Written by Joanna Kimmerly-Smith


You've done the research. You've carefully recorded your lab results and compiled a list of relevant sources. You've even written a draft of your scientific, technical, or medical paper, hoping to get published in a reputable journal. But how do you format your paper to ensure that every detail is correct? If you're a scientific researcher or co-author looking to get your research published, read on to find out how to format your paper.

While it's true that you'll eventually need to tailor your research for your target journal, which will provide specific author guidelines for formatting the paper (see, for example, author guidelines for publications by Elsevier, PLOS ONE, and mBio), there are some formatting rules that are useful to know for your initial draft. This article will explore some of the formatting rules that apply to all scientific writing, helping you to follow the correct order of sections (IMRaD), understand the requirements of each section, find resources for standard terminology and units of measurement, and prepare your scientific paper for publication.

Format Overview

The four main elements of a scientific paper can be represented by the acronym IMRaD: introduction, methods, results, and discussion. Other sections, along with a suggested length,* are listed in the table below.

Section

Length

Section

Length

Cover Page

1 page

Discussion

4–6 pages

Abstract

1 paragraph (100–300 words)

Conclusion

1 paragraph

Keywords

3–7 words (approx.)

Acknowledgments

1–2 sentences

Introduction

1–2 pages

Conflicts of Interest/Originality Statement

1 sentence

Methods

2–3 pages

References

20–50 sources (2–4 pages)

Results

6–8 pages

Appendix/Supplementary Information

1–5 appendices

* Length guidelines are taken from https://www.elsevier.com/connect/11-steps-to-structuring-a-science-paper-editors-will-take-seriously#step6.

Now, let's go through the main sections you might have to prepare to format your paper.

Cover Page

On the first page of the paper, you must present the title of the paper along with the authors' names, institutional affiliations, and contact information. The corresponding author(s) (i.e., the one[s] who will be in contact with the reviewers) must be specified, usually with a footnote or an asterisk (*), and their full contact details (e.g., email address and phone number) must be provided. For example:

Dr. Clara A. Bell1,* and Dr. Scott C. Smith2

1University of Areopagitica, Department of Biology, Sometown, Somecountry

2Leviathan University, Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences, Sometown, Somecountry

*clara.bell@emailaddress.com

FORMATTING TIPS:

  • If you are unsure of how to classify author roles (i.e., who did what), guidelines are available online. For example, American Geophysical Union (AGU) journals now recommend using Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT), an online taxonomy for author contributions.

Abstract

In this summary of your research, you must state your subject (i.e., what you did) and encapsulate the main findings and conclusions of your paper.

FORMATTING TIPS:

  • Do not add citations in an abstract (the reader might not be able to access your reference list).
  • Avoid using acronyms and abbreviations in the abstract, as the reader may not be familiar with them. Use full terms instead.

Keywords

Below the abstract, include a list of key terms to help other researchers locate your study. Note that "keywords" is one word (with no space) and is followed by a colon:

Keywords: paper format, scientific writing.

FORMATTING TIPS:

  • Check whether "Keywords" should be italicized and whether each term should be capitalized.
  • Check the use of punctuation (e.g., commas versus semicolons, the use of the period at the end).
  • Some journals (e.g., IEEE) provide a taxonomy of keywords. This aids in the classification of your research.

Introduction

This is the reader's first impression of your paper, so it should be clear and concise. Include relevant background information on your topic, using in-text citations as necessary. Report new developments in the field, and state how your research fills gaps in the existing research. Focus on the specific problem you are addressing, along with its possible solutions, and outline the limitations of your study. You can also include a research question, hypothesis, and/or objectives at the end of this section.

FORMATTING TIPS:

  • Organize your information from broad to narrow (general to particular). However, don't start too broad; keep the information relevant.
  • You can use in-text citations in this section to situate your research within the body of literature.

Methods

This is the part of your paper that explains how the research was done. You should relate your research procedures in a clear, logical order (i.e., the order in which you conducted the research) so that other researchers can reproduce your results. Simply refer to the established methods you used, but describe any procedures that are original to your study in more detail.

FORMATTING TIPS:

  • Identify the specific instruments you used in your research by including the manufacturer’s name and location in parentheses.
  • Stay consistent with the order in which information is presented (e.g., quantity, temperature, stirring speed, refrigeration period).

Results

Now that you've explained how you gathered your research, you've got to report what you actually found. In this section, outline the main findings of your research. You need not include too many details, particularly if you are using tables and figures. While writing this section, be consistent and use the smallest number of words necessary to convey your statistics.

FORMATTING TIPS:

  • Use appendices or supplementary materials if you have too much data.
  • Use headings to help the reader follow along, particularly if your data are repetitive (but check whether your style guide allows you to use them).

Discussion

In this section, you interpret your findings for the reader in relation to previous research and the literature as a whole. Present your general conclusions, including an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the research and the implications of your findings. Resolve the hypothesis and/or research question you identified in the introduction.

FORMATTING TIPS:

  • Use in-text citations to support your discussion.
  • Do not repeat the information you presented in the results or the introduction unless it is necessary for a discussion of the overall implications of the research.

Conclusion

This section is sometimes included in the last paragraph of the discussion. Explain how your research fits within your field of study, and identify areas for future research.

FORMATTING TIPS:

  • Keep this section short.

Acknowledgments

Write a brief paragraph giving credit to any institution responsible for funding the study (e.g., through a fellowship or grant) and any individual(s) who contributed to the manuscript (e.g., technical advisors or editors).

FORMATTING TIPS:

  • Check whether your journal uses standard identifiers for funding agencies (e.g., Elsevier's Funder Registry).

Conflicts of Interest/Originality Statement

Some journals require a statement attesting that your research is original and that you have no conflicts of interest (i.e., ulterior motives or ways in which you could benefit from the publication of your research). This section only needs to be a sentence or two long.

References

Here you list citation information for each source you used (i.e., author names, date of publication, title of paper/chapter, title of journal/book, and publisher name and location). The list of references can be in alphabetical order (author–date style of citation) or in the order in which the sources are presented in the paper (numbered citations). Follow your style guide; if no guidelines are provided, choose a citation format and be consistent.

FORMATTING TIPS:

  • While doing your final proofread, ensure that the reference list entries are consistent with the in-text citations (i.e., no missing or conflicting information).
  • Many citation styles use a hanging indent and may be alphabetized. Use the styles in Microsoft Word to aid you in citation format.
  • Use EndNote, Mendeley, Zotero, RefWorks, or another similar reference manager to create, store, and utilize bibliographic information.

Appendix/Supplementary Information

In this optional section, you can present nonessential information that further clarifies a point without burdening the body of the paper. That is, if you have too much data to fit in a (relatively) short research paper, move anything that's not essential to this section.

FORMATTING TIPS:

  • Note that this section is uncommon in published papers. Before submission, check whether your journal allows for supplementary data, and don't put any essential information in this section.

Beyond IMRaD: Formatting the Details

Aside from the overall format of your paper, there are still other details to watch out for. The sections below cover how to present your terminology, equations, tables and figures, measurements, and statistics consistently based on the conventions of scientific writing.

Terminology

Stay consistent with the terms you use. Generally, short forms can be used once the full term has been introduced:

  • full terms versus acronyms (e.g., deoxyribonucleic acid versus DNA);
  • English names versus Greek letters (e.g., alpha versus α); and
  • species names versus short forms (e.g., Staphylococcus aureus versus S. aureus).

One way to ensure consistency is to use standard scientific terminology. You can refer to the following resources, but if you're not sure which guidelines are preferred, check with your target journal.

Italics must be used correctly for scientific terminology. Here are a couple of formatting tips:

  • Species names, which are usually in Greek or Latin, are italicized (e.g., Staphylococcus aureus).
  • Genes are italicized, but proteins aren't.

Equations

Whether in mathematical, scientific, or technical papers, equations follow a conventional format. Here are some tips for formatting your calculations:

  • Number each equation you present in the text, inserting the number in parentheses.

X + Y = 1                                                                                                                                               (1)

  • Check whether your target journal requires you to capitalize the word "Equation" or use parentheses for the equation number when you refer to equations within the text.

In Equation 1, X represents . . .

OR

In equation (1), X represents . . .

(Note also that you should use italics for variables.)

  • Try using MathType or Equation Editor in Microsoft Word to type your equations, but use Unicode characters when typing single variables or mathematical operators (e.g., x, ≥, or ±) in running text. This makes it easier to edit your text and format your equations before publication.
  • In line with the above tip, remember to save your math equations as editable text and not as images in case changes need to be made before publication.

Tables and Figures

Do you have any tables, graphs, or images in your research? If so, you should become familiar with the rules for referring to tables and figures in your scientific paper. Some examples are presented below.

  • Capitalize the titles of specific tables and figures when you refer to them in the text (e.g., "see Table 3"; "in Figure 4").
  • In tables, stay consistent with the use of title case (i.e., Capitalizing Each Word) and sentence case (i.e., Capitalizing the first word).
  • In figure captions, stay consistent with the use of punctuation, italics, and capitalization. For example:

Figure 1. Classification of author roles.

versus

Figure 2: taxonomy of paper keywords

Measurements

Although every journal has slightly different formatting guidelines, most agree that the gold standard for units of measurement is the International System of Units (SI). Wherever possible, use the SI. Here are some other tips for formatting units of measurement:

  • Add spaces before units of measurement. For example, 2.5 mL not 2.5mL.
  • Be consistent with your units of measure (especially date and time). For example, 3 hours or 3 h.

Statistics

When presenting statistical information, you must provide enough specific information to accurately describe the relationships among your data. Nothing is more frustrating to a reviewer than vague sentences about a variable being significant without any supporting details. The author guidelines for the journal Nature recommend that the following be included for statistical testing: the name of each statistical analysis, along with its n value; an explanation of why the test was used and what is being compared; and the specific alpha levels and P values for each test.

Angel Borja, writing for Elsevier publications, described the statistical rules for article formatting as follows:

  • Indicate the statistical tests used with all relevant parameters.
  • Use mean and standard deviation to report normally distributed data.
  • Use median and interpercentile range to report skewed data.
  • For numbers, use two significant digits unless more precision is necessary.
  • Never use percentages for very small samples.

Remember, you must be prepared to justify your findings and conclusions, and one of the best ways to do this is through factual accuracy and the acknowledgment of opposing interpretations, data, and/or points of view.


Conclusion

Even though you may not look forward to the process of formatting your research paper, it's important to present your findings clearly, consistently, and professionally. With the right paper format, your chances of publication increase, and your research will be more likely to make an impact in your field. Don't underestimate the details. They are the backbone of scientific writing and research.

One last tip: Before you submit your research, consider using our academic editing service for expert help with paper formatting, editing, and proofreading. We can tailor your paper to specific journal guidelines at your request.

Image source: 85Fifteen/Unsplash.com


Let us format your paper to your target journal's guidelines.


About the Author

Joanna Kimmerly-Smith

Joanna's passion for English literature (proven by her M.A. thesis on Jane Austen) is matched by her passion to help others with their writing (shown by her role as an in-house editor with Scribendi). She enjoys lively discussions about plot, character, and nerdy TV shows with her husband, and she loves singing almost as much as she loves reading. Isn't music another language after all?

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