Publication in a reputable, peer reviewed journal should be the goal of every researcher, as this provides the most effective and permanent means of disseminating information to a large audience (Cole, 1994; Portney and Watkins, 1993). When human subjects participate in research, it is on the understanding that they are assisting with the creation and dissemination of knowledge, presenting researchers with the responsibility to communicate the outcome of their research (Cole, 1994). The aim of this paper is to provide guidelines to assist with the preparation of a manuscript for a scientific journal.
Before writing a first draft, it is important to establish that the topic of the manuscript is likely to be consistent with the focus of the journal. This may be clearly stated within the journal or may be determined by examining several recent issues. Having selected a journal, it is essential to carefully read and follow the guidelines for authors published within the journal or obtained directly from the editor or publisher. These guidelines are usually very specific and include rules about word limit, organization of the manuscript, margins, line spacing, preparation of tables and figures and the method used to cite references. Failure to comply with the guidelines may result in rejection or return of the manuscript for correction, thereby delaying the process of review and publication.
Writing the Manuscript
The art of writing a manuscript improves with practice and considerable help may be gained by asking others, especially those who have published, to critique and proofread drafts. This also provides a means of a second check of accuracy and internal consistency. Getting started is often the most difficult part and for this reason it is best to begin with the easiest sections. These are usually the methods and results, followed by the discussion, conclusion, introduction, references and title, leaving the abstract until last. If possible, try and set aside some time for writing on consecutive days. Long gaps between periods of writing interrupts the continuity of thought. To avoid frustration, ensure all the necessary information, for example all data, references and any draft of tables or figures, are at hand before starting to write. The task of writing the manuscript may seem easier if each section is viewed as a separate task. Before starting to write, it may help to prepare an outline for each section which includes a number of major headings, sub-headings and paragraphs covering different points. When writing the first draft, the goal is to get something down on paper, so it does not matter if sentences are incomplete and the grammar incorrect, provided that the main points and ideas have been captures on paper. Try to write quickly, to keep the flow going. Use abbreviations and leave space for words that do not come to mind immediately. Having finished the first draft, immediately revise it and be prepared to do this several times until you feel it is not possible to improve it further. Acceptance of a manuscript is invariably conditional on changes being made so be prepared to rewrite and revise the manuscript extensively.
Often a manuscript has more than one author and thus the writing may be shared. However, the style needs to be consistent throughout so even if sections of the early drafts are written by different authors, the first author must go through the entire manuscript before submitting, and make any necessary editorial changes.
Structure and Content of a Manuscript
A manuscript is typically composed of a number of sections:
- key words;
- conclusions; and
In order to maintain continuity between the key sections (introduction, methods, results and discussion) it is helpful to consider the manuscript as telling a story. The strong parts to the story-line are the introduction and the discussion so the link between thee sections must be clear. The research question which is posed as the need of the introduction must be answered at the beginning of the discussion (Zeiger, 1991).
Having invested many hours in undertaking research, the temptation is to try to tell the reader everything you read and learned in the process and to provide all the data gathered. However, in the planning stages, it is essential to remember that a word limit is usually imposed and therefore unimportant or irrelevant information must be left out. In the case of a large study, it may be necessary to write several papers which cover different research questions.
This provides the first impression to the reader, so selecting the most appropriate title requires some thought. The title influences whether a reader is interested in reading the manuscript. It should include all essential words in the right order such that the topic of the manuscript is accurately and fully conveyed (e.g. clearly related to the purpose of the study) (Rudestam and Newton, 1992). Avoid long titles (the recommended length is 10 - 12 words) and those which begin with redundant words such as “A study of…”
An abstract is a brief summary (of specified word limit) of the content of the manuscript. It should provide the highlights from the introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusions (Table 1).
Table 1: Abstract
- Statement of:
- The question asked (present verb tense)
- What was done to answer the question (past verb tense) – research design, population studies, independent and dependent variables
- Findings that answer the question (past verb tense) – the most important results and evidence (data) presented in a logical order.
- The answer to the question (present verb tense)
If useful, and where word limit allows, include:
- One or two sentences of background information (placed at the beginning)
- An implication or a speculation based on the answer (present verb tense, placed at the end)
It must make sense when read in isolation for those who read only the abstract. This is especially important given that many computerized searchers only retrieve the abstract. The abstract must also provide a clear and accurate recapitulation of the manuscript for readers who read the entire manuscript (Zeiger, 1991). For example, an abstract must not contain data which are not included in the results.
The abstract is usually written as one or two paragraphs and it is important that the text flows and does not resemble a collection of disjointed sentences. The choice of words should be simple, jargon avoided and abbreviations omitted except for standard units of measurement and statistical terms. Citations are not usually included. Excessive detail such a long lists of variables, large amounts of data or an excessive number of probability (p) values is not acceptable. The trick to producing a clear abstract is to provide just enough detail to demonstrate that the design of the study was good and that the evidence of the answer to the question is strong.
Most journals require the author to identify three or four key words which represent the major concept of the paper. These are used for indexing purposes and must be selected from the Index Medicus Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). For example “Physiotherapy” is not included in MeSH; the equivalent term is “Physical Therapy”. In the rare event that an author does not have access to MeSH, the key words selected should be widely-accepted terms. Lack of access to MeSH should be indicated at the time of manuscript submission.
The purpose of the introduction is to stimulate the reader’s interest and to provide background information which is pertinent to the study. The statement of the research question is the most important part of the introduction. The review of the literature needs to be short and concise. The content of the introduction is outlined in Table 2.
Table 2: Introduction
Background to the topic (past verb tense)
- What is known or believed about the topic
- What is still unknown or problematic
- Findings of relevant studies (past verb tense)
- Importance of the topic
Statement of the research question
- Several ways can be used to signal the research question , e.g.,
- “To determine whether ………”
- “The purpose of this study was to …….”
- This study tested the hypothesis that ……”
- “This study was undertaken to ……”
Approach taken to answer the question (past verb tense)
References are almost exclusively used in the introduction and the discussion. The references cited should be those which are the most valid and the most available. Articles in peer-reviewed journals satisfy both these criteria. Books, Master’s and PhD theses and some conference proceedings, those for which papers are rigorously reviewed, are also valid sources, but usually take longer to find. Abstracts do not contain enough information to allow critical evaluation of the work. Journal articles which have been accepted for publication are a valid source but those which have been submitted (but not yet accepted) are not, as they are unavailable. Avoid citing perusal communications and unpublished reports or observations. These are not strong evidence because they are unable to be accessed and evaluated. The number of references should be limited to the fewest number necessary by choosing the most important, the most valid and where appropriate, the most recent (Zeiger, 1991).