Checklist for writing academic manuscripts

Writing academic manuscripts can be quite a daunting task, especially at the beginning of one's career. I (with the help of my colleagues at the Biomaterials and Tissue Biomechanics Section, Delft University of Technology) have prepared a checklist for writing academic manuscripts that can be used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 DEED, Attribution 4.0 International, by different individuals and labs to potentially assist in writing better first manuscripts as well as to improve the quality of final manuscripts. Please take a look at the Downloads page of this website to download the last version of this checklist. Please note the following points regarding this checklist:

Diversity done right

Recent years have witnessed a rapid growth of initiatives to make the workplace more inclusive and diverse. From minorities and people with health conditions to women and all other underrepresented groups, many individuals are getting a better shot at scarce study and work opportunities. Yet, important nuances are only sometimes acknowledged in such processes. One important consideration is how the inclusion of one underrepresented group affects the inclusion of other underrepresented groups. Given that the number of available spots for each job, study, and recognition opportunity is limited, enforcing the inclusivity of a single underrepresented group would mean that the other underrepresented groups would have to compete with the majority/favored groups for a smaller number of remaining available positions. Needless to say, the (unconscious) bias against such underrepresented groups would often mean that the majority/favored group of individuals will prevail in such an aggravated competition. This, inevitably, translates to an even smaller representation of all the underrepresented groups than the one for which an explicit policy has been implemented. It is, therefore, imperative that diversity and inclusion policies should identify and cover as many underrepresented groups as possible. Otherwise, increasing the participation of one underrepresented group may, in practice, translate to decreased diversity. This type of “unintended consequences” need to be clearly monitored and prevented.

Important research, original research

The best research is both ‘important’ and ‘original’. It is possible to have one without another. An original but unimportant piece of research has limited impact. An important but not particularly original piece of research is mundane. Both concepts are quite subjective.

Before caring about importance or originality, we should first make sure a piece of work is ‘valid’. A valid piece of research is both methodologically sound and reproducible. Once more, you can have without another. A piece of research, which on paper is methodologically sound, may not be reproducible. Inversely, a reproducible piece of research may not be methodologically sound. Reproducibility and methodological soundness are much more objective to judge than the two other concepts (i.e., originality and importance). The fourth important concept is completeness. A piece of research may be important, original, methodologically sound, and reproducible but not really complete. Completeness is a subjective term too. In my estimation, completeness is more subjective than methodological soundness and reproducibility but more objective than importance and originality.

An excellent paper reports a valid and complete piece of research, which is both important and original. Sometimes ambiguous terms such as “timeliness” are mentioned as one of the essential traits of a good research paper. However, it is not clear to me what timeliness refers to. In many cases, it seems that the term “timeliness” is used to indicate importance or originality, or a combination of both. On the other hand, timeliness often simply means that the topic of the paper is in an overhyped research area. One of the most important jobs of a PI is to be able to judge a piece of research in terms of its originality, importance, methodological soundness, reproducibility, and completeness. From the start of an independent research career, it takes several years to develop an acceptable level of proficiency for all of the abovementioned dimensions of research. Proper mentorship is critical in that regard.

From a scholarly viewpoint, ‘originality’ is more crucial than ‘importance.’ A good example of an important but not particularly original type of research is the systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Such papers are definitely (very) important as they lay the foundation for, among other topics, evidence-based medicine and address the topics of general (health) interest. However, they are not that original. The same questions are asked again and again. Furthermore, the same meticulously designed methods have to be followed very carefully. That leaves very little space for originality. Therefore, I think much of the work of performing systematic reviews and meta-analyses will be automatized in the near future.

In comparison, a very original idea in a small sub-field of a not-very-popular research area may not have too much immediate impact and, thus, be of little perceived importance. However, such a work invariably expands the boundaries of scientific inquiry in a unique way. We get to know something new that may be related to any number of other phenomena. Many such remote connections are made in the past, and many applications are found for what was initially thought to be of little practical importance. A famous example is laser, which was initially studied almost purely out of theoretical curiosity. It was famously said that laser was “a solution looking for a problem.” This clearly shows that the importance of highly original research cannot always be predicted even by the best of minds. Moreover, performing original research is not something that can be automatized any time soon. That is another sign of the highly intellectual nature of original research.

In practice, no manuscript has all of the four abovementioned traits (validity, completeness, originality, and importance) to perfection. It is, however, important to realize the acceptable level of each trait for a manuscript to be publishable. To be deemed publishable, only the highest level of validity is acceptable for a manuscript. Completeness comes in second place. Many journals publish valid (i.e., methodologically sound and reproducible) studies regardless of their perceived importance and originality. Some will even accept incomplete (e.g., work-in-progress) manuscripts as long as they report valid research. At the end of the day, however, many of us live for that day where we could contribute something really original to science. Make sure you keep that fire burning!