SOPs for Writing Papers

The Palsson procedure for writing scientific papers

May 2009

The writing of a research paper in the Systems Biology Research Group can be broken down into several steps that, when followed, will produce a style of paper that has been proven effective and likely to be published.

  1. Prepare the figures and tables that convey the key results. A typical research paper is comprised of material that fits into about 5 illustrations. These need to be carefully prepared, easy to read, and convey information clearly and concisely.
  2. Draft the methods section that goes with the data that supports the illustrations. This is normally a fast process and follows normally established procedures.
  3. Describe the key illustrations. This boils down to writing a paragraph or two on each of the illustrations, lining them up in a logical order, and writing a short bridging paragraph at the beginning of this section. Review these paragraphs to make sure that the flow is logical from start to finish.
  4. Next, one writes the discussion or conclusion section. This requires you to go through the impact and lessons learned from the results presented. This section normally has a well-structured format. The opening paragraph typically starts with a statement that describes the scope of the study and is then followed by an enumeration of the results. The next paragraph then describes the first result, followed by the second result, and so forth. After all the results have been discussed briefly and succinctly, then one normally writes a few paragraphs that describes the greater impact of the key conclusions arrived at. One needs to put them in context of the larger body of knowledge and literature. Often, the tendency here is to ramble on a bit too much, rather than being straight to the point. This section then ends with a closing paragraph that says something like “taken together the results show...”
  5. The 5th step in the process is to pick a title. The title usually emerges from reviewing the key conclusions described in the first paragraph of the discussion section. The title should be the simplest statement that describes the content, impact, and purpose of the paper.
  6. The writing of the abstract follows, and is achieved by a simple opening statement that describes the origin of the study. This is followed by another statement that describes the background and the scope, and another that describes the key results. It finishes with the main conclusion arrived at in the paper.
  7. Introduction. Normally people begin by writing the introduction and have trouble framing it properly. The introduction should be structured with a conical framework in mind, where the first paragraph is broad in scope, and the last one is very specific. Normally the introduction starts out by describing the state or status of an area of research and the open questions in it, followed by a series of paragraphs that describe the particular topic of the publication in increasing detail. In other words, the introduction slowly moves the focus into a narrower and narrower scope until it finally describes the goal of the study. At this point it is clear to the reader why these particular goals were picked as a result of the history of the field, the gaps in it, and the need for the study should be quite clear. The introduction typically should not be longer than 5 paragraphs and can be anywhere from 2 to 3 pages in draft form. The shorter and more succinct it is, the better.

Dos and Don’ts

  • Do not start a sentence with a figure or table number, ie ‘figure 1 shows…’
  • Do not start a sentence with a number.
  • Do not write run-on sentences. Sentences should be short, succinct and clear.
  • Make sure that every sentence has an object and subject. Do not write “This shows that…” but “This result shows that…” or whatever you are actually referring to
  • Start paragraphs with a topical sentence.
  • Do not make paragraphs too long – each paragraph should have a single or a limited number of topics/points. Do not ‘nest’ them unduly to make the text hard to untangle for the reader.
  • Figures/tables need clear titles. Figure legends should be able to stand alone and not refer unduly to the text. Figures are often used as a separate entity and are semi-independent ‘modules’ in a paper

This article may also be useful - Writing-Manuscripts.pdf