Nature, Science, Cell, Advanced Materials… — getting published in one of these top journals is a scientist’s dream, isn’t it? Here are my seven tips for writing high-impact papers.
I don't know what resolutions or intentions you’ve decided on this year. But one thing I'm pretty certain of: You wouldn't have anything against publishing a paper or two in a high-impact journal. Right? :-) Having published a paper in one of those top journals can open doors when you are climbing the career ladder: Prestigious grants, permanent positions and invited speaker requests for renowned conferences often seem to follow publishing success.
That's why early career scientists (need to) care about journal impact factors so much. The impact factor of a journal measures the number of citations in the preceding two years relative to the number of published articles during these years. That means that Nature, Science and alike mostly contain papers that get cited a lot and are more likely to make an impact.
I don't need to tell you that publishing a paper in a high-impact journal is hard. And with the increasing number of scientists publishing papers it's getting harder every year. The acceptance rate of a paper in Nature, for example, has dropped from about 11% between 1997 and 2001 to roughly 8% since 2010. Science says that less than 7% of papers submitted to the journal are successful.
I don't possess magic powers that guarantee that your paper gets accepted in these journals. I have, however, seven tips for you to maximise your chances. This post will also help you to understand whether your study is likely going to make the cut or not.
1. Your research needs to be robust and solve a big and relevant problem
The neatest figures, the best story, and the perfect English won't help if your study isn't of the kind that top journals publish. These magazines usually contain research that the science sections in newspapers write about and the science programs in radio channels report about. Before you consider to submit your paper, ask yourself whether you can picture a headline about your study in the New York Times, the Guardian, or whatever you are reading. More specifically, high-impact journals look for studies that are (societally) relevant, they need to solve a big problem and have serious implications — either for an application or something more fundamental.
You can perform a quick check by telling a relative, friend or neighbour who isn’t a scientist about your study. Do they immediately get what you are talking about and are wowed? Definitely a candidate then.
Even if you present an answer to a big problem, your research might not be robust enough for Nature, Science or Cell to consider it. These journals are generally looking for studies that consider several relevant methods, parameters, model systems or whatever is applicable for your study. For example, if you see effect X, you should not only check with method A but also with method B. If you have invented a new method Y, you have to study whether it works on both model systems C and D, and for the relevant parameters E, F and G. This can mean that you need to publish results in one study that you would have split up in two or more for publication in a more specialised journal.
A tip that sounds almost too trivial to mention here is: Read the "Aim & Scope" section of your desired journal and cross-check the requirements outlined with what your study can deliver.
2. You need to tell a story
If you have followed me for a while, you might think I sound a little like a broken record. But the reason I keep banging on about story-telling is that it is so, so important. Some scientists think that they should use story-telling to "sell their research". Selling often has a negative connotation and it seems to imply for many people that you are fooling the editor and reviewers by making your research sound better than it really is. First of all, that's not what story-telling does, and secondly, selling isn’t always a bad thing (but let’s talk about this another time).
What you do when you tell a story in your paper is rather that you make it easy for your reader to understand what you are talking about. If you incorporate the story elements such as core message, setting, problem, solution and implications in your article, your reader will understand your research more easily and probably find it more interesting. You've given them context and meaning, not just the facts. Here’s how you use story-telling in your scientific writing.
3. You NEED clear figures Presenting the right amount of data
Your figures are the heart of your paper, they display your findings, and many readers are skipping right to the figures. The worst thing you can do here is to confuse your reader. Clutter, inconsistent colour coding, too much data or the wrong plot type can turn your reader off and in some cases distort the meaning of your data.
If you want to learn more about creating amazing figures, read about my 10-step process here.
4. You need to write in a short, clear and concise way
Often scientific authors confuse being a native speaker with knowing how to write. Let me tell you, these are two pairs of shoes. Being a native speaker can help to get grammar and spelling right but effectively communicating your ideas on paper requires the skill of writing. Therefore, don’t worry if you aren’t a native English speaker, you can still learn the essentials about good writing!
Good writing is often short, clear and concise. So, better slay those long sentences and paragraphs if you want to get your work published in a high-impact journal. An easy way to do this is by reading through your manuscript carefully and analysing whether each sentence adds sufficiently new information to be worth keeping. When you do this, you’ll probably cut out or rephrase a few sentences. In the next step, you can then analyse whether each word is worth keeping. You might be surprised by how many filler words you use that don’t add anything to the meaning of the sentence. I’ve listed some other tips to shorten your paper or proposals here.
Using consistent terminology, verbs instead of nouns and the right verb tense will also greatly improve your writing. More on this here.
5. Your abstract needs to tell a story too
Just listing a summary of your results just isn’t enough — especially if you are writing for a journal with a broad audience. Think of it: How much will your findings mean to a scientist from a different field or another discipline? Structuring your abstract in a way so that it tells a story is something you can do for most journals unless they specify a certain abstract structure.
Speaking of which, Nature does specify that abstracts should be submitted in a story format. I’ve broken down this down into six steps, which I call the “Abstract recipe”. You can even download my Word abstract template there. Using this method, you’ll have your abstract written so quickly, I can only encourage you to try it out.
6. You need to follow the journal guidelines meticulously
If your study is great and ground-breaking, your story in place, your figures outstanding and your writing clear, you can further increase your chances for acceptance by following the journal guidelines in absolutely every detail. For high-impact journals, in particular, the list can be long: Word count, reference format, section order, requirements for titles, headings and subheadings, … But it’s worth it! You show the editor that you have made the effort and you are also making their lives easier (always a good thing).
I also recommend to choose a target journal before you start writing and to follow the journal guidelines while writing instead of adjusting the paper to the guidelines in the last step. It'll save you time!
7. Your cover letter needs to convince
There you have it! By the way, these tips are also useful and relevant if you don't want to shoot quite as high as Nature, Science, Cell etc. but want to try another good, perhaps more specialised, journal.
And: If you have never published in a high-impact journal, but think that your new research might have a chance, just try it out! Even if the paper doesn’t get accepted you will probably get valuable comments and suggestions for your next submission, and you might learn what you need to do to be successful the next time.
Do you need help to get your paper in shape for publication in a high-impact journal? I can help you to craft a story for your paper and make your writing clearer and more concise, and I'd love to work with you! We can work together in the following ways:
I can edit your paper (for authors working on a topic within Chemistry-related fields)
I can give you advice on your paper in a strategy session
I can teach you and your peers how to write high-impact papers in a workshop.
About the Author:
I’m Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.
I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.
When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.