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How to write a scientific article: A step-by-step guide

how to write a scientific article
As a student, you might find yourself in a position where you have to write a scientific article as part of your academic work. Source: Marc Wattrelot/AFP

The question, “How to write a scientific article?” will likely be on the minds of many aspiring or new researchers.

According to LuxRender, a scientific article is an original report that presents and describes experimental results, new knowledge or experiences based on known facts.

It’s a way for you to contribute your findings to students, scientists, researchers and doctors. They share and compare your results with their ongoing research or work. In short, your article contributes to the development of science.

So now that you’re familiar with what a scientific article is, how do you begin writing one? Drawing on information from Elsevier, we’ve prepared a guide on how to write a scientific article below:

how to write a scientific article

Look at papers in highly reputed journals when you’re learning to write a scientific article. Be mindful that each sentence should serve a purpose. Source: Marc Wattrelot/AFP

How to write a scientific article

Getting started: What to do before writing one

Before any writing can begin, you’ll need to conduct an adequate amount of preparatory work that will help you write a scientific article. Some pointers include

  • Developing an understanding of your chosen topic
  • Doing background research 
  • Identifying your target medical journal to publish your study
  • Identifying your target audience. Is it a group of specialists or a general audience? 
  • Deciding your study’s objectives
  • Determining the methods you’ll use for the study

These guidelines will give you a clear picture of what needs to be done. You can follow the “IMRAD” format (most scientific journals use this), which includes an introduction followed by multiple sections: methods, results, and a discussion.

As with every journal, you’ll need to include a bibliography, as well as tables and legends to any numbers. 

Step 1: Introduction

Your introduction should explain your chosen topic, and why you chose it. You’ll also have to address what you hope to achieve in the study. 

Here are a few things to take note of when writing your introduction: 

  • Determine whether you should share simplistic or specific background details of your topic. This depends on your target audience. If you target a specialist group, your background can be more technical and detailed. 
  • Every sentence should serve a purpose, as many journals have a limit on the length of paragraphs or pages.
  • Ensure you’re using the correct tenses for your sentences. 

Step 2: Methods

This section should explain the methods used during the study, describing what you did in detail. 

Here’s what your methods should specify (in order): 

  • The design of your method
  • Your study population, including the procedures to identify it 
  • The study’s primary and secondary endpoints
  • Every blood test, intervention, operation, questionnaire, imaging technique, etc 
  • A short note regarding ethical considerations
  • Where necessary, include the manufacturer’s details
  • The statistical analysis of your study

Regarding the tenses, you should mainly describe your methods using past (imperfect) tense (e.g.: we performed, we recorded, we measured, we tested). Only use the past perfect tense when describing events before your study (e.g.: ‘when thrombolysis had failed, we initiated).

how to write a scientific article

No writing can begin without first conducting an adequate amount of preparatory work. Source: Jam Sta Rosa/AFP

Step 3: Results

This is a section for stating your observations on the methods used without any commentary or discussion. When stating your observations, avoid using phrases such as “interestingly” or “surprisingly”. Be clear about which method you’re referring to. 

If you would like to include a table for your results, the general rule is that your table should contain the most important results to give your readers a clear idea of your findings. This can be data consisting of baseline characteristics, outcomes or treatments, where the same variables are described for two or more groups. 

Elseview also notes that it’s essential to describe a result for every method that was outlined in the methods section. To make the paper easier to follow and read, it is also good practice to present the results in the same order as the methods. Subtitles can also be useful in breaking down the results into easy-to-follow sections.

Step 4: Discussion 

In this section, you should start your paragraph with a brief recap of your main findings of the study, followed by your interpretation and reasonings for your results, and how they fit into the wider picture of what has been reported on the same topic.

You should also cite and compare results from other reports as well. However, remember to be diplomatic and avoid criticising other publishers’ work. Use precautionary, softer terms such as may, perhaps and likely. 

Think about any novel findings of your study and how they contribute to the state of knowledge; don’t be afraid to write an article reporting negative results as they still contribute to the current body of evidence.

Step 5: Abstract 

This section is a summary of your article that typically includes the background, methods, results and conclusion. Its primary use is for reference purposes in online bibliographic databases.

Having said that, a well-written abstract is essential, as it is the first item a publisher would read to determine if your article is the right fit for their journal. 

When writing your abstract, remember to keep it short, simple and attractive while also giving the publisher an inside look at your article. 

write a scientific article

Learning to write a scientific article takes some practice. Source: Issouf Danogo/AFP

Step 6: Your article’s title 

Your title should contain keywords that reflect your topic and make your article visible in search results. 

Tip: Look at titles of papers in highly reputed journals for inspiration on how to write one. 

Step 7: References 

You’re probably familiar with references, or a section of all the sources you’ve used to prepare and build your research.

This could include books, journals, essays, and papers. Where possible, avoid citing internet sites, personal communication and unpublished data.

Follow the referencing format of the journal you are planning to submit your article to, so check the guidelines and instructions.

Ultimately, writing a scientific article can seem daunting if it’s your first time, but these tips can ensure you cover important sections for your article.