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How to improve your scientific writing at medical school

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

I saw a tweet a couple of months ago that read:

Having read well over 100 journal manuscripts (not for fun...) and edited around the same number of personal statements, I decided to share what I’ve learnt about writing (especially scientific writing) and the formula that has helped me produce high quality work for my research projects and essays. In future blog posts, I will go into more detail about my methods / experience when writing:

  • My 2 winning essays for national competitions

  • My research paper for my 2nd year student selected component (that I achieved the highest mark in the cohort for and has been submitted for publication!)

  • My systematic review this year (which my supervisors are also keen to publish)

In this blog post, however, I will talk about how I improved my scientific writing overall and the foundations that I've built on to continuously improve.

Know. Your. Structure.

Depending on what type of project I have to produce, I make sure to research thoroughly on HOW to write that specific article type and read lots of examples to familiarise myself with the content. Below are some of the key article types for most scientific journals and their basic structures. You will most likely have to write one or more of these throughout medical school (or any other scientific degree).

Original research: These are detailed studies reporting original research and are classified as primary literature. They include your hypothesis, the background of your study, methods, results, interpretation of your findings, and a discussion section of possible implications for clinical practice. Original research articles generally have a word limit ranging from 3000 to 6000 but can be even higher for some journals. These require a significant investment of time. My Student Selected Component (SSC - a compulsory module for most medical students that allows us to choose from a list of projects and submit a final piece of work for it) was an example of an original research project – more detail about this in a future blog post.

Review articles: Review articles provide a critical analysis of existing published literature in a particular topic or field and make recommendations for future research or give constructive criticism on this literature. Through summary, analysis, and comparison, a review will identify specific gaps or problems in the available evidence. These are considered as secondary literature as they do not present new data from the author's experimental work.

Review articles tend to be the following types

  1. Literature reviews: A literature review is a critical summary of published works on a particular topic.

  2. Systematic reviews: A systematic review is a highly rigorous review of existing primary literature (original research such as randomised controlled trials, pilot studies etc.) that addresses a clearly formulated research question. You have to systematically search, identify, select, appraise and synthesise the data from all of the included studies that are relevant to the question. You have to use methodology that is explicit, reproducible, and leads to minimal bias and report this in your final write-up. Systematic reviews are regarded as the best source of research evidence as it summarises what the outcomes from all available experiments are. Systematic reviews are absolutely crucial in the field of evidence-based medicine but are also highly valued in other fields. This is what I am currently working on this year to fulfil my compulsory 'Scholarly Project' module.

  3. Meta-analyses: Meta-analyses are a subset of systematic review. A systematic review attempts to collate empirical evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a specific research question. Meta-analyses are conducted to assess the strength of evidence present on a disease and treatment. The results found can provide important answers to questions not posed by the individual studies, settle controversies arising from conflicting studies, and generate new hypotheses for future research. They also summarise how strong the published papers are overall.

Clinical case studies: Clinical case studies present the details of real patient cases from medical or clinical practice. The cases presented are usually those that contribute significantly to the existing knowledge on the field. The study is expected to discuss the signs, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of a disease. These are quite hard to get accepted into a journal (if they’re not clinically relevant enough) but great opportunities to work on something interesting with a doctor.

Clinical trials: Clinical trials describe the methodology, implementation, and results of controlled studies, usually undertaken with large patient groups. Clinical trials also require practical work experience, as well as high standards of ethics and reliability. These trials are usually conducted by very experienced researchers and are randomised ones are the most reliable.

Perspectives, editorials (letters to editor), opinions and commentaries

  1. Perspective pieces: scholarly reviews of fundamental concepts or prevalent ideas in a field. These are usually essays that present a personal point of view critiquing widespread notions pertaining to a field. A perspective piece can be a review of a single concept or a few related concepts. These are considered as secondary literature and are usually short articles, around 2000 words.

  2. Opinion articles: the author’s viewpoint on an interpretation, analysis, or methods used in a particular study. It allows the author to comment on the strength and weakness of a theory or hypothesis. Opinion articles are usually based on constructive criticism and should be backed by evidence. Such articles promote discussion on current issues concerning science. These are also relatively short articles.

  3. Commentaries: short articles usually around 1000-1,500 words long that draw attention to or present a criticism of a previously published article, book, or report, explaining why it interested them and how it might be illuminating for readers.

  4. Editorials: short, invited opinion pieces that discuss an issue of immediate importance to the research community. Editorials should have fewer than 1000 words total, no abstract, a minimal number of references (definitely no more than 5), and no figures or tables (although they do have a photograph of the author as an illustration). I submitted the essay that won the ASiT essay competition 2020 as an editorial piece but technically, I got told it should have been submitted as a literature review. You can have a read of it here :)

So how do I begin writing?

The IMRAD structure is the classic structure used for scientific writing (especially for research proposals and final papers) and it is what I base all of my writing off of. I write out this acronym before starting to add parts to each section and before you know it... your piece of work will start coming together.

Introduction – this is where you provide a background of current research and make a case for why your research matters

The introduction explains why this research is important or necessary. Begin by describing the problem or situation that motivates the research, the current state of research in the field; then reveal a “gap” or problem in the field that has not yet been addressed and explain how your research is a solution to that problem or gap. If the study has hypotheses, they are presented at the end of the introduction.

Method How did you carry out your research?

You need to write out how you conducted your study e.g., population, sample, methods, and equipment.

ResultsWhat did you find out? You do not elaborate on the reasons for your findings here, you just report them. This is also where you include tables and figures with captions.

Analysis – Here, you can detail the statistical methods you may have used to analyse your results and note significant differences, interesting trends and important values.

Discussion – What does it all mean? In this section, you summarise your main findings, and comment/elaborate on those findings, connecting them to other relevant research papers. i.e., Did your findings match or contradict evidence already published? You should also discuss the limitations of your work (as there will always be some, usually bias), and use these limitations to suggest what additional research needs to be done in the future to answer your original research question.

[Abstract – This is included to summarise the entire study]

The abstract for the report comes at the beginning of the paper, but most people recommend that you write it after you have drafted the full report (I also recommend this). The abstract provides a very short overview of the entire paper, including each of the above headings but only a sentence or 2 for each. This is so much easier to write when you already have a body of text.

I recommend taking this fantastic free course from Stanford:

It has helped me so much with my scientific writing and taught me how to write each section, what things to avoid and how to set helpful goals for writing essays in time for deadlines. There are really useful homework tasks set every week to help cement your knowledge. You can take as long as you like to complete the course but there are deadlines for when the course will stop being made available due to overlap (they run the content repeatedly over the month). You then have the option to join the most up to date version of the course and carry your progress over.

Other tips:

  • Keep your language simple! The simpler the better! It saves words and gets your point across quicker. Fancy scientific language does not automatically equal a quality research paper and I think this is what psyches out a lot of people. Use technical terms where appropriate and necessary but your paper should be readable and easily understandable. Especially if you are writing about original research you have undertaken - ideally, someone should be able to read your paper and reproduce your work! You also want to get your findings across really clearly. They could be of major clinical relevance after all.

  • Start each paragraph with short topic sentences that introduce and summarise the point of the paragraph. This creates interest and allows the article to flow better.

  • End paragraphs with a summary sentence of the main ideas discussed and make sure your next paragraph leads on nicely from it.

  • Verb tense - Be really careful to keep your verb tense consistent throughout your writing. I struggle with this so much (which the course I linked above is really helpful for)! For example, the 'Results' section of a paper is usually in the past tense, because the experiments have already been done and the results have already been analysed etc. so you could report is as: 'This showed... This demonstrated...' The discussion and conclusion, however, can be written in present tense, since they are ongoing and you are suggesting what future research needs to be done. Try to be consistent. In your scientific paper, use verb tenses (past, present, and future) exactly as you would in ordinary writing. Use the past tense to report what happened in the past: what you did, what someone reported, what happened in an experiment, and so on. Use the present tense to express general truths, such as conclusions (drawn by you or others) and atemporal facts (including information about what the paper does or covers). Reserve the future tense for perspectives: what you will do in the coming months or years. Typically, most of your sentences will be in the past tense, some will be in the present tense, and very few, if any, will be in the future tense.

  • ALWAYS proofread your work and get 1 other person to (ideally your supervisor) to make sure it makes sense!

As I prepare for my upcoming January exam and write up my systematic review, I hope to find some time to write some more blog posts on the types of scientific articles I have written. In the meantime, I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas!

Helpful resources:

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