The world of research is highly competitive, and early career scientists face many challenges while trying to carve out a successful career path. Writing scientific articles is one of those challenges. Prof. Paolo Tarolli (University of Padova) shared his personal experience on “How to write a scientific article” with 130 attendees last 7th September, during the first Campfire event, “Soft skills for soft lunches – NH series“, organised by the ECS group of the EGU Natural Hazards Division. Paolo has written over 138 papers (indexed in Scopus) in 15 years of his career in academia. He collected a rich and articulated experience as an editorial board member (and guest editor) of several journals (under different publishers and fields) and as chief executive editor of the open-access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences published by Copernicus.
Get to know the journal you want to submit to
Selecting the appropriate journal is the basis of a successful submission process, highlighted Paolo at the beginning of the talk. While authors can easily choose among a research article, a systematic review, or a brief commentary, according to the type of research they are presenting, the selection of the fitting journal is driven by numerous factors:
(i) Scope: It is fundamental to read the focus of the journal carefully. Many scholars often take this action superficially, but most rejections come from out-of-scope submissions.
(ii) Charging fees: Open access or non-open access, that is the question. Part of the responsibility of scholars is to allocate the budget to their project research activities. One of them is undoubtedly connected to the payment for open access articles, which permit higher visibility and support Open Science. However, this is not possible for many scholars worldwide. Do not struggle too much; there are many journals for both options.
(iii) Review process: Open discussion or blind/double-blind. “An open science starts from a transparent review process“, firmly stated Paolo. He is a strong supporter of the open discussion review method, which, despite being a blind method, allows multiple authors to join the review process by providing comments or suggestions. In some cases, double-blind peer-reviews may enable the author to protect his/her identity from prejudices driven by the topic investigated, among others.
“Your Article-Your Way”, but there are some rules
Before writing down an article, it is essential to write its skeleton. It may seem a useless action, as all the papers follow the same structure. However, a juicier skeleton can help the writer avoid missing information or replicating them into different chapters. The problem of redundancy is prevalent when drafting the first time. Paolo was confident when he said: “After the first reading, it is possible to cut up to 15-20% of the text and meet the journal wording requirements“. But also, he firmly added: “Being concise is a sign of quality“. There is no necessity to write enormous introductions or endless discussion sections to prove the quality of your piece of research. If essential information needs to be shared, but the space for sharing is limited, Paolo reminded us that we can always use the Supplementary Material section.
Back to the structure of the paper, he gave us several helpful tips:
(i) Title: Avoid long titles. They need to be direct and concise, including the study area if it is part of the novelty of the paper;
(ii) Keywords: They are often misused, but they are essential to raising visibility in the web (science-related) engines. Find from 3 to 5 words that match your paper, the same you would use to find yours (or a similar one);
(iii) Abstract: The abstract needs to highlight the original aspect of your article. Although it follows a typical paper structure (introduction, methods, results, and conclusive remarks), it should emphasise the challenge but also the proposed solution with its impact among the scientific community but also within the society;
(iv) Introduction: A good introduction should focus on the literature gap the author wishes to fill and the paper objectives. “Avoid plagiarism that often happens in this chapter“, recalled Paolo;
(v) Materials and methods: Include maps (when appropriate) that are clear and self-explain the area and the problem. Avoid hard-to-read figures with low resolution and missing information. Figure quality is perhaps one of the most critical parameters for an editor handling your manuscript and deciding on acceptance or rejection. Methods need to be clear and open (add a source code of algorithms as supplementary if required). Paolo also stressed, “Be honest with colleagues and cite the source if you use part of an existing algorithm or derive a new one from a previous version“;
(vi) Results: Results need to be concise and analytical, supported by statistics and bias/uncertainty quantification (if appropriate);
(vii) Discussion: This chapter is used to compare the results with other works. However, it is often enriched with those open challenges that have not been addressed in the current manuscript and the actual paper contribution to society;
(viii) Conclusions/Final remarks: It is similar to the abstract structure to some extent but try not to copy and paste. Some future directions of research may also be stated here;
(iv) References: They need to represent the literature related to the discussed topic but not exaggerate with self-citations (if required, suggested to be less than 20%). In general, Paolo said, “Avoid writing 200 references for a research paper, but also avoid proposing a paper with only 20!“.
Is a rejection ALWAYS a reflection of the poor quality of your work?
The answer is NO. There are several motivations behind it: a good idea but fewer competencies to develop it properly or the wrong journal, especially for multidisciplinary research that might encounter very traditional reviewers.
Paolo shared his personal experience of rejection (that is also my rejection being Paolo, my supervisor at that time). In the first year of the PhD, I decided to write a review paper about gender and disasters, which I thoroughly believed in. As a physical geographer taking the first steps into the social sphere, I was possibly too naive. This field is driven by pillars, not only experts, the same who perhaps rejected me hardly. After a careful analysis of the comments, we decided to expand the network and use our literature review in another way. This positive approach was rewarded with a paper published in the natural hazards field with a successful echo. Thus, what is Paolo’s take-home message? Rejections can arrive for multiple reasons: sometimes they are a true reflection of a weak article, sometimes they went through unfortunate conditions. If the second, Paolo suggests being proactive and trying to convert the work done into something new, perhaps finding new collaborations (outside one’s field) and trying again. And again. Humbly accept also to lose leadership if you realise that an article falls outside your background.
Another personal insight based on his career regarded the impact factor (IF). As scholars, we are pushed to look at the IF to boost our papers. That is true, as true is that we may find articles in top journals with few-to-no citations or with a minimal impact on society. So, what is important overall? Paolo explained that it doesn’t matter the IF (although assuming that the journal is reputable) and the immediate success of the article. We need to have the right topic at the right moment with the right novel approach that can be useful to society. “We cannot write merely for our narrow scientific community,” said Paolo. Our research must be useful, usable, and used, and some reward will come out. He also recalled a significant paper on agricultural terraces he published in 2014 in a journal with no IF at that time. He believed in his paper despite the journal being new with less visibility and impact. The story turned out that the article became the second most cited in his career with a sound impact on society. Similarly, the journal became popular in a relatively short amount of time.
Do’s & Don’ts: addressing editorial malpractices
The most common malpractices regard data use and plagiarism: it is more common than we think. Data cannot be created nor stolen. Likewise, we cannot copy and paste someone else findings or paragraphs without appropriate citations and modifications. Regarding citations, Paolo repeated the importance of avoiding exaggerated self-citations. He thinks that “there are some cases when an objective self-citation could be suitable, especially when introducing a new method or algorithm, and then testing it in other study areas to address novel findings, but not with the purpose to create the so-called salami-slicing”.
On the other hand, over-citing friends’ articles is not acceptable and inclusive, nor avoiding mentioning an author (who wrote a milestone in the field) just for personal issues. Scientific or personal conflicts cannot lay in the ground of scientific writing; thus, it is highly recommended to use neutral language when disagreeing with the work of other colleagues. If it is constructive and inclusive, analytical criticism is welcome.
Why not toss a coin for drafting the authorship list?
Many scholars often encounter problems with adding co-authors to their manuscripts. We all know that there are rules: the first author is given to the person who wrote the paper and the one who had the idea. Second, third and so forth are collaborators that actively contributed to the manuscript (it can regard methods, data collection, discussions, etc.). Instead, the last should be the principal investigator (PI) of the project (aka, your supervisor most of the time) who funded the research. In the case of multiple co-authors from different groups and projects, the last name should be given to the senior expert in the article’s field. Honestly, this rule is not followed in many institutes worldwide (luckily, mine was not the case). How to handle those problems? Try to draft the authors’ list yourself and give reasonable motivations for all mentioned people. Once you have done it, try to speak with the co-authors and the PI at last. If you want a transparent list, you need to be honest first! Indeed, it is not reasonable to have 10-15 co-authors for a single case study article.
A box of your Q&A served in pills
- Would you please cite some plagiarism software? Without doing free advertising, there is: (i) Grammarly which offers plagiarism check with an upgrade, (ii) Plagiarism Checker X; (iii) iThenticate; (iv) Compilatio and (v) G2, among others for sure. Paolo’s advice is to keep an eye on your university or Institute subscription to software, which most of the time includes those services. Otherwise, have you tried copying and pasting some sentences in Google? It works, but don’t exaggerate with the length.
- How to approach a response to reviewers? How to handle a disagreement with reviewers? Paolo’s first answer is: “always be polite“. Even if you disagree with one or more comments, use gentle words, and use analytical and bibliographical proofs to support your position. Try to find a balance: if you disagree with many comments, you can consider following some of them that would not revolutionise your manuscript. In my opinion, as an author and a reviewer, I suggest answers to the reviewer’s queries in the most comprehensive way possible, without avoiding using the simple “done” or “ok” (it is not the case if it is a typo for example!).
- I have to build a paper out of my MSc thesis. How do I go about this? If you wish to write a paper out of your MSc dissertation, the latter itself should be born for this purpose. I suggest looking at the previous section on how to write an article. Start first with a skeleton that comprises the main paragraphs you used in your MSc thesis.
- Can you give us recommendations for reproduction problems of study site figures? As Paolo always suggests to his students: “try to be original!“. There is no point in using previously published figures or maps that have no novel information in your current manuscript. Sometimes even minor edits may differ but remember to use the “Modified from (citation)” in the caption. If you cannot edit or construct a new figure, ensure you have the credits (of the authors and the journal) to reproduce the figure in your current manuscript.
- Are there overviews about which abbreviation must be explained or expected to be known by the readers? For me, the best way to answer this question is to look at other similar papers in your field and see the most used practice. In general, Paolo suggested explaining acronyms whenever possible and try to avoid them in the abstract.
Do you have more questions regarding “How to write a scientific paper”? Please write them in the comment box!
Follow our official channels to be constantly updated on the following events organised under the Campfire series: “Soft skills for soft lunches – NH series” by the Early Career Scientist Team of the EGU Natural Hazards Division:
NH Division Twitter: https://twitter.com/NH_EGU
NH Division Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EGUNaturalHazards
NH ECS Division newsletter: https://lists.egu.eu/mailman3/lists/nh-ecs.lists.egu.eu/
Want to join the network? Write to Valeria Cigala: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edited by Valeria Cigala and Silvia De Angeli