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Scientific Writing

  • Course Introduction
  • Principles of Authorship
  • How to Choose a Journal
  • Selecting Title
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Presenting Data
  • Writing Results
  • Discussion
  • Preparing Reference
  • Publication Ethics
  • Responding to Reviewers

Session 1 : Course Introduction

This course teaches a formula for organizing a report or article. The style taught follows the format of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which closely resembles that routinely used by most social science and public health journals [1]. The course is organized according to the sections of a journal article, and helps participants understand the purpose and contents of each element—from the article's title to the references. Other sessions cover authorship, publication ethics, presentation of data, and responding to reviewers' comments. The lectures, exercises, and materials focus on intervention studies in developing country settings.

Background

The present course is adapted from a World Health Organization course for biomedical scientists developed by the organization's Department of Reproductive Health Research [2]. The success of the course for biomedical scientists led to the collaboration between WHO and the Population Council's Frontiers in Reproductive Health Program (FRONTIERS) that resulted in the preparation of the course for social scientists engaged in reproductive health program research, which has been taught for more than a decade in Asia, Africa, and the United States.

This scientific writing course module is based on learnings of Population Council's intensive training workshop and mentorship of individuals from HIV prevention programmatic learnings, part of the Knowledge Network Project of the Population Council, which is a grantee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through Avahan, its India AIDS Initiative.

The course contains thirteen sessions as listed below. The sessions follow the organization of a report or journal article, and it is important not to alter the session sequence

  1. Course Introduction
  2. Principles of Authorship
  3. How to Choose a Journal
  4. Selecting a Title (90 minutes)
  5. Abstracts - Putting it in a Paragraph
  6. Writing the Introduction
  7. Writing the Methods Section
  8. Presenting Data
  9. Writing the Results Section
  10. Writing the Discussion Section
  11. Preparing References
  12. Publication Ethics
  13. Responding to Reviewers and Editors

The module has presentations and exercises. The exercises are intended to reinforce the presentation messages and should not be skipped. Several exercises critique an article. The students are first asked to read the abstract and add a title. The rest of the article is used for various exercises in the subsequent sessions on the abstract, introduction, methods, presenting data, results, and discussion.

  1. The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology publishes original research and theory on human social behavior and related phenomena. The journal emphasizes empirical, conceptually based research that advances an understanding of important social psychological processes. http://www.elsevier.com
  2. Butler, P. and J. Khanna. 2001. "Guidelines for writing a scientific paper." Geneva: World Health Organization.
    (WHO/HRP/SW/2001) http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/1992/HRP_SW_1992.pdf

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Session 2: Principles of Authorship

SESSION OBJECTIVES

  • Understand the responsibilities of authors.
  • Understand the conventions governing who should and should not be an author.
  • Understand the conventions governing the sequence of authors.
  • Understand the use of acknowledgements.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE

  • Every author must know enough about the paper to be able to discuss it publicly.
  • Every author is responsible for the content, honesty, and validity of the findings.
  • Every author should read and approve the final draft.
  • First authors are those who make the most intellectually important decisions about the content of the paper.

SESSION METHOD:Lecture/exercise/discussion

EXERCISE:Understand who should and should not be an author among the individuals listed.

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Session 3: How to Choose a Journal

SESSION OBJECTIVES

  • Understand the importance of publication.
  • Know how to identify appropriate journals for submission of a specific paper.
  • Understand the difference between peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed publications.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE

  • Publication has a role even in applied research.
  • Consulting the references for your report is a good way to identify journals that may be interested in publishing your paper.
  • Studies published in non peer-reviewed sources are not accorded the same scientific weight as peer-reviewed studies.
  • Peer review is the way the scientific community passes judgment on the quality of a study.

EXERCISE:Handout

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Session 4: Selecting a Title

SESSION OBJECTIVES:Learn what makes a good title.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE

  • Titles should be unambiguous.
  • Titles should not be too long or too short.
  • Titles should give an idea of the content of the paper.

EXERCISE:Exercises should be done in a single large group. Show slides for each exercise and pass out the handout for each.

Exercise 1
  • Identify the problems with each title (e.g., too long, ambiguous).
  • Invent titles that include independent and dependent variables.
Exercise 2
  • Read the title and the abstract. Does the title reflect the contents of the abstract?
  • Come up with a title that matches the abstract.
Exercise 3
  • Read the entire Telephone Helpline article and suggest titles.
  • After a number of titles have been suggested and discussed, tell students the actual title is “Increasing Use of Reproductive Health Services in a Peruvian Clinic.” Then rewrite the title to include the independent and dependent variables. Title formula: “Effect of x on y in country name.”

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Session 5: Abstracts - Putting it in a Paragraph

SESSION OBJECTIVES

  • Identify the elements necessary to compose a structured or unstructured abstract.
  • Determine whether an abstract for a study contains all required information.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE

  • The abstract is a model for the article or report.
  • The abstract should describe all the main elements of the research.
  • The abstract encapsulates the research question and answer.
  • There are structured and unstructured abstracts.

SESSION METHOD:Lecture/exercise/discussion

EXERCISES:There is one handout for Exercises 1-4, and one for Exercise 5. Focus on presence or absence of each element of the abstract and any missing or unnecessary information.

Exercise 1
  • Put headings in abstract to change it from unstructured to structured.
Exercise 2
  • Reduce the text from 400 words to 250 words (no headings).
Exercise 3
  • Reduce the text 250 to 150 words (no headings).
Exercise 4
  • Write a title for the abstract.
Exercise 5
  • Write an abstract based on the Telephone Helpline Article.

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Session 6: Writing the Introduction

SESSION OBJECTIVES:Understand the topics to include in the introduction, the sequence in which they should appear, and what topics should not be included.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE

  • The role of the introduction is to describe the relevant background for the study and the need for the research.
  • The introduction must provide a clear statement of the research question.
  • Recommended content and sequence of the section: (1) background, (2) setting, (3) research objective, and (4) hypothesis (if study tests a hypothesis).

EXERCISES:

Exercise 1
  • Identify problems in the introduction session in the handout. Revise the introduction by changing the paragraph sequence and eliminating elements that do not belong in the introduction.
  • Write a title for the introduction session.
  • Write the “objectives” for the paper’s abstract.
Exercise 2
  • Read the introduction section of the telephone helpline article. Is the introduction in the recommended sequence?
  • Would you add any citations? Where?

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Session 7: Writing the Methods Section

SESSION OBJECTIVES: Familiarize participants with a formula for organizing the methods section that includes: (1) the purpose of the methodology section, (2) the contents of each sub-section, and (3) common errors in writing the section.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE

  • A good methods section provides enough information to replicate the study methodology and evaluate its validity.
  • Methods sections for intervention studies differ somewhat from those for descriptive or diagnostic studies.
  • Recommended content and sequence of the section: (1) study group and design, (2) materials and procedures, (3) dependent measure, and (4) intervention monitoring.

EXERCISES:Exercises should be done in a single large group. Show slides for each exercise and pass out the handout for each.

Exercise 1
  • Place each sentence in the correct sub-section.
Exercise 2
  • Edit the methods section in the handout, identifying extraneous information.
  • Arrange the information in the recommended sequence.
Exercise 3
  • Read the methods section of the Telephone Helpline article. Can the sequence be changed?
  • What is missing (informed consent)?
  • What is the dependent variable?
  • Is the section concise and precise?
  • Does the reader have enough information to replicate the methodology?

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Session 8: Presenting Data

SESSION OBJECTIVES:Learn how to present data.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE:There are rules for presenting data in text, tables, or figures. Small amounts of data go in text. Tables are for larger amounts of data, and figures must emphasize one point. To increase the clarity of results and improve chances for publication, the writer must follow the rules! The slides present the rules. Students should keep the slide handout as a reference to help them remember the rules.

EXERCISES:Exercises 1 and 2 are large group exercises. Exercise 3 should be done in small groups. Show slides for each exercise and pass out the handout for each.

Exercise 1
  • How many different factors are presented in the table?
  • How many variations of each factor are presented?
  • Is it necessary to present each factor in multiple formats?
  • Would you present any of the data in a graph?
  • Summarize the data in the table in no more than three sentences of text.
Exercise 2
  • List the problems with the table and rearrange it to make it readable.
  • Critique the graph.
  • Convert the data in the text to a figure.

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Session 9: Writing the Results Section

SESSION OBJECTIVES:Understand the function of the results section and the elements and information that belong in this section.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE

  • The section should contain the answer to all research questions or hypotheses.
  • It should not include speculation about the meaning of the results.
  • It should not include extraneous data. Section should be limited to intervention monitoring, equivalence of groups, and main findings.

EXERCISES:Show slides for each exercise and pass out the handout for each.

Exercise 1
  • Skim the section for no more than 15-20 minutes (the excerpt violates the principle of being concise). Does the results section answer the research question?
  • Does it show if an intervention actually took place?
  • Are the findings presented clearly?
  • Are they presented in order of the hypotheses?
  • Do tables and figures correspond to the text?
  • Do the authors editorialize?
Exercise 2
  • Read the results section of the Telephone Helpline article. Are any sections missing?
  • Is there any extraneous data in the section?
  • Would you add any information? What?

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Session 10: Writing the Discussion Section

SESSION OBJECTIVES:Understand the purpose, contents, and structure of a discussion section.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE

  • The discussion section is the author’s opportunity to convince the reader of the importance of the findings and to influence further research and application of the findings.
  • Like all other sections, the discussion has a formula to follow.
  • The discussion section must be more than a summary of the results section and more than a list of recommendations.

EXERCISES:

Exercise 1
  • Arrange the sentences into the order recommended for the discussion section. Mark each sentence according to the paragraph (A-E) where it should appear and tell us why it should go there.
Exercise 2
  • Read the discussion section the Telephone Helpline article. Is there information you would eliminate? Add?
  • Reorder the sequence of the paragraphs to conform to the formula.

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Session 11: Preparing References

SESSION OBJECTIVES:Familiarity with the conventions for citing the references for an intervention study.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE: Each journal has its own conventions for citation, and authors should use the citation style for the journal chosen.

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Session 12: Publication Ethics

SESSION OBJECTIVES:Understand the meaning of misconduct in publication.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE

  • Misconduct implies an intention to deceive.
  • There is both major and minor misconduct. Major misconduct usually destroys careers.

EXERCISE:Two handouts. Newspaper article on results of major misconduct should be read in class. Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines should be recommended as reference for avoiding misconduct.

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Session 13: Responding to Reviewers and Editors

SESSION OBJECTIVES:

  • Understand the roles and responsibilities of journal editors and reviewers.
  • Understand how to address or defend points made by editors and reviewers.

POINTS TO EMPHASIZE

  • Addressing comments made by editors and reviewers can improve the original draft article—and facilitate its publication.
  • The first author of the paper should be the author of the response to the reviewers’ comments. Although it is a good idea for all authors to contribute to the response, only the first author’s name need appear on the letter.
  • The response letter should clearly identify the original paper and the dates of the reviews being responded to.
  • Reviewers’ comments should be responded to by clearly identifying the comment (quote or paraphrase). The response to a specific comment should immediately follow the comment.
  • It is acceptable to disagree with a reviewer. Reviewers’ comments can be incorrect, or sometimes confusing.

EXERCISE:Handout

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