements for authors carrying out research in a country other than their own. Where a statement on the ethical standards of the research is required, provide full details of the ethical clearance(s) received.

References

Citing whilst you write, using the Zotero [reference manager](#manage-your-references){class="toc"}.Figure 5: Citing whilst you write, using the Zotero reference manager.

Each journal has its own preferred citation and reference style. The most efficient way to comply with a journal’s requirments in this respect, and to help you create a tidy reference section, is to use a reference manager, which will keep track of your citations—linking them automatically to the reference section and thus ensuring that all citations have matching references and vice versa, and formatting them in the journal’s preferred style.

Supplementary material

Online platforms provide the opportunity to include data that would be impractical to include in the printed version of an article. Such data may enhance the value of the research and be of benefit to readers. This material may include code, text, tables, figures, plates, videos, audio files and raw data.15 You would normally cite such material as Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Figure 1 or Supplementary Material 1, or possibly in the form Table S1, depending on the journal’s preferred style.

Alternatively you can make your data available via a third-party archive16 e.g. DRYAD, figshare, Harvard dataverse, Open Science Framework, zenodo. Your choice of archive will depend on price (some are free, some not), whether you prefer an open source archive, the preservation techology used by the archive, and the copyright types available.. These assign a DOI (digital object indentifier)—a persistent identifier that indicates where the material can be found—to your data, which you will need to cite in the text. Some journals now mandate the archiving of raw data in such a repository.17 Journals are increasingly adopting the Transparency and Openness Promotion guidelines of the Center for Open Science

Common mistakes

If you submit a poorly prepared manuscript this will reflect badly on you as researcher and author. For example, if the manuscript that you submit is not formatted according to the target journal’s guidelines, contains poor quality figures, and in which some of the literature citations do not have matching references, and/or vice versa, editors and reviewers could be forgiven for wondering whether the research was similarly of a poor quality. Here is a list of some of the most common mistakes (with potential solutions):

  • Literature citations do not have matching references and/or vice versa.18 Solution: Use a reference manager.

  • Literature citations and references are not in the journal’s preferred format.19 Solution: Use a reference manager.

  • Not all tables and/or figures are cited in the text.20 Solution: Cite the figures and tables using the facilitites of your writing software.

  • The Results section includes material that properly belongs in the Discussion section.21 Solution: Remove any literature citations (you may have slipped inadvertently into discursive material).

  • The Study area section is embedded in the Methods. This is to some extent a personal preference and/or a matter of journal style but, essentially, a study area is a place rather than a method.22 Solution: Place the Study area section before the Methods section.

  • The figures are poorly prepared (e.g. not sharp, or with too much detail, or too litle) and therefore do not clearly convey their message or purpose.23 Solution: Read the guidance in Improve your graphics, Map with a message and Plot with a purpose

  • The figure and/or table captions are not self-expanatory.24 Solution: Study the example captions in Present your data.

  • The language of your manuscript requires improvement (perhaps English is not your first language).25 Solution: Read Improve your writing and/or seek help from a colleague or correspondent, and/or enrol in a free online course via AuthorAid.

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