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Strategies for avoiding common problems with research manuscripts

September 5, 2017 | Nat'l Institutes of Health (NIH), Nat'l Science Foundation (NSF), Other Funding Agencies

Today’s blog is intended to help authors avoid common mistakes that can diminish the impact, or prompt outright rejection, of a research manuscript.

Weak Problem Statement in the Introduction. If, after reading your manuscript’s Introduction, reviewers lack a clear understanding of why you conducted your research, your manuscript is likely to be rejected. Similarly, if your manuscript is published without a clearly written Problem Statement, its impact on the target audience will be markedly reduced. To avoid this, begin the Introduction with a concise, focused Literature Review that concludes with the gap in knowledge that existed prior to your study. Filling this knowledge gap was the reason you conducted your study. Ensure that the Problem Statement is clearly communicated, e.g. “The objective of the research reported in this manuscript was to…..” (fill this knowledge gap). Follow your Problem Statement with a brief explanation of the approaches used to fill this gap, and the impact that filling this gap will have on your field.

Poorly Focused Discussions. The first sentence(s) of the Discussion should summarize the key conclusions derived from the results reported in your manuscript. Follow this with a brief synopsis of the experimental evidence from your study that led to those conclusions. The next paragraph should review previously published results that are consistent with your conclusions, followed by a paragraph reviewing published results that are inconsistent with your conclusions and a diplomatic attempt to account for the discrepancies. Then provide an explanation of the impact of this new knowledge on your field, and your Discussion is complete.

Do not begin your Discussion with a literature review that distracts from the primary goal of your manuscript, which is to communicate the new knowledge your research findings have added to the existing literature, and its significance. Discussions that begin with a literature review tend to relegate conclusions from the current study to the 3rd or 4th paragraphs, thus decreasing their impact on readers.

Errors in Tables and Figures. I am continually perplexed by the number of manuscripts I review that either have blatant errors in tables or figures, or describe data in the text of the Results Section that contradict, or are inconsistent with, data included in a table or figure. For instance, adding up numbers in columns or rows often does not equal the total number presented in the text, or the number listed at the end of a column or row. Such errors may lead Reviewers and Editors to question your other results, or conclude that you fail to pay attention to detail, potentially contributing to a negative decision. If these errors are not caught by Reviewers, and are included in your published manuscript, your target audience may be confused and develop a negative impression of your research.

It is likely that your manuscript has undergone significant change since the first draft, with several different authors providing input. Make certain that errors were not introduced into your tables and figures during revision by painstakingly rechecking them just prior to submission. Make certain that the data presented in the text of your Results Section are consistent with the data presented in your tables and figures.

Incomplete, Unintelligible Abstracts. Readers of your Abstract should rapidly grasp the key conclusions from your study, and why they are important to the field. This section should also offer some limited information about the results leading to those conclusions, and the experimental approach used to generate those results. Accomplishing this with approximately 250 words can be challenging, and many authors come up short.

Editors responsible for determining the worthiness of your manuscript for publication generally use the Abstract to decide whether your research fits within the scope of their journal, and often assign reviewers based on the information presented in your Abstract. A well-written Abstract will help Editors identify qualified reviewers, which should improve the quality of the peer-review experience for all parties. Similarly, potential readers often decide whether to read your full manuscript based on the information presented in the Abstract. Incomplete, unintelligible Abstracts tend to turn off readers, thereby decreasing the impact of your research findings.

Writing the Abstract can be greatly simplified, and its quality improved, by using a Structured Abstract Format, because this format prompts authors to include essential information. In this regard, if the journal you have targeted for submission does not use a Structured Abstract, it is advisable to identify journals in your subject area that use one and write your Abstract using this format. Then, once written, delete the subject headings of the formatted Abstract and modify the wording so that it flows smoothly.

By following the suggestions provided in this blog, you can avoid some of the most common problems encountered with submitted and published manuscripts. Doing so should simplify and improve the writing process, and help you produce a manuscript that effectively communicates the new knowledge generated by your research results and their impact on your field.

Chris Papasian presents the GWSW seminar Writing and Publishing High-Impact Research Manuscripts and is coauthor of our workbook, Writing for Biomedical Publication. He is currently Professor and Chair of Biomedical Sciences at theUMKC School of Medicine, and Editor of the ASM journal, Clinical and Vaccine Immunology.