Message in a Bottle: How To Write a Scientific Paper That's Memorable

May 24, 2018 Karen McKee

Have you ever read a scientific paper only to find that later you cannot recall what the overall conclusion was? You might have vague memories of where the study was conducted and one or two graphs, but cannot say what the take-home message was. You may be momentarily concerned, thinking you are slow-witted or suffering early dementia. But don’t worry. The reason you cannot repeat the main message of the paper you just read is because the author did not make it clear.

Avoid burying the lead

I’ve reviewed hundreds of manuscripts over the past four decades and during that time have noticed the same writing mistakes made again and again—mostly by inexperienced writers, but also by those who should know better. One of the most serious errors to make when writing a scientific paper is to fail to clearly articulate what was found and why it’s important. Instead, the writer may offer a laundry list of results and a rambling discussion that doesn’t pin down a conclusion. The reader is at a loss as to what he/she should remember and, consequently, quickly forgets everything he/she just read.

When I first began writing scientific manuscripts, I was never advised to boil my results down to an overarching message and then ensure it came across loud and clear in the paper. Despite this lack of guidance, though, I somehow intuited that I needed to write my papers so they expressed a clear outcome. Consequently, my early papers were generally written so that the main finding and its importance were readily apparent.

The problem was that I did not formulate my core message before beginning to write. I just plunged in, writing my results without first thinking about which ones should be highlighted. I described the outcome of each experiment or analysis in the results section—in no particular order—and then discussed each one in the same order. Not surprisingly, I floundered around as I wrote and rewrote the manuscript. Eventually, I realized that having an overarching message in mind before starting the writing process would save me time and effort.

Answer your reader’s key questions

I thus developed the habit of distilling my message before leaping into writing a paper or preparing a conference talk. My distillation process would begin with answering a few questions. Why did I conduct the study? What was the central question driving my study? What were my main findings? Why should people care? What was new or innovative? To answer these questions, I had to spend time pondering my results from every angle, especially if I had conducted multiple experiments and analyses. But this approach made it much easier to write my papers.

For example, I wrote a paper in which my main finding was that recovery of a clear-cut mangrove forest in the Caribbean was aided by the presence of coastal grasses and forbs, which acted like nursery plants for the tree seedlings (McKee et al., 2007). This herbaceous vegetation helped the mangrove seedlings get established and promoted their growth by ameliorating harsh environmental conditions. We showed how beneficial traits of nurse plants could be compared with the aid of a new, standardized method. The study not only led to a better understanding of how these coastal forests recover from disturbance, it suggested a practical application: how to select nurse vegetation to accelerate restoration of damaged forests.

The next step was to distill this information down to a single sentence, which would be my core message. Even though our study was complex with a series of results, I was still able to condense everything to fit under a single umbrella. Once I could express my message in a single, clear sentence, I knew that I was ready to write the paper and, once written, it would effectively convey that message to the reader. Often, such a sentence can be used with minor modification as the title of the paper, which was the case here:

“Mangrove recruitment after forest disturbance is facilitated by herbaceous species in the Caribbean.”

Build around the core message (in a bottle!)

The process of distilling that sentence made me think harder about my results and what I wanted to get across in the paper. The process also helped me decide how to organize my material and which data to highlight—all before writing a word of the narrative. Whenever I got bogged down or overwhelmed with details, my distilled sentence helped me get back on track.

I eventually began thinking of this condensed statement as a “message in a bottle”. What would I write so that a colleague finding the bottle on the beach would understand what my paper was about—and want to read it? The modern version of the message in a bottle is, of course, the Tweet. Being adept at summarizing your information in 280 characters is now a useful skill in the age of social media and electronic publishing. Today, journals often ask authors for a brief summary of their paper, written in everyday language. Such blurbs are then used online in the journal’s table of contents or for promotion through social media.

But the main purpose of distilling your message is to make sure you see the big picture before starting to write. You may have multiple points to make in a paper, but having an overall message in mind will keep you focused as you write and will ensure that the reader remembers that message.

Image credit: JDe Visu/Shutterstock

About the Author

Karen McKee

Scientist // Dr. Karen L. McKee is a Scientist Emeritus (retired) with the U.S. Geological Survey and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University. She received both a master’s degree and doctorate in botany and has conducted research in the field of wetland plant ecology for forty years. While working for the U.S. Geological Survey, she studied the effects of climate change, sea-level rise, and hurricanes on wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta (Louisiana, USA) as well as in other wetlands around the world. Her work has been published in over 100 journal articles, book chapters, and technical reports. A strong proponent of science communication, Karen has also produced several peer-reviewed videos that describe her research and why it’s important to society (USGS Multimedia Gallery). She authored the book, The Scientist Videographer, which promotes science communication by teaching scientists and students how to use video to tell their science stories. Karen continues to share her insights and offers tutorials in video-making for scientists on her website and YouTube channel. Website: Twitter: @scivideographer

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