How to become skilled at bio-scientific writing
I believe that strong communication skills are the foundation to any relationship or human interaction. Successful communication clearly requires successful “give and take” (in conversations for example, talking and listening). I further feel that the most successful method of “getting one’s point across” is to consider the viewpoint of the receiving party (i.e., empathy). Bearing these considerations, I view the scientific communication used in bioscientific writing as very similar to other forms of discourse, particular with regard to the author’s consideration of the reader of a manuscript, or a speaker’s consideration of the viewpoint of the audience. Even today, it has been argued that the vast majority of scientific manuscripts are unreadable, and often written not with reader in mind, but for ulterior motives (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1559667/
). Consequently, in bioscientific writing, the author’s first objective is to “grab” the reader’s attention, via a solid title, preferably using the active voice. For example, “Identification of Serum CD4+CD8+ Thymocytes bearing Anti-Beta Cell T-Cell Receptors” could be altered to “Circulating Anti-Islet Cell CD4+CD8+ Thymocytes Likely Contribute to Autoimmunity in Type 1 Diabetes.” The second title immediately provides the reader the implied biomedical pertinence of the study, i.e., autoimmunity in type 1 diabetes. This is one mark of successful bioscientific writing.
In addition to the title, I believe that the abstract and introduction (the contents of the first page) must be similarly engaging to hold the reader’s attention. Thus, returning to the above example, the abstract could start with the sentence
“Type 1 diabetes (T1D) remains a devastating autoimmune disease for which the mechanism(s) of escape from negative selection remain largely unknown,” and then proceed to describe the details of the approach, results, and conclusion. Similarly, the introduction might start with some statistics regarding T1D incidence, mortality, and known pathology.
For bioscientific writing to retain reader interest, I prefer journals that place the Methods section at the end of the article. However, many highly respectable journals require the methods to follow the introduction. In those cases, I recommend subheadings that describe the purpose behind each method, e.g., “Isolation of CD4+CD8+ immature thymocytes for further mechanistic study of their escape from negative tolerance” and “Comparison of normal thymoctye differentiation from aberrantly developed autoimmune cells.”
Similarly, I believe subheadings within the Results section can further develop the “story” of the paper, often having a one-sentence introduction to the specific item under study, e.g., “Previous studies demonstrated downregulation of apoptosis effectors within the thymus of T1D patients.” If subheadings are not permitted, the Results sections should be written in chronological order, or from most to least important results (www.sfedit.net/results.pdf)
Finally, successful bioscientific writing should very briefly “recap” the pertinent findings, and contain appropriate (but not wild) speculation. The end of the discussion should summarize the findings (e.g., “In summary……”) and their possible relevance to the field of study, hopefully influencing the reader to similarly consider the positive/negative impact of the study.
Some important details in bioscientific writing include using correct gene nomenclature (i.e., official gene symbols). Human genes should be in all upper case and italicized (e.g., TP53, ERBB2) while genes in other species be italicized, with only the first letter in caps (e.g., Tp53, Erbb2). Proteins use the same name as the encoding gene, but are not italicized (e.g., TP53, ERBB2). Gene nomenclature can be found in the GeneCards database (www.genecards.org). For references, when using a reference manager (e.g., EndNote), publications are best found in “PubMed” (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed), under specific identifiers such as PMID or PMCID.
While these suggestions obviously will not lead to acceptance by top-tier journals (e.g., Nature, New England Journal of Medicine, etc.), without outstanding (and groundbreaking) data, I believe these steps can help one to assert the maximum impact of any study, and hopefully, at least achieve a review by a respected journal.