How to write a scientific paper
Just about every article in a newspaper about science will at some point include the words 'in a paper published this week, scientists...' But what exactly are papers, and how are they published? With the exception of Nature and Science, you will never see them at a newsagents or in the library.
Papers published in science journals are the key to good science. Since all of them are accessible to all scientists they stand as permanent record of who has said and done what on each subject. Many journals are highly specialised (a favourite of mine is the Journal of Canadian Fisheries) and only publish papers directly related to a narrow area of interest, but some (like Nature) cover the whole of science.
You may be surprised to learn that a formal paper is not too different to the kind of thing you might write for a school of college report. Once a scientist, or a group working together, have carried out some research they will write a formal paper explaining what they have done. Of course there are variations, but they all stick to more or less the same format:
First there is a TITLE and a short ABSTRACT at the beginning describing the work and the results. This allows researchers to quickly identify articles of interest to them and the basic conclusions of the paper.
Next there is an INTRODUCTION which explains the problem and gives a brief review of the work that has been carried out on the subject before. Anyone reading the paper therefore knows what you are trying to achieve, why it is important, and how it relates to other research.
The MATERIALS AND METHODS section is fairly straightforward. In it the authors of the paper detail what data they used, how this was collected, what experiments were carried out and how. These have to be very detailed so that any other researchers can check what they did and make sure that the results are correct.
Then come the RESULTS. Again, this is quite obvious and here the results of the analyses are formally laid out with the appropriate statistics, graphs and figures.
Now comes the most important part of the paper, the DISCUSSION. Here the researchers lay out what they think their results mean and why. This can be very long and detailed and like the introduction involve many references to earlier papers.
Any previously published paper mentioned in the text is listed in the REFERENCES section. This is especially important as it allows other researchers to see where you got your information from and a check that everything is correct.
So that a scientific paper. A permanent record of how a piece of research was done and how it relates to other previous work in the same area. But once it has been written, it still has to be published and that is often just as much work as doing the research. If you want to know about that process, then see the companion essay on 'How a scientific paper is published'.