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Five common mistakes in research writing

Scientists often underestimate the importance of good research writing. Preparing a manuscript for publication may seem insignificant compared with the months (or even years) of experiments and data analysis. But if you don’t communicate your findings effectively to the research community, your efforts in the lab will be wasted.

In this blog post, I explain how to avoid five common mistakes in research writing so that everyone can appreciate the value of your work.

1. Not answering the research question

A good research paper asks and answers a specific question. This question provides focus and helps to structure a paper so that it is easy to follow. But scientists often fail to take advantage of this useful tool. Either they don’t ask a specific question or they forget to answer it. And sometimes, they answer a different question to the one they asked.

 

To help you structure your paper around an enticing research question, try the following tips:

  • Introduce your research question in the opening paragraph of your Introduction and tell the reader what they need to know to understand the question.
  • Use appropriate methods to answer the question.
  • Make sure your results answer the question.
  • Start your Discussion by summarizing what you found and whether your results answer your research question.
  • Get someone to read your paper. Can they tell you what your research question is and do they know the answer? If not, check the points above.

2. Putting information in the wrong section

Original research reports are usually organized into Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion sections. This structure allows the reader to find the information they are interested in quickly and easily. Unfortunately, scientists often put information into the wrong section, creating unnecessary work for their reader. Here are some common mistakes to watch out for:

  • Irrelevant information in the Introduction. The Introduction tells your reader what they need to know to understand your research question. So if you are investigating the role of a transcription factor in tumour cell death, tell the reader how it affects cell survival and apoptosis – not how it regulates immune cell function.
  • Describing results in the Methods section. The Methods section gives your reader the information they need to repeat your experiments. So describe an immunostaining procedure, but don’t tell the reader where positive staining was observed in the cell (this information belongs in the Results section).
  • Interpreting your results in the Results section. The Results section describes what you found. Save all interpretations and explanations for the Discussion.
  • Repeating results in the Discussion. The Discussion interprets your findings and discusses their implications. While it can be helpful to briefly remind your reader of the results, don’t repeat your data in detail.

3. Not using paragraphs properly

Paragraphs are important because they give your writing structure and flow, making it easier to read. But many scientists fail to use paragraphs properly in their research papers. Their paragraphs are too short or too long, or they don’t use them at all. These mistakes often stem from a lack of understanding about paragraphs. Here’s how to use them properly in your next research paper:

  • Each paragraph deals with a specific topic. Ending a paragraph tells your reader that this topic is over and you are now moving onto a new one. There are no rules on length – a paragraph should be as long as it takes to introduce, discuss, and conclude a specific topic.
  • Introduce the topic of your paragraph in the first sentence (this is called the topic sentence). For example:

Raf kinases have been implicated in tumour metastasis

tells the reader that this paragraph will explain how Raf kinases influence metastasis.

Expand on the topic in the next few sentences. For example, you may talk about how Raf kinases promote tumour cell proliferation and migration. Once your topic is fully developed, finish the paragraph by drawing your conclusion:

Mutations in Raf kinase genes promote metastasis by increasing tumour cell proliferation and migration.

  • Link your paragraphs with transitions to improve the flow of your text. Transitions are sentences that tell the reader what is coming next. For example:

These findings suggest that Raf kinases are promising targets for cancer therapy

is a good transition to a paragraph about anticancer drugs that target Raf kinases. Use transition words to link your ideas (you can find a list of useful transition words here), but take care not to overuse your favourites as repetition can annoy your reader.

4. Using complicated language

Your results may be complicated, but your writing shouldn’t be. You may think that obscure words or complicated sentences make you sound clever but it is far more effective to use simple language that your reader will understand and enjoy reading. Here are some tips for clear, simple writing:

  • Avoid long, wordy phrases when a single word will do (e.g. because instead of due to the fact that).
  • Choose simple words over obscure ones (e.g. avoid instead of eschew) and don’t use words that are easily misunderstood (e.g. dissemble means to disguise or conceal – it is not the same as disassemble).
  • Use the active voice. It tends to be easier to read than the passive voice (e.g. exercise reduces stress instead of stress is reduced by exercise).
  • Cut any redundant information, such as unnecessary adjectives (e.g. past history) and adverbs (e.g. completely eliminate).
  • Don’t turn verbs into nouns (e.g. coffee consumption correlated positively with insomnia is better than there was a positive correlation between coffee consumption and insomnia).

5. Plagiarism

Plagiarism is using the words or ideas of somebody else without proper acknowledgement. Even if accidental, plagiarism is a serious offence. It can get your paper retracted and ruin your professional reputation. Plagiarism is avoided in academic writing by referring to citations in the text and providing a list of the cited references at the end of the article.

Unfortunately, plagiarism is still very common in academic circles, particularly among non-native English-speaking scientists who look to other publications for writing templates. Here are some tips on avoiding plagiarism:

  • Don’t copy and paste text from another manuscript. Simply changing a few words is not enough to make the text your own. You need to read and understand what the author is saying and then rewrite their ideas in your own words. Remember that this does not make these ideas your own – you still need to cite the relevant source.
  • Use quotation marks if you use somebody else’s exact words. And cite the reference.
  • If you are copying text because you struggle to write in English, consider seeking expert help from a language editor or a qualified translator.
  • Beware of self-plagiarism. If you have expressed the same ideas in another paper, make sure you refer to the relevant citation.
  • Well-established facts do not need to be cited (for example, you do not need to cite a reference when referring to the four nucleotide bases of DNA). But whether something is common knowledge can be a grey area. If in doubt, include a citation.
  • Use a secure plagiarism checker tool. Your research institution may already have a subscription to plagiarism checker software. If not, some platforms will give you a free trial.

Worth the effort

Writing a research paper that is easy to read does justice to all your hard work in the lab. Following the tips outlined in this article will help you to avoid some common mistakes and write a good research paper that your reader will enjoy reading.

Fixing these common mistakes will help you get the result you want

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a medical journal.

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