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Spie Press Book • Open Access

How to Write a Good Scientific Paper
Author(s): Chris A. Mack
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Book Description

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Many scientists and engineers consider themselves poor writers or find the writing process difficult. The good news is that you do not have to be a talented writer to produce a good scientific paper, but you do have to be a careful writer. In particular, writing for a peer-reviewed scientific or engineering journal requires learning and executing a specific formula for presenting scientific work. This book is all about teaching the style and conventions of writing for a peer-reviewed scientific journal. From structure to style, titles to tables, abstracts to author lists, this book gives practical advice about the process of writing a paper and getting it published.


Book Details

Date Published: 20 January 2018
Pages: 122
ISBN: 9781510619135
Volume: PM286

Table of Contents
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Getting Started
1.1 Why Write and Publish a Paper?
1.2 The Literature Search
1.3 Plan and Execute Research with Publication in Mind
1.4 Conclusions

Chapter 2 Structure and Organization
2.1 The Standard Structure of a Scientific Paper
2.2 Introduction
2.3 Method
2.4 Results and Discussion
2.5 Conclusions
2.6 The Structures of Papers in JM3
2.7 Conclusions

Chapter 3 Language and Style
3.1 Some Books on Style
3.2 The Scientific Style
     3.2.1 Truth
     3.2.2 Presentation
     3.2.3 Scene
     3.2.4 Cast
     3.2.5 Thought and language
3.3 Writing in the Scientific Style
3.4 Acronyms
3.5 Conclusions

Chapter 4 Figures and Tables
4.1 The Goals of Using Figures
4.2 Errors in Graphs
4.3 Graphical Integrity
4.4 A Few Guidelines
4.5 The x-y Scatterplot
     4.5.1 The x-y scatterplot in Excel
     4.5.2 Other scatterplot examples
4.6 Figure Quality from a Production Standpoint
4.7 Tables
4.8 Example: Figures and Tables in JM3
4.9 Conclusions

Chapter 5 Citations
5.1 The Five Goals of Citations
5.2 The Literature Search
5.3 Verify, Verify, Verify
5.4 Other Problems with Citations
5.5 More on Self-Citations
5.6 Conclusions

Chapter 6 Abstract and Title
6.1 Writing an Abstract
6.2 Structured Abstracts
6.3 Important Additional Thoughts on Abstracts
6.4 Titles
6.5 Keywords
6.6 Conclusions

Chapter 7 What an Editor Looks For
7.1 Scope
7.2 Quality
7.3 Novelty
7.4 Significance
     7.4.1 Measuring significance
     7.4.2 In praise of the null result
7.5 Conclusions

Chapter 8 Picking the Right Journal
8.1 The Specialization Spectrum
8.2 Reading in the Age of Search Engines
8.3 Avoiding the Wrong Journal
8.4 Conclusions

Chapter 9 Cover Letter
9.1 The Purpose of the Cover Letter
9.2 A Structured Cover Letter
9.3 Conclusions

Chapter 10 The Editorial Review Process
10.1 The Goals of Peer Review
10.2 Characteristics of a Well-Done Review
10.3 The Peer-Review Process at JM3
10.4 Responsibilities
10.5 Criticisms of the Peer-Review Process
10.6 Conclusions

Chapter 11 Review Articles
11.1 What is a Review Article?
11.2 The Structure of a Review Article
11.3 What Makes a Review Article "Good"?
11.4 Conclusions

Chapter 12 The Ethics of Scientific Publication
12.1 The Primary Ethic of Scientific Publication
12.2 Author Responsibilities before Publication
12.3 Author Responsibilities during the Peer-Review Process
12.4 Author Responsibilities after Publication
12.5 Conclusions

Chapter 13 Authorship
13.1 Defining Authorship
13.2 No Guests or Ghosts
13.3 Do Not Forget the Acknowledgments
13.4 Author Order
13.5 Authorship within JM3
13.6 Conclusions

Chapter 14 Plagiarism
14.1 Copying Another's Ideas
14.2 Copying Another's Images
14.3 Copying Another's Words
14.4 Duplicate Publication, or Self-Plagiarism
14.5 Cultural Issues
14.6 Conclusions

Chapter 15 Double Publication
15.1 Something Old, Something New
15.2 The Role of Conference Proceedings
15.3 Conclusions

Chapter 16 Editorial Ethics
16.1 Editors' Responsibilities
16.2 Conclusions

Appendix: A Checklist for Editors, Reviewers, and Authors


Writing for peer-reviewed publication is an important part of the careers of many scientists and engineers. It is also an essential part of the scientific enterprise. Something this important should be done well. However, many scientists and engineers do not consider themselves good writers, so how can the average scientist write a good scientific paper?

The good news is you do not have to be a good writer to write a good science paper, but you do have to be a careful writer. And while the creativity that often marks good science will sometimes spill over into the writing about that science, in general, good science writing does not require creative writing. In particular, writing for a peer-reviewed science or engineering journal requires learning and executing a specific formula for presenting scientific work.

This book is all about teaching the style and conventions of writing for a peer-reviewed science journal. (For the sake of brevity, I will use the word "science" to mean both science and engineering.) Anyone who absorbs the lessons of this book can become a better writer. At the least, you can become a good enough writer that your readers will judge your work by the quality of the science rather than the quality of the writing.

What I know about science writing has come from three separate experiences. First, I have written over 200 papers in my 30+-year career in the semiconductor industry. Like most authors, I have become a better writer through practice. I have also spent the last six years as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Micro/Nanolithography, MEMS, and MOEMS (JM3), published by SPIE. That experience has forced me to judge the writing of others and to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of science publishing. Because of this experience, I embarked on a project of studying what makes for good science writing, and I have read many papers and books by other writers, editors, and historians of science on that topic. Taking advantage of my post as Editor-in-Chief, I started writing a series of editorials in JM3 on good science writing (2012 - 2018). This book is mostly a collation of those editorials.

The Three Pillars of Science

Science can be thought of as the combination of three essential things: (1) a communal collection of knowledge (both facts/data and theories); (2) a method of evaluating the efficacy of scientific theories by comparing the predictions of those theories to observation/experiment; and (3) an attitude of skeptical inquiry and the belief that all scientific knowledge is provisional and subject to revision when confronted with new evidence. (A popular alternative breakdown of the "norms" of science, emphasizing its sociological nature, is Merton's "cudos", first introduced in 1942: communalism, universality, disinterestedness, originality, and skepticism.1) This breakdown of science into a body of knowledge, a method, and an attitude is useful in assessing the "scientific" content of any given behavior. If any one of these three pillars of science is missing from an activity, one cannot claim that the activity is scientific.

The growth of scientific knowledge is predominately incremental - we build on past knowledge more often than we displace it. Thus, the first pillar of science - a communal collection of knowledge - requires mechanisms for disseminating and preserving knowledge within the scientific community. By far the most important mechanism in use today is the scientific publication. Although there are many forms of scientific publication, the most important is the peer-reviewed journal paper. The goal of this book is to help authors produce good scientific papers and thus support the goals of science.

Using This Book

This book can be read straight through, which I recommend for early-career scientists who are relatively new to writing and publishing papers. It can also be used as a reference for specific topics (e.g., how to produce a good figure or write an abstract). Each chapter is purposely short and can be read in isolation for easy reference. The appendix - a checklist for editors, reviewers, and authors - is a summary of the lessons of this book.

Throughout this book I will use the words "science" and "scientist" in the most expansive way possible to include people and activities generally called "engineering". Publishing in highly practical engineering fields or highly theoretical science fields (and every part of the continuum in between) has mostly the same requirements. Some fields, such as medicine, include additional important requirements, especially related to the use of and reporting on human or animal subjects. I will not be covering those important topics in this book, but the general lessons here apply even to those more specialized fields.

Because of my experience as Editor-in-Chief of JM3, I have intimate knowledge and insider information about this specific journal. Where useful, I have included specific information from JM3 to use as examples of the points I make in the book. JM3 is probably representative of journals positioned halfway between pure science and pure engineering, and I hope that examples from this journal will make the lessons of this book more real.


My learning about science writing leaves me with many debts of gratitude. The experience of writing, for me, had been a mostly joyful and satisfying one. I am indebted to the many good authors who I have read and to the many coauthors I have been privileged to write with. Less pleasant have been the rejection letters and difficult reviews that I have received over the years, but I am even more indebted to these editors and reviewers for their careful and constructive criticisms that forced me to improve even when I did not want to. I am also grateful for the readers of my books and articles who have given me feedback and asked me questions. They have taught me that when a reader does not understand what I have written, it is almost always my fault, not theirs.

I would also like to thank the volunteer scientists that make up the editorial board of JM3. Together, we have gone through the sometimes exciting but often routine process of publishing a peer-reviewed science journal issue after issue. Finally, I would like to thank the wonderful staff of SPIE, who not only publish JM3 but are also publishing this book and making it freely available in electronic format. I have learned a tremendous amount from Eric Pepper and Karolyn Labes, who have coached and mentored me in my role as Editor-in-Chief and have reviewed and improved all of the material in this book. Thanks to John Mays and Scott McNeill as well for reviewing the text of this book.

I conclude with these oft-repeated words: much of what is good in this book is a consequence of the many people who have helped me over the years, and all of what is bad is due to my own shortcomings.

Chris A. Mack
Austin, Texas
January 2018

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