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Sep 16
The MPMI Guide to Writing a Successful Research Paper

Juan S. Ramirez P.

Juan is an assistant feature editor for the MPMI journal and is currently a postdoc at the Centre of Microbial and Plant Genetics–Plant Fungi Interactions at KU Leuven in Belgium.

In a work environment ruled by the "publish or perish" principle, researchers are constantly looking to publish more research and in more prestigious journals. However, throughout our scientific careers, we are all chased by the ghost of journal rejection, which sometimes behaves unpredictably. Even though some scientists may argue there is a "luck" component inherent in the publication process, it is undeniable that preparing a good manuscript, both in style and content, for submission is a scientist's best ally to escape being haunted by this ghost.

Prompted by Jeanne M. Harris, editor-in-chief of MPMI, the senior editors of the journal reflected on their tips for successfully writing a good scientific paper and getting it accepted in a desirable journal. Here, we discuss some of the points we consider fundamental for writing an outstanding submission.​

You Need to Know What You Want to Tell and Find the Best Way to Do It

A research paper, like any other article, needs to have a main message. Thus, it might be helpful to ask yourself, "What is the message I want to convey?" Sometimes this question may be challenging to answer; nonetheless, it is important to know the answer before you start writing your manuscript since it will become the lighthouse that guides you—and the reader—through the sea of data and information that will make up your paper.

Once you identify the main idea, you need to create a narrative that guides the reader through a coherent and concise story. One useful way to construct this path is to ask an initial biological question, which in many cases is the driving question that motivated the study. You will then answer this initial question by describing a set of experiments, with results represented in figures. From these results, you can draw some conclusions, but new questions will consequently arise. Thus, these questions may serve as the connectors between the different figures, which at the same time represent their answers. Following this order, you will end up with an organized set of questions and figures. This will serve as the backbone of your paper, which you can write in a straightforward manner following the order you previously established.

In addition to presenting a great story and interesting results, each component of your research article should excel by itself. From the abstract to the references to the cover letter, no detail should be neglected.

The Abstract

The abstract is your first opportunity to capture the attention of the editor and reviewers, so do not miss it. A clear, logical abstract that highlights the relevance and scope of your research paper is vital—it will keep the reader interested in your work and get the reader to engage with its motivation. One useful approach is to write the abstract at the end of the manuscript. This way, the most relevant ideas, results, and conclusions can be included in the abstract. Even though it is important to highlight the main findings of your work, avoid overselling your results because it will compromise your credibility (this applies to the whole manuscript).

More and more scientific journals are requesting a graphical abstract be included as part of their research papers. Graphical abstracts need to be simple and informative enough for the reader to quickly understand the article's main message. They are especially useful when authors propose a model for a specific biological process and are less useful for more complicated articles. Since some journals do not include graphical abstracts, it may be helpful to include a model summarizing the main findings of the article as the last figure and include it in the discussion. This will help the reader follow your reasoning and understand how all the results fit together in a biological context. When preparing a graphical abstract or model, it is important that the graphic is clear and aesthetically attractive.

The Introduction

A good introduction is informative enough to provide nonexpert readers with all the information they need to understand a paper. However, you should avoid giving too many unnecessary details and keep the introduction concise and simple. Consider organizing the information from most general to most specific and be sure that the references you provide are relevant and updated. Finally, do not give in to the temptation to provide too many details concerning the results and conclusions from your work. You will have enough space for those details in the following sections.

The Results Carry the "Essence" of Your Paper

Like the rest of the paper, the results section should be built around the figures. Thus, both the figures and their corresponding captions must be clear, informative, and aesthetically attractive. Ideally, each figure should address a different question. To test this, draft a one-sentence title to summarize the main conclusion that can be drawn from each figure. If this process is easy, this indicates that every figure is necessary and addresses a different point. In contrast, if you have trouble concisely summarizing a figure, this may suggest it is necessary to split it into several figures and simplify the message for each resulting figure.

The data shown in figures should be consistent with the text. Bear in mind that a reviewer who has trouble understanding and interpreting your data is an unhappy reviewer who is less likely to agree with your conclusions and more prone to advise a rejection or give negative feedback. To increase the accessibility of your manuscript, briefly explain the reasoning behind the chosen techniques and experiments throughout the results section. This will allow the reader to follow the logic of the study. Furthermore, to avoid problems with the clarity of your message, ask some of your lab members or colleagues and, ideally, someone working in a related yet different field to read your manuscript and give their input. Readers outside the topic area who can provide fresh eyes may be able to spot inconsistencies that have become invisible to you. Additionally, if you doubt your language skills, ask a native English speaker or someone with high proficiency in the language to check the grammar and style of your text.

Clear Methods Make a Clear Paper

In the methods section be as precise as possible in describing the methodology, the number of measurements and replicates you performed, and the statistical tests you used. The methodology should be described in enough detail to allow the reader to reproduce your experiments without doubts about the procedure. This will also increase the reviewers' confidence in the presented results. It may be helpful to briefly explain why you chose a particular method or carried out an analysis in a specific way. This can significantly contribute to making the paper more accessible to reviewers and readers.

Your Submission Is More Than a Manuscript

Your manuscript is finished, your figures are neat, and you are ready to submit. However, when you log in to your favorite journal, you may realize that there are many empty spaces to fill and information to be provided. Oh, and you also need a cover letter (which most likely you have not written yet)!

Many of us have experienced the latter discouraging scenario, and some proceed with the most intuitive and time-saving option: copying the abstract or some phrases of the paper into the cover letter. While it is true that a good abstract should contain much of the information supporting why your paper is valuable and should be published, a misused cover letter is a missed opportunity. The cover letter is the space where authors can highlight the relevance and pertinence of their study more informally and subtly. Since the content of the letter will not be published, it allows some extra freedom for convincing the editor of the novelty of the research, how it fits into the state-of-the-art of the field of study, and how it contributes to its advance. Use it wisely!

Last, but not least, it may be wise to provide the editor with the names of suggested reviewers. This will save the editor time and, in general, speed up the whole review process. Bear in mind that these suggested reviewers should not be scientists with whom you have coauthored papers or grants or have existing collaborations to allow the review process to be as objective as possible. Additionally, it is wise to pick reviewers who are specialists in your paper's research topic, so they can potentially increase its quality with their input.

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