Effective Writing by Dr. James L. McGaugh
As the founding editor of a scientific journal (Behavioral and Neural Biology, now Neurobiology of Learning and Memory) for 25 years and as a reviewer (and author) of scientific articles for over 50 years, I have discovered much about what makes an article excellent, acceptable, or poor. Here are a few of my observations.
First, a scientific article is essentially a story. It is the story of your ideas, your findings, and your interpretations. The Introduction must clearly state the reasons for the experiments. A good introduction will include citations of the earliest and most significant prior studies. Importantly, it must state what is known and what needs to be known. As an editor or reviewer I want to know: Does the paper address an important scientific question? What is already known? What do the authors state that they want to know, and will their approach provide new and important information? The authors must be careful to provide all of this information in a clear and concise manner. A poorly written paper includes a lengthy, detailed introduction that cites many previous studies without focusing on the questions above. If I finish reading the introduction and have not learned what problem is addressed, what new information is required, and how that information will be obtained, my review is not likely to be positive. Thus, the introduction is the important beginning of the story.
The Methods section must provide the essential details of the procedures used. After all, if the study reports important findings, others will wish to understand the detailed methods and may attempt to replicate the study. Citing previous papers that detail the procedures is not an effective way of helping your readers understand the story you are telling.
The answer to the question: "What was found?" belongs in the Results section. The findings should be reported descriptively in sentences and in tables and figures. The findings should be supported with the statistical evidence. A poorly written paper either fails to provide appropriate statistical analyses or reports the statistical findings without appropriate summary statements. Reviewers' conclusions that the statistical analyses are incomplete, inappropriate, or inadequately interpreted are among the most common criticisms. Another very common critique is that the table and figure legends are inadequate or incomplete.
The Discussion section is where you present the final part of your story. How do your interpret the findings presented in the Results section? How do these findings clarify issues and questions raised in the Introduction? The Discussion section should begin with a summary of each of the findings and an interpretation of each in relation to previous evidence. This section, like the Introduction, should not provide a detailed review of the literature but, rather, should cite and discuss only historically important and highly relevant prior studies. A poorly written paper provides a detailed literature review rather than a selective review of the papers most relevant to the issues addressed. A good Discussion will provide an understandable ending to your story and a clear avenue to subsequent studies.
Good articles are clearly organized and and stated in simple declarative sentences. Long sentences are not only boring, they are difficult to read and understand. Use the "active voice". For example: "Dobzhansky reported that" - not "It was reported by Dobzhansky that". A simple technique is to use "search" or "find" (in your word processing program) for "was" to find where you have used the passive voice and change to the active voice. Simple direct action is more interesting and much more readable. It is extremely helpful to have others read and comment on your papers before they are submitted. I strongly recommend that authors revise their papers carefully several times before submitting them. That should become a routine process. Almost all submitted papers are reviewed and almost all reviews offer serious suggestions for at least modest, if not extensive, revision. In my experience, most reviews are helpful and should be taken very seriously by authors.
Finally, it is very hard work to write clearly and effectively. The more work that goes into writing a clear paper, the more likely it will be read. To communicate your findings effectively,your paper must be clearly written so that your interesting story can be understood by reviewers as well as readers with various native-language backgrounds. Good findings poorly communicated may not get past the review process or may be misinterpreted. Important findings that are well communicated are well disseminated, and this is the backbone of science discovery.
Dr. James L. McGaugh is the Founding Chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, and the Founding Director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine, as well as the Founding president of the Association for Psychological Science. He is also the Founding Editor of Behavioral Biology, Behavioral and Neural Biology, and Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Additionally, he has served on the editorial boards of many other journals, including Neuron, Behavioral Neuroscience, Brain Research, and Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences as well as a foreign member of the Brazilian and Mexican Academy of Sciences and received the Laurea Honoris Causa from the University of L'Aquila, Italy. He has over 500 scientific publications, including scientific papers and reviews, and edited and authored books about the neurobiology of learning and memory.