Publications Part 2: Structure of a Scientific Paper

I’m going to write a series of posts on the black art of scientific publications.  I’m planning a journal based exercise for one of my classes next year and need to provide some information on what journals are and why they are.  I thought the best way to help me think about this was to write some blog posts in an attempt to get the key ideas together.  These are written from the perspective of an academic chemist, and with an educated lay audience in mind.  Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Before we go any further into the politics of scientific publishing, it is important to understand how a scientific paper is constructed.  Formats for papers vary but in general they have a similar structure to undergraduate lab reports.   Each paper has a title, a list of authors (including a corresponding author to whom any questions about the work should be sent), a list of addresses saying where the authors work and an abstract.  The abstract should summarise the work and the key findings and is a good way to screen the paper to see if it is relevant.  The main body of the paper will have four main sections: Introduction, Experimental Methods, Results and Discussion, Conclusions.  There will also be a list of references, other papers that the authors have found useful during their work and sometimes acknowledgements that may be used to indicate who funded the research and people who were helpful during the work.

The introduction should put the research work in context and summarise the key points the reader needs to know to understand the work.  It should be aimed at an expert in the field and does not need to include details of common techniques.  For example, a paper reporting synthesis of organic molecules would not need to describe how standard synthetic or analytical techniques work.  Most of the references will be found in the introduction because the authors will describe work related to their own work.  A good introduction will leave you with an idea of why this research was important, and what the main goals of the work were.   Ideally the researchers will identify a hypothesis that they are trying to prove or disprove, but in my experience, chemistry papers rarely have that.

The experimental methods may be included in the paper but are often continued in supplementary information when it is too long for publication.  A good experimental section gives all the details necessary to reproduce the work and should include instrument details and settings for all analytical work, methods for all experiments (or references to previous experiments), details of the chemicals used and the suppliers, and any important additional information, particularly if there are any safety concerns with the experiments.

Results can be included in the experimental section under each synthetic procedure, the analytical data for the compound may be presented, or may be presented afterwards.  Sometimes results and discussion are combined, sometimes they are separate.  Again, results may be included in the supplementary information of the paper if there are too many.  A good results section presents all relevant findings of the research in the most understandable format possible.  If the results section is separate to the discussion, the results should be presented with some interpretation but no conclusions.  It is possible to read that part of the paper and work out for yourself what the researchers found.

The discussion section is where the researchers critically evaluate their results and use them as evidence to support the main goals of the paper and to prove or disprove the hypothesis where one exists.   If there are any facts that make the results unreliable or if any of the results were surprising, this should be pointed out.  There may be some references to other papers that contain similar work.

Finally there will be a conclusion which summarises the results and relates them back to the goals of the work.  Like the abstract, this part of the paper is a good indication of whether the paper is relevant or not.