On-line guide to scientific publication


Initial planning

Producing the outline

Producing the manuscript

Finishing touches

Submitting the manuscript

The refereeing and publishing process

Producing the manuscript
Style | Introduction |Materials and methods | Results | Discussion | Conclusions


You must remember that in writing a scientific paper you are not a journalist or a novelist.  You must adhere to strict principles not only of layout (as we have seen) but also of style.  The principles of Occam’s Razor is often cited as the approach which should be undertaken.  Occam was a 14th Century philosopher who stressed the Aristotelian principle that entities must not be multiplied beyond what is necessary. In other words a problem should be stated in its basic and simplest terms. This approach should be rigorously applied to achieve the standard of  terseness, conciseness, succinctness, comprehensiveness, coherence, relevance and easy readability which must be the author’s aim throughout the paper.

Part of this process involves making sure you know the word limit of the journal you are aiming at for publication.  Once you know it, stick to it.  If you can't then contact the editor to discuss.  If you don't then you run the very real risk of your manuscript being rejected without ever being read!

The text should be easy to read and comprehend by the educated general reader. Therefore, it  should be written in straight plain English.  Editors are well aware that English is not the native tongue of many authors and every effort is made to accommodate the natural problems of language translation.  However, regardless of the ability of the author to translate their thought into English there are many basic principles which apply to writing scientific papers.

Sentences should be as short and simple as feasible, logically structured and not convoluted, or long-winded. The use of very long and uncommon terminology, flashy 'buzz' words, non-essential or pretentious professional jargon and overworked metaphors and clichés must be avoided and restricted to cases where the use serves special purposes.  Unusual or newly created terms must be adequately defined and explained. 

Your readers want to understand what they are reading in the minimum of time. Most experienced readers develop a style of reading articles in journals that helps them decide what is worth reading in greater detail. If you know how people read, you can write in a way that ensures that you convey your main message effectively.

Title: More people will read the title than any other part of your publication. The title will be reproduced in the table of contents. It will be used by librarians and by most abstracting services. Readers use the title to decide whether to read further. If the title doesn't grab their attention, they are unlikely to read any further.

Abstract: If the title is interesting, the reader will probably read the abstract. Recent surveys indicate that more than 80% of researchers only ever read abstracts. In other words, only a minority ever read the full paper.

Introduction: Those who progress beyond the abstract will pay most attention to the first and last paragraphs of the introduction.

Materials and methods, and results sections: Most readers ignore these sections. These sections are read by referees, by students, and researchers engaged in similar work. Occasionally they are read by those writing critical reviews of the literature.

Discussion: As with the introduction, readers pay greatest attention to the first and last paragraphs of the discussion.

Few, other than graduate students, the editor and referees, will look at anything else that you've written in the paper. Many readers will, however, also look at the references to see whether you have cited their papers - although most will deny that they do so.

This is the way that most of us consume the literature. With so much published every day, we have little choice.

You should try using this technique of 'speed reading'. You will be surprised how efficient a method it is for screening the literature for those papers that really are worth spending time on.

Make sure when you write that the most important message is contained in those parts of the paper that are most likely to be read by a large number of people. And make sure each paragraph starts with the key message sentence.



This part, if included, combines the information which in a book or report is contained in a preface or foreword with essential information on the international, national and local institutional framework (political, administrative, financial, infrastructural, personal) within which the project originated and progressed, the purpose for which the project was originally conceived, approved, planned and executed.  It may include information on resources used and on supporting and funding institutions.  The introduction should be as brief and focussed as possible without loss of information which is essential for the assessment of the political, institutional and administrative background of the paper.

The idea of the introduction is to lead the reader into your work so that by the time you discuss your activities the reader can understand what you are doing and why.

To complete the introduction it is worthwhile returning to the last section on writing the abstract and expanding on each of the sections listed.



In this part, project-related and relevant conditions of nature (environment, resources, ecology) and culture (technology, economics, political, social, ethnic etc.) that directly and essentially form the specific scenario within which the project has been designed and implemented, are described.  The situation description precedes and prepares the analysis, identification and definition of the problems with which the paper is concerned or the project intends to solve. 

It must be clearly understood and seen in the text that the situation per se is not the problem, but is the condition on  which the problem is founded.  The situation is merely the scenario of conditions which contain the causal factors which create the problem as a result of discrepancies and conflicts between the desirable ideal of states and and processes, and the  reality of states and processes. This can apply to natural or cultural ecosystems, ecosystem hierarchies, or to the intellectual, political, social and material sectors of the ecosystems.

Situation and problem must never be confused or mingled; a clear-cut distinction is essential for the logical development of any project plan, execution and assessment, particularly for a convincing and plausible report on work done and results achieved.

In writing about the situation you should attempt to ease the reader into your work.  Don't expect them to be as familiar with the setting as you are.  Summarize previous work.  Think of the most important and pertinent references to cite and use them.  Don't be tempted to fill the introduction with a large number of obscure references. 



Remember that a situation is not a problem per se but creates the conditions for a problem to arise.  The problem statement defines the specific problem(s) which the paper is about to answer or the research project to solve.  The problem definition is a pivotal point in the logical structure of the thought process. Therefore, the problem(s) must be prominently stated in a precise, candid and succinct manner, it must be coherently and comprehensively argued and evidenced. 

Make sure that the problem statement leads logically from the situation.



The overall goal(s) and the specific target(s)/objective(s) of the project must be succinctly and precisely defined with adequate reference to the problem statement.  This is immediately followed by an equally precise and succinct statement of the hypotheses that are to be tested.

For example, the problem statement:

Recent analysis of pre-1990 land use data revealed that there were fundamental effort in the data used in the 1990s,

could lead to goals related to assessing implications of incorrect data collection, reasons why the data were incorrect, and how this might be rectified in the future. 



  • State the objective (or the hypothesis) of your study. Is it a logical response to the question?

  • What did you do to try and answer the question? In other words, summarise in a sentence or two the investigation or study that you carried out to obtain an answer.

  • State your main message. Check that it is a response to the most important question provoked by the problem.


Materials and methods

The objective of this section is to give the reader a report of how the work was carried out. This part gives the necessary but brief description of the materials involved or used, followed by a critical review of possible methodological options, discussion of benefits and problems of the various options, and the reason for the specific choice and precise description of the essential features of the selected methodology.  Customary and common place methods of statistical tests, data collecting and processing,  laboratory procedures must not be described in detail, but should be briefly identified.

It is important to maintain brevity in this section and remember that your audience is your peers, not someone with no scientific knowledge.  Write with your audience in mind. 

Remember to include descriptions of relevant and essential details of the progress of work, problems and experiences in data collection and processing, particularly where problems have occurred. 



The important point to be aware of in this section is that results should be succinctly described but not assessed and discussed yet.   The text should contain adequate reference to tables and figures that contain all information, including statistical parameters, required to support the stated results as well as inform and convince the reader, but not more. 

Do not be tempted to report all your results and analysis.  This is a common mistake amongst novice authors but one that journal editors will spot straight away.  If you include unnecessary data, tables and analysis it will appear that you are not focusing on the main theme of your research, and maybe that you don't really know what you are writing about.  Referees and journal editors expect brevity and if you include every piece of analysis that you carried out your paper will not get very far.   Refer back to your key statement and consider which results are needed to justify your conclusions.   Be brutal with your pruning and remember the word limit on the article set by the journal.



In this section the results should be critically analysed, compared and discussed in relation to the originally stated problem, hypotheses, and methods.  The results are usually contributing new knowledge which should be compared with the previous knowledge stated in the Situation. The critical comparison may vindicate the results, but also reveal deficiencies and contradictions, which is scientifically of equal value.  The critical discussion and evaluation of any accord, contradiction or knowledge gap and the assessment of their relevance and probable consequences for the science and art of environmental management is an indispensable step before proceeding to the Conclusion.



Opening paragraph

This section gives a precise and summarising statement of the results and, if relevant, the prospects for application of the results in the various political, social and technical arenas are assessed.  In addition, if appropriate, proposals for further actions in research, management and politics are made. 

The section should begin with a clear statement of the principal findings.  Authors commonly make the mistake of hiding this message deep within the Conclusions section.  Don't.  Your readers will want to be hit with the main findings in the first line.  Of course, the conclusion of your research will be more complicated than can be explained in one line but think of it rather like an advertising 'strap line'.  It conveys enough information to get the reader to carry on reading.  The next few sentences should elaborate, if necessary, on the opening statement.  But, again, make sure you are brief and stick to the point.

Putting your conclusions in context

Your findings might appear important and significant to you but you need to prove to the reader, and the scientific community, that they are worthy of note.  This means setting them in context of previous work.  This is the most common mistake made by inexperienced authors or those who really haven't grasped what is required in peer-reviewed science publishing.  Carrying out an experiment isn't enough.  To be honest, that can be undertaken by many people with little knowledge or understanding of your subject.  If you are a scientist who is worthy of publishing then you should know your subject and be able to describe your research within it.  That means discussing your outputs in relation to relevant literature.  What do your results mean when compared with others?  If you can't do this then your paper will be rejected by any major journal.  If this is the case then you should think seriously about why you carried out the research.

Implications of your findings

The implications of your findings should be discussed within a realistic framework.  Don't exaggerate the importance of your results.  Journal editors will see this and consider you as an unreliable author.  Be honest.  However much you might like to feel your results should be implemented it is important to indicate to the reader the problems you foresee in their adoption.

On the other hand, don't be afraid to discuss the potential implications of your results if you can argue your case. 

Need for further research

This is a section that authors commonly misuse.  It is not an excuse to justify further research funds to be spent on you or your work.  Neither should it be considered a means of explaining why your work appeared to produce no results of any note.  Instead it should be used to highlight the important shortcomings of your work that could be addressed by further research, or to indicate directions that further work could take. 


Supported by the Commonwealth Foundation