On-line guide to scientific publication


Initial planning

Producing the outline

Producing the manuscript

Finishing touches

Submitting the manuscript

The refereeing and publishing process

Finishing touches

Title | Abstract | Keywords | Tables & figures | Conventions | Appendices & footnotes | Acknowledgements | References | The final edit


The title of your paper is of key importance. It will represent your paper in lists of references, abstracts and even on the internet.  It will be the 'hook' that will make people read the text so spend time thinking about it. 

All titles and subtitles should be as short as possible (ideally not more than 40 to 45 characters), crisp and concise, and highlight rather than explain.  However, there is a careful balance to be achieved between a dry and a sensational description.  If you fail to get the balance right your potential readers may well be suspicious about the quality of your writing and not bother reading the text.

In addition, it is important to remember that for indexing services, literature-retrieval systems and search engines, your title should contain key words: words that highlight the important content of the paper in terms that are understandable and retrievable.

So, you need to get the balance correct to include keywords, description and intrigue. 

Authors rarely give enough thought to titles with the result that they tend to fall into one of two groups.  Either (a) too dry and descriptive or (b) use of the colon.

If we look at the first group consider the following title.


It is vague and uninteresting.  In other words, it is dry and descriptive.  It leaves the potential reader wondering whether this is largely a review of literature or whether there is significant new analysis.  The key point is that it doesn't help the potential reader decide if they should read it.

On the other hand a title such as:


would be considered too sensational for a scientific journal.  It is the language of a newspaper. The title could be re-phrased as:


This gives the reader enough information about the objective and content of the paper to make an informed decision regarding whether or not they wish to read it.

In composing your title remember this:

  •  Express one idea or subject in your title.

This leads on to the second common fault with authors - overuse of the colon.

A colon is generally used in titles to separate a principle or description of a situation from an indication of what was done.  This is a relatively new occurrence in scientific writing and reflects the growing need for authors to grab the attention of potential readers in an increasingly competitive market.  An example of using a colon in a title is


In principle it is hard to argue against the use of the colon.  It can assist in getting over a complex message in a concise manner.  But equally, it is overused to such an extent that authors appear to have forgotten the impact value of short titles.  Over 80% of manuscripts sent to the International Forestry Review contain colons in their title and well over half could be reduced to a shorter, non-colon title which would be far more eye-catching.  For example:


could be reduced to


Another example of the potential to reduce the length of titles is


could be reduced to




When compiling a title consider the following.

  • Does it contain all the key words you would use if you were searching for it in a database or index?

  • Does it convey your main message?

  • Does it have any verbs that can safely be deleted? Titles are labels, not sentences.

  • Can you delete surplus articles like 'the', 'a' or 'an'?

  • Are there any wasted words that add nothing to the meaning? For example, 'study of', 'investigation into', 'use of' should be deleted.

  • Are there any ambiguous words or expressions? Phrases like 'effect of' or 'relationship between' don't tell the reader the nature of the relationship found.

  • Have you made sure that there are no abbreviations?

  • Can you avoid subtitles and punctuation marks?

  • Can you reduce the length to ten words?

Spend time on this.  Remember, more people will read this line than any other part of your paper.

The name(s) of the author(s) on the title page below the title of the manuscript should consist, in all languages, of the first given name, followed by initial(s) and the surname   (family name), or initial(s) only followed by the surname (family name), e.g.  John L. Miller or J.L. Miller, and equally Pieter S. Van Keuyk, Bernd A. v. Droste or B.A. von Droste, Shigeru Nakano, Ray S.P. Chauduri, Bahadur Singh, Ismail bin Bohari, H. W. Chen, alternatively Ho-Wang Chen or Ho Wang CHEN.



The abstract follows the main title and the names and addresses of the authors.  It highlights the major points, results and conclusions in short sentences of plain standard English.  The purpose is to provide the information to readers, reviewers and abstractors to assist them in  deciding whether it is worthwhile for them to read and document the paper.  In general the length of the abstract should not exceed 3 to 5% of the text of the paper, or 350 words, whichever is less, but most journals will have a word limit so refer to their guidelines.  The purpose of the abstract is commonly misunderstood with the result that abstracts are frequently summaries of each part of the paper.  The objective of the abstract is not to summarise the contents but to extract the essential components and thereby assist the potential reader to determine whether or not to read the full paper.  This is a careful balance to achieve and requires careful examination of your key message.  Think of what you would want to read if you were to get a full flavour of the paper. 

It is worthwhile returning to the Abstract part of Producing the Outline to remind yourself how you compiled the outline of this part.  Consider the key issues of situation, problem, question and response but remember that your reader will not want to read as much about your methods as your findings.  This is where you need to consider carefully the balance of what you are writing. 

The abstract is one of the most important part of your paper yet it is frequently produced in a rush just before submission of the manuscript to the journal.  Take your time and get it right.  This is the part which is reproduced by indexing and abstracting services. Other researchers will judge the value of your paper almost entirely on the basis of what is contained in the abstract.

The abstract should be written in the past tense and should consist only of one paragraph, beginning with your key message sentence.



The purpose of the keywords is to facilitate data storage and retrieval, and to guide literature search.  Make sure that you have followed the instructions to authors produced by the journal regarding the number and type of key words required.


Tables and Figures

Tables and figures are crucial elements in papers but frequently overlooked by authors.  It is common to receive tables which contain unnecessary data and figures which are of poor quality.

Tables and figures must only contain data and information that are relevant to the purpose of the paper and specifically referred to in the text. They should contain sufficient information so that the figure/table can be understood by a general reader without reference to the text.  Legends or captions of tables and figures must follow guidelines set out by the journal.  Do not deviate from this format. 

The information contained in tables and figures must relate directly to the text and not contain any additional, superfluous and redundant data.  Do not repeat the same data in several tables/figures. 


Conventions, Standard Units, Symbols, Scientific Names of Taxons, Numbers

The units of the International System of Units (SI) should be used for all relevant data.  Abbreviations and symbols should conform with those customarily used in international scientific literature.  If the paper contains many symbols and units, they may be listed and explained in an appendix.

Scientific names of plant, animal or microbial species must be given in full with authority for the name when it occurs for the first time.  Subsequently, the generic name can be shortened and the authority omitted.  Vernacular species names must be explained by the scientific name in brackets where they first occur.

Numbers one to ten should be spelled out as words except when used with units e.g. two people but 10 kg and 5 days. 


Appendices and Footnotes

In general appendices should be avoided.  However, in exceptional cases they are necessary.  In such cases they must be relevant and complement, but not add to and supplement the text.  They must be essentially necessary to achieve adequate succinctness and coherence, and must assist to maintain easy readability of the paper.

Footnotes are frequently misused by containing information which should either be placed in the text or excluded altogether. They should be avoided as a general rule and are acceptable only in exceptional cases when incorporation of their content in the text not possible.



This should be a short, succinct reference only to those individuals and institutions which have directly and substantially supported the project and the preparation of the report.

You should include acknowledgements to donors, funding agencies, research award committees, industries and all those who have made financial contributions to the project.

This is an important part of the paper and should not be considered simply as courtesy.

In cases where referees have assisted the development of the paper in a substantial manner they should be thanked in this section.



References can be complied in many ways.  All formats contain the same information of author(s), date and source but journals vary in the details of the format in which they want to receive lists of references so make sure you look at authors guidelines before submitting your paper.  Editors do not appreciate receiving papers from authors who can't be bothered to format references correctly and you will quite likley find your manuscript sent back with a note to "Read the instructions to authors!".

Cited references are listed in alphabetical order of the authorís name and then of the second, third author and so on, if applicable, or of the issuing institutionsí name or as anonymous, if no authorís name is given.  Titles written in languages other than English or French, should be quoted in the original language with the title in italics and a translation into English in brackets.  References to other types of publications, such as grey literature, company reports, reports by or to government bodies, proceedings of meetings, should include the same information as references to books. Unpublished material such as internal research project reports and other grey literature, must be sufficiently identified for access so that copies can be obtained by the reader.

Citation by authorís name  in the text in brackets should only contain the family name of the cited author, in case of author teams the family names of the first two authors, and et al. (in italics) for the third and any further authors, followed by the year of publication. Several publications by the same author(s) in one year should be identified by the suffixes a, b, c etc. Citations of publications by different author(s) in one bracket should be separated by semicolon.

A common mistake amongst inexperienced authors is to attempt to cite as many publications as possible in order to give an impression of being well read.  This is counterproductive and only creates an impression that the author is unable to identify the key references related to the work.  Remember, you should cite in your paper only references to the most important publications. You should not aim to be comprehensive.

You must refer to the instructions to authors to make sure you do this as required by the journal. One of the most tedious aspects of writing for science is complying with the different styles used by different journals both for how literature is referred to in the text and how the papers are listed in the reference section.


The final edit

The way you write your paper often makes the difference between an acceptable paper and a good one, or a good one and a very good one.  So, don't rush to send off your manuscript simply because you think that the information is complete.  Good writing is a skill, and like all skills it needs to be worked at.  Don't assume you are a good writer.

Once you have completed your first draft you need to go over it again, very carefully, to make sure it reads well.  In this regard it is often useful to read your text out loud to hear how it sounds.  It is often remarkable the things you want to change when you hear yourself speaking your own text. 

Another important means of checking your paper is to get colleagues to read it.  Although this can often be a more daunting prospect than sending it to the journal editor it is well worth the effort.  Colleagues will generally know a bit about your work, and many may have more publication experience than you so they can offer their advice.  However, remember it is your paper.  If you don't agree what they say then you don't have to include their suggested changes.

One benefit of sharing your manuscripts with your peers is that they are more likely to do the same with you.  By becoming part of the peer-review process in your own institution you will improve your own writing skills.

Finally, remember Occam's razor from the section Producing the manuscript.  Be clear but be concise.

Click here to see an example of a well written paper.

Supported by the Commonwealth Foundation