• Individual Members
  • Early Career Members
  • Student Members
  • Corporate Members
  • SPIE Professional Magazine
  • SPIE Professional Archives and Special Content
    Contact SPIE Professional
    Photonics for a Better World
    Open Access SPIE Professional
    Entrepreneurs SPIE Professional
  • Visiting Lecturers
  • Women In Optics
  • BACUS Technical Group
Print PageEmail Page
SPIE Professional January 2008

Making Your First Research Paper a Success

A prolific author and editor has tips for new graduate students who may be unsure about the art of writing a solid journal article.

By Akhlesh Lakhtakia

photo of Dr. Akhlesh Lakhtakia

If you are a beginning graduate student, you must be looking forward to publishing your first paper in a scholarly journal. Very likely apprehensive about the possibility of rejection, you may be searching for tried and true ways of writing solid journal articles. There are none that work for everyone and in every discipline, but the following tips should help you.

Choose the right journal

First, decide your readership. If your work is narrowly focused, choose a highly specialized journal in which your paper would fit naturally; otherwise, choose a less specialized journal, even a general-science magazine. Then, read carefully and follow the editorial board's instructions to authors.

Choose the right length

Should you write a letter, a short paper, or a full paper? Letters and short papers are generally appropriate to present work of momentous importance that must be published quickly or incidental results that would add to the literature but are not sufficiently important to merit publication as a full paper. A full paper must be detailed.

Review the literature

Spend a week reviewing relevant literature to create a context for your work before writing. Context is not created simply by citing many papers. Instead, tell your peers a story about your work in the introduction, and cite the papers that appear in that story.

Learn to write well

An ideal sentence is short. Put every verb close to its subject noun or pronoun. Pay attention to number and tense. Show your enthusiasm by mostly using the active voice and strong verbs. Resist the temptation to write: "It can be easily shown that …," or "It is trivial/obvious to show that ...." Do not split infinitives. Never use dangling modifiers. Avoid excessive superlatives and intensifiers. Also, avoid using the adjective well-known.

Do not waste the reader's valuable time by being verbose, but do not be unduly terse either. Avoid excessive use of jargon so that the intelligibility of your manuscript isn't restricted to a tiny group of people. Although you may use two or three commonly used acronyms, resist the urge to create acronyms.

Punctuate properly. Exclamation marks must not be used to highlight a surprising result.

Read good books on writing non-literary compositions. The following are strongly recommended:

  • E. Bender, The Most Common Errors In English Usage And How To Avoid Them
  • W. Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, The Elements of Style
  • E. Gowers, The Complete Plain Words

Write an interesting, appropriately cited manuscript

Readers are mostly attracted by the title, the abstract, the introduction, and the concluding section. If the title is not interesting and informative, potential readers will not bother to read even the abstract. If the abstract is sufficiently inviting, a reader may go through the introduction, scan the paper for figures, and maybe then read the concluding section.

  • First write the introduction, wherein you must create an appealing context. Next, write the body. Organize your manuscript into sections and subsections, each with a transparent theme. The concluding section must contain specific and broad conclusions distilled from the previous sections. Do speculate on the implications of those conclusions.
  • Write the abstract next to convey the most important details as well as the chief results without reference to the rest of the manuscript.
  • Finally, choose a descriptive, attractive, and short title.

Define every mathematical symbol at its first use in the manuscript. Make a table of all symbols and their meanings to ensure that only one symbol is used for a specific quantity. Ensure that scalars, vectors, and tensors are notationally distinct. Number every mathematical expression that you set apart from the running text.

A highly relevant figure is worth a thousand words, but do not provide complicated figures that only you can understand easily. Captions and legends must be descriptive enough that every figure can be easily understood.

Never copy a citation from some other paper or cite a publication whose hardcopy or PDF you do not possess. When citing a book for a specific experimental fact, theoretical proof, etc., include the relevant page numbers from that book. Citation of century-old references of merely historical importance today amounts to false erudition. Do not expect reviewers to conduct literature searches on your behalf and to provide missing references.

At the end, put yourself in the shoes of a graduate student like yourself to evaluate the intelligibility of your manuscript. Revise, if you fall short of that standard.

Treat reviewers with respect

Reviewers take time from their own work to review your manuscript. They are not well-disposed toward badly written manuscripts.

Unless a review is both perfunctory and negative, do not dismiss it casually. Verify every assertion made in the review. A point-by-point rebuttal or response lessens the burden on the reviewer as well as on the editorial board. In your rebuttal or response, reproduce the review, say, in italicized fonts and insert pertinent remarks in Roman letters after every sentence or paragraph in the review. Mention your agreement or disagreement with the reviewer, with support from literature, and identify the steps you took during revision.

Be polite even when rebutting the reviewer. If a review helps you present your research effectively, make sure to acknowledge it in the revised manuscript.

Dr. Akhlesh Lakhtakia, the Charles Godfrey Binder Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics at Pennsylvania State University (University Park, PA), has more than 25 years experience publishing in scientific journals and has served editorial boards at numerous professional journals. He is the editor of the Journal of Nanophotonics, an online-only SPIE journal. He originally presented his tips at a workshop at SPIE Optics+Photonics 2007. View a PDF of Lakhtakia's presentation.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200801.14

Ready for the benefits of individual SPIE membership?
Join or Renew
Already a member? Get access to member-only content.
Sign In