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Science in words

The chances of an article being accepted for publication are better if it is well written

In Brazil, one important criterion for evaluating the scientific productivity of researchers is the number and quality of articles they publish. For many researchers, articles are the main method they use to share the results of their studies. Articles also build scientific authority for researchers if they present their ideas and experiments using work methods recognized as valid by specialists in the same field. Even though most Brazilian researchers are familiar with the process of submitting, reviewing and publishing scientific articles, many manuscripts are rejected, usually due to problematic scientific writing, such as incomplete summaries or findings that fail to clearly show what makes the work novel. In addition to being well organized, with a robust methodology and compelling results, it is increasingly believed that scientific articles must be well written to be accepted by a good journal.

Two articles help shed light on the scope of the problem. In 2011 the editors of Jornal Brasileiro de Patologia e Medicina Laboratorial (Brazilian Journal of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine) published an editorial with a survey of works submitted from January 2009 to April 2011. Of the 174 manuscripts submitted for review, 61 were published, 75 were rejected, 30 were in the review phase and eight had been approved but were awaiting publication. These figures illustrate the large number of works submitted for review and the significant responsibility of selecting manuscripts based on scientific merit. More recently, the editors of the journal Ciência & Saúde Coletiva (Science & Collective Health) published an editorial that discusses the most common problems of the manuscripts the journal reviews. They say that the introductory section of many articles failed to present the domestic and international context of research related to the subject of the study. Often the arguments for the results were given, but they were descriptive, with little analysis, and the conclusions either continued the discussion instead of concluding it or strayed from the subject matter, and proposals were presented that did not stem from the topic that was studied.

Although on the one hand the editorials demonstrate an effort by these scientific journals to establish a candid and transparent channel of dialogue between editors, reviewers and authors to improve the quality of scientific production in Brazil, on the other hand they bring to light the fact that Brazilian researchers lack knowledge of methodology and scientific writing. “Part of this problem is due to the fact that very few undergraduate and graduate programs offer courses to teach methodology and scientific writing to students,” says biologist Glauco Machado of the USP Biosciences Institute (IB-USP). “There are no courses that give students practical and useful experience in writing scientific articles.”

For over 10 years, Machado has coordinated scientific writing programs at universities, NGOs and research institutes in Brazil (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 242). He explains that his students have problems because they lack the building blocks of grammar. Consequently, texts are often difficult to decipher and sometimes they are unintelligible. Many students also think that scientific writing should be polished, which causes them to use unnecessarily complicated words and constructions. “In scientific texts, the researcher needs to prioritize the clarity of ideas, and not the complexity of the text,” he says. “First and foremost, a scientific text should be a chain of arguments to support a logical sequence that is perceptible in each sentence.”

With this in mind, Gilson Volpato of the Botucatu Institute of Biosciences at São Paulo State University (IBB-Unesp), author of books on scientific writing and professor of scientific writing for 30 years, recommends a few strategies to improve the quality of texts in scientific articles. The introduction should present the work and discuss it in light of a broader research perspective, while the methodology should indicate only the procedures used to obtain the results. Next, the results should present the information that is part of the story the author intends to tell. The discussion should put the methodology and results into perspective based on what is already known about the subject, to show the reader that the conclusions are valid and relevant. “The author has to present solid arguments in a text that is concise, precise and convincing,” he says. More generally, Volpato suggests that authors think of titles as short summaries of what was studied so that readers find the text interesting.

Authors who frequently read articles and manuscripts that have been reviewed and submit work to good journals can strengthen their writing experience according to physician Paulo Abrahamsohn of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at USP (ICB), a professor of scientific writing at ICB. “Writing is an activity like any other in that substantial training is needed to acquire practice and skill,” he says.

Also, it is quite common for authors to have their articles rejected because they choose the wrong periodical (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 244). Each journal has a characteristic scope and accepts certain types of articles. Therefore, it is important for researchers to read the instructions of the periodical in which they wish to publish and look at the type of articles that were published over the last few years. “If the article’s profile is appropriate, authors should write a good cover letter that explains to the editor why their article should be published in that periodical.”