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 outline

The structure | Type of paper | Key message | Hypothesis | Materials & methods | Conclusions | Abstract

The structure

You must at all times think of your reader.  Being able to write about your research is only part of the skill you need to get your message across.  You also need to know how to structure your paper so that the reader can navigate through it with ease.  If you make it difficult for your reader to follow your thinking then they will give up.  Remember, your reader needs to get from the beginning to the end of the paper as quickly and easily as possible.  Don't make the journey a difficult one!

The first step in this process is to look at the overall structure.  In common with the last section, it is important to spend some time on getting this right.  Not only will it help the reader but it will also help you to order your thoughts logically which will in turn help you to make the writing process easier.

This section will look at preparing an outline which is the stage before production of the first draft.  The outline is an opportunity to gather thoughts and ideas together to form the overall framework.  It is an informal process which encourages free thinking so let you ideas flow.

At all times it is essential to remember that the reader is following a story that you are writing.  And like all good stories it needs an explanation of the situation around which the work is carried out, the problem that is perceived, the questions that have arisen as a result of the problem and (this is where your work comes is) the response that you have taken.  Keep referring back to these steps when considering the structure of the paper so that the reader is taken on a fascinating but logical path through your work.

When preparing the outline of the paper it is important to think about the following key sections:


Type of paper

There are two types of papers that you can write for scientific publications:

  • papers which examine and develop concepts, policies and theories

  • papers that report on empirical data

Although in both cases you must prepare an outline, the process of doing so is different for each.

Papers developing concepts, policies or theories

For this type of paper preparing an outline involves:

  • introducing the concepts, policies or theories being examined

  • collecting and assembling the evidence of your argument

  • writing the outline referring back to your main message

Papers reporting empirical data

These papers must adhere to a strict protocol which allows other scientists to examine the validity of your experiment(s) and thereby evaluate your results.  Deviation from accepted protocols of publishing will result in your manuscript being refused publication.


Key message

Refer constantly to the key message produced in the previous section to remind you what you are writing about.



The hypothesis is the tentative theory used to guide in the investigation.  It underpins your work and you must have one.  If you don't, ask yourself "Why did I carry out the experiment?"

Your key message, principal study objective and hypothesis should be closely linked.

For example, if the key message sentence was:

  • The investigation indicated that while D. edulis is an important tree for farmers its value to the rural economy could be increased through further domestication.

The objective would have been:

  • To find out if D. edulis is an important tree for farmers and if so whether its value to the rural economy could be increased through further domestication.

And, the hypothesis would have been:

  • D. edulis is an important tree for farmers and its value to the rural economy could be increased through further domestication.

Of course, your hypothesis and objective should be established before the experiment starts but it is important to re-visit them at this stage.


Materials and methods

In this outline stage it is important to briefly state the population in which you worked, the sampling method you employed, the materials you used and, most importantly, the methods you used to carry out the study.


Main conclusions

Spend some time thinking of the full range of findings of your work.  Some will be major and others minor but make sure to list everything that comes to mind.  Remember, this is only the outline stage and changes can be easily made before starting to write the paper.


Now you have completed the various sections of the outline it is time to see if they can be summarised and combined into the abstract.


The abstract is the summary of your work.  It is used by readers to determine whether or not they want to read the whole paper.  This means it must be concise, easy to read and cover the important points of the paper.

At this stage of the exercise you should be in a position to write an outline abstract. 

See it as a short story taking the highlights of each of the sections above.  It should describe what was the purpose or objective of your study, how you went about carrying out the work, what you found and the implications of your results.

It is at this point that you need to think again about the the key issues of situation, problem, question and response which were mentioned in the section on structure.  These key issues form the introduction to the paper but are not the abstract.  In addition to these items the abstract also includes a brief summary of the findings. 

For example, a draft abstract from a hypothetical paper would contain the following headings and information:

Situation: Data on changes in forest cover are important to any country to understand land use changes and make appropriate policy responses. Jamaica has one of the world's highest rates of deforestation so these data are of particular importance.

Problem: Recent analysis of pre-1990 land use data revealed that there were fundamental errors in the data used in the 1990s.

Question: What is the correct figure for deforestation, what are the implications of incorrect data absorption and is it possible to make sure that similar errors are not made in the future?

Response: Study undertaken to calculate the correct rate of deforestation during this period.  Discussion with policy makers regarding the effects of interpretation of incorrect deforestation data.  Measures undertaken to make sure similar problems do not occur in the future.

Summary of findings: Changes in forest cover were investigated and revealed (insert main results).  Discussions with policy makers revealed (insert main results).  The results of this investiagation highlight the need for more accurate and reliable data collection in the future.

Now give it to one of your colleagues who is not familiar with your work and ask them whether it makes sense.


Supported by the Commonwealth Foundation