Category Archives: Writing research papers

The essentials of the Executive Summary (FAQ)


In my writing workshops, I am often asked how to write or structure an executive summary. In this blogpost I list seven frequently-asked questions and my answers. Please note that I provide general advice here and that the exact nature and structure of any report or report sections, including the executive summary, may depend upon many factors including industry or discipline, report type and purpose and target audience.

What is an executive summary?

An executive summary is the section of a technical, scientific or business report report that summarises key features of the project or proposal.

What is the purpose of the executive summary?

The target audience of a report should be able to fully understand, and be able to act upon, the key findings written within the summary without having to read the rest of the report. Readers that rely on a clear, accurate executive summary are often those people who make funding, personnel, or policy decisions and need to assess information quickly and efficiently.

As the executive summary is often the first part of the report, it also has a role of engaging the reader and immediately informing them of the purpose, procedure and findings of the project. If the executive summary fails to engage the reader, the report could be discarded and left unread.

What are the essential components of an executive summary?

An executive summary should contain the essential outcomes or findings of the report that have direct relevance to the practical, operational, managerial or reporting requirements of its target audience. An executive summary should explain the scope of the study, the problems or issues that need to be addressed, how they were assessed and provide the findings and conclusions and recommendations arising from these conclusions.

How should an executive summary be structured?

The executive summary should stand alone and be independent of the report. Firstly, determine if there are guidelines within your organisation or industry or with your stakeholders that dictate the content and structure of an executive summary.  The structure could mirror the structure of the full report, but whether this is necessary might depend upon the type and purpose of the report.

The executive summary should include a brief summary of every section of the report. Depending upon templates and industry guidelines, and upon the length of the summary, headings and bullet points can be used. Avoid presenting too much information as bullet points as this can unnecessarily increase the length of the executive summary.

Depending upon the type of report, the executive summary might include a summary of the following:

  • Project description: project aims and objectives, issues or problems that need solving, outline of who the report is designed for and the client requirements or deliverables.
  • Background:  factors that lead to the development of the current project. What partners or stakeholders are involved and an outline of their requirements.
  • Process or methods: procedures or actions that were necessary to complete the project. How data was collected and assessed or analysed.
  • Findings and conclusions. How, or if, the problems were addressed or solved.
  • Implications and recommendations of findings and conclusions.
  • Who is responsible to undertake recommendations and how outcomes are to be communicated or acted upon.
  • Implications for future work and development of policies.

How much detail should be included in the executive summary?

As key decisions are often made by only reading the executive summary it is imperative that all relevant information is presented. Ensure that any generalisations do not mask important points. In the process of summarising the key findings, it is essential that crucial caveats, stipulations, qualifications or limitations are not omitted. Nevertheless, the executive summary should be as concise as possible yet still provide the minimum amount of information or evidence needed to support the report’s findings, conclusions and recommendations. All conclusions and recommendations presented in the executive must be fully explained in further details in the body of the report. This is especially important in case your reports and other documentation need to be audited in the future.

What information should not be included in an executive summary?

Do not introduce any new information that is not in your report. Avoid using acronyms, in-house terminology or any other words or phrases that your target audience will not be familiar with. Avoid copying sentences and paragraphs from the report into the executive summary: this is not summarising.

What is the optimum length of an executive summary?

The length of an executive summary depends upon the length and purpose of the report. If the report is short, the length might be less than half a page while executive summaries of large reports could be 5-30 pages in length.

How is an executive summary different to an abstract?

Executive summaries are found in all types of reports, including non-scientific documents, whereas abstracts are summaries of scientific or academic peer-reviewed research papers. Readers of reports may act upon the information presented in an executive summary without reading the rest of the report, whereas the abstract of papers provide an overall summary and readers should read the entire paper before making their own interpretations of the study’s findings. This is especially important when citing information presented in a research paper. One should not cite the findings of a research paper after having only read the paper’s abstract.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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How to create tables from data

What is a table?
Tables present the results of data or information collected from a study. The purpose of a table is to present data summaries to help the reader to understand what was found. Not all data needs to go into a table: some results are simply presented as written text in the results section; data that shows a trend or a pattern in between variables is presented in figures, while additional data not necessary to explain the study should go into the appendix.

Tables should convey data or information clearly and concisely and allow the key message to be interpreted at a glance. Tables often include detailed data in rows and columns, while sub-columns are often nested within larger columns.

Designing your table
Once you have decided what data to present, jot down a rough draft of the table headings on paper to determine how many columns and rows you need. Choose categories with accurate labels that match your methodology and analysis. Before you spend too much time designing the layout of your table, check that you are following the format expected within your discipline or organisation as table formatting requirements often vary considerably; if you are preparing a science report, refer to the relevant In-House Style Guide(s) or if you are preparing a journal article, meticulously follow the journal’s Instruction to Authors.

Title or Legend
Consider the objective and key message of each table. The table title is typically placed at the top of the table. It should stand alone: it needs to be clearly understood by your target audience without them needing to go back to the results or methods sections. The title should be concise and describe what was measured, e.g. ‘Reproductive hormone levels during contraceptive administration in men’. Frame the title so that it conveys the key results, e.g. ‘Reproductive hormones are suppressed during contraceptive administration in men’.

Sub-headings
Take care to ensure the sub-headings are meaningful and accurate. The row and column headings clearly explain the treatment or data type, and include units. In the sample table below, the experimental details are given in the row headings (time points during the administration of a contraceptive), and the data measured (hormones) are given in the column headings. 

Example Table

          In this example table, horizontal lines have been used sparingly to improve clarity.

Explanatory notes
Explanatory notes and footnotes are placed at the end of the table. Make sure that all abbreviations are defined and that the values are explained. For example, if the values are a percentage, mean ± SEM, n per group.

Drawing and formatting the table
Tables for publication can be created in Word, using the 'Insert Table' function. For instructions see: Office Support: Insert or create a table.

- Tables can also be created from existing datasets in Excel, and then cut and pasted into Word, or exported into Word as an image.

- Use a separate cell for each piece of information; avoid having to insert tabs or spaces which may cause the text to be unintentionally moved when the formatting is adjusted.

- Add your headings and data to each cell. Cells can be merged to create headings above sub-headings. Select the cells you want to merge then select the 'Merge Cells' option.

- The table then needs to be formatted to improve readability and clarity. Select the entire table or individual rows or columns and right click. Options will appear where you can modify the table size, cell height and width, and format the borders. Word tables will have borders on each side of the cell by default.

- Format the borders by selecting columns, rows or individual cells will help the table to take shape and improve visual clarity.  Text within the table can be formatted by selecting the text, then formatting it as normal.

- Make sure that the columns and rows are well separated and that the table is not cluttered and is easy to read. Imagine the reader looking at your table: do they have access to all of the information they need and can they easily understand the results?

Formatting borders helps a table to take shape and improve clarity. Select and de-select the horizontal and vertical lines you want to use as borders

Citing the table

Always cite the table at the relevant point in your text. Avoid repeating the details that are presented in the table, and use the text to direct the reader to the main message, e.g. ‘Contraceptive administration at 14 and 20 weeks significantly suppressed FSH, LH and testosterone levels in men (Table 1)’. Tables should be numbered consecutively throughout the document.

Further reading: (external links)

* Creating tables in scientific papers: basic formatting and titles
* How to create and customize tables in Microsoft Word
* Tips on effective use of tables and figures in research papers
* Almost Everything You Wanted to Know About Making Tables and Figures
* Office Support: Insert or create a table

© Dr Liza O’Donnell & Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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How to choose the right journal to publish your paper

Choosing the right journal is a crucial step in getting your paper successfully published. Where you publish is also important when establishing your career as a researcher and may improve your ability to attract funding. Choosing the right journal is an important part of the planning process when drafting your paper. Ideally, you should decide what journal you will submit to before you start writing, as each journal will have unique requirements and will target different audiences.

1. Create a draft list of journal titles that appear suitable at first glance

Based upon your knowledge, advice from colleagues and word-of-mouth, create a draft list of 20-40 journal titles that appear suitable at first glance. You can also use search engines (e.g. ‘marine biology journals’) and journal finder tools and databases (e.g. Scopus). Also look in the reference lists of the papers that you read.  

2. Define your publishing objectives and preferred journal attributes

In addition to simply wanting your paper to be published, you need to have clear objectives about how and where you want your work published. Determining how different journals can meet your objectives will help you decide what journal to choose. Having clear publishing objectives is also important if you are co-authoring a document.

The following is a list of journal attributes that should be considered when working out your objectives:

Does the journal meet your institutions’ or funding body’s guidelines?   

Different universities, departments and other organisational will have guidelines and criteria for journal selection. For example, the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) is Australia’s national research evaluation framework and stipulate that research output must satisfy certain criteria, including the type of journal.

Does your study subject and publication type meet the journal’s Aim and Scope?

The journal’s Aims and Scope gives an overview of what subject or topics they publish; for example, the Journal of Cell Science states it is “…committed to publishing the full range of topics in cell biology.” The journal’s Aims and Scope often outlines what types of papers they publish and their peer review policy. Other crucial information (e.g. page limits) will also be found in the Instructions to Authors.


Consider the journal’s readership and target audience

Does the journal’s readership and target audience match the target audience of your paper? For example, if you have a multi-disciplinary project or topic, you might want to choose a multi-disciplinary journal (for example PLOS One).

What is the journals’ Impact Factor?

The impact factor of a journal is a high profile and controversial measure used to rank, evaluate and compare journals and is published in the Journal Citation Reports (JCR) by Clarivate Analytics. Clarivate Analytics defines impact factor as a “a measure of the frequency with which the “average article” in a journal has been cited in a particular year or period. The annual JCR impact factor is a ratio between citations and recent citable items published.”

Is the journal indexed in well-known databases?

Indexing refers to whether a journal is listed in databases and search engines well known within your discipline. If your journal of choice is indexed by a well-known database (for example Web of Science or PubMed), once your paper is published, both your journal and paper will be found within this database. Some databases only include abstracts, some include the entire paper and the citation index. Read more about indexing here.

Do you agree with the journals peer-review policy?

This information should be listed on their website, often under the Aims and Scope section. For example, the journal Trials uses an open review system.

How long does the journal take to publish your paper?

The time taken to review your document and notify you of acceptance or rejection will vary between journals and can be a source of frustration. Knowledge of the publishing process will help you determine when to expect to receive a response.  ‘The production process’ by Wiley clearly outlines the steps taken with their journals. Some journals take longer to release your paper after acceptance than others. The Journal of Medical Internet Research estimates it takes them from 4-6 weeks.

Where do your peers publish?

Your paper needs to be seen by your peers if it has any chance of being read and cited. Therefore, it should be published in the journals that they are likely to read. For example, if I were an active researcher in Australia, I would consider publishing in Austral Ecology as it is well known and highly regarded.

Check the journal’s reputation

Only publish your paper in reputable journals. Early-career researchers might be not fully aware of fake or predatory journals that pretend to have a good reputation, accept your paper with minimal or no review and then charge you for submission. If you send a paper to a predatory journal, you might never hear from them again or see your paper anywhere in print. Think. Check. Submit is a system designed to help authors to identify trusted journals, including a check list to assess your chosen journals. 

Does the journal charge fees for publishing your paper?

Many journals not only charge for subscription and purchase of papers they publish, they also charge authors fees for publishing their papers after they have been accepted for publication.  Remember that your institution may already cover these charges. Read ‘Understanding Submission and Publication Fees’ for further background.  Even if a journal is open source, you many still need to pay paper charges. Read this article for further explanation.

3. Create a short-list of journals that meet your objectives

Create a short-list of the journals that meet your objectives. Perhaps also compile a spreadsheet of your short-listed journals to easily compare different attributes. This spreadsheet can be updated when preparing your next publication.

4. Once you have chosen the journal for submission, thoroughly review their requirements

Read your chosen journal’s website meticulously, especially the Aims and Scope and the Instructions of Authors. A common reason for paper rejection or request for resubmission is that the author has not comprehensively followed these instructions. Without thorough investigation, you may overlook important aspects that will prevent you from getting your paper published and it is better to find this out before you go through the process of writing, formatting and submitting your paper.

Finally...

Don’t forget that if you are unsure about anything, contact the editor. Some journals have information about pre-submission enquires on their websites, while most will have online articles and guides to help you understand their requirements.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.

Find out more about our writing workshops here.

Co-authors should define their roles and responsibilities before they start writing

Have you ever had problems when co-authoring a document?

Are you about to co-author a document but have not had a lot of experience of working with other authors? Have you worked with other authors who avoid replying to your emails, contribute little to the document, then expect to be included as an author? Have you sat down with your co-authors and decided who will do what task, then find that one author has taken charge of the writing project? Have you had disputes about who should be the lead author of your paper? These problems reflect a lack of planning: co-authors should define their roles and responsibilities before they start writing.

Being an author of a published scientific document brings responsibilities. As an author of a published scientific document you are acknowledged as having written and designed that document and you may need to verify or defend your writing. If you are the author of a document presenting original research you are presenting yourself as the person responsible for designing and completing the study and you will be given credit for any original ideas, new findings and conclusions. You are responsible for verifying the integrity of your work. If there is more than one author, the credit and responsibility is assigned equally to all authors, even with the understanding that the first author is often the major contributor.

When co-authoring a document, each author will complete different tasks. The amount and type of work completed by each author will vary according to the nature of the project, the topic, the industry’s or discipline’s conventions and the number of co-authors.

Should each authors contribution be listed in the document?

Whether or not the contributions of all co-authors are included in the document itself, will also depend upon the type and purpose of the document. For example, with a short, three-page report prepared by a company for a client, it might not be appropriate to state who the authors are, let alone outlining what their contributions were. In some instances, outlining co-authors contributions is essential. When submitting an article for a peer-reviewed journal, it is usually a requirement that co-authors meticulously outline their contribution to the document. For example, the ICMJE (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors) state “In addition to being accountable for the parts of the work he or she has done, an author should be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific parts of the work. In addition, authors should have confidence in the integrity of the contributions of their co-authors”.


Co-authoring is often unplanned

In many instances, the contributions of co-authors are not documented or even formally agreed to; a group of co-authors might discuss allocation of tasks over a coffee in an informal meeting. In many instances there is no prior agreement between co-authors at all which can lead to significant problems.

If the role and responsibilities of co-authors are not managed effectively, the process of writing can take longer than it should, or worse, documents may be poorly written or never get completed. Confusion about who does what can cause disagreement between authors and dramatically reduce the quality and quantity of what is written. Additional problems include:

- disputes over who is in charge of the writing project, who has the final say about the content or conclusions or who is the lead author

- unrealistic expectations by a writer being nominated as author when they have made an insignificant contribution

- objections by a colleague being nominated as an author when they consider their contribution to be minimal, preferring instead to be mentioned in the acknowledgements.

- unnecessary duplication of writing, editing and analysis tasks

- insufficient completion of essential tasks that is either not recognised at all or completed at the last minute without sufficient quality control

- ad-hoc invitations for other writers to contribute at different stages

Irrespective of the type of document produced, each co-author should outline their proposed contribution to the document before they start writing. This agreement should be documented and updated if there are any changes. This is necessary for a well-managed project, as the role of authors can often change during the process of drafting of a document and written agreements are easier to manage than verbal agreements.

Before you decide what your contribution will be:

1. Refer to a published authorship policy for guidance

An authorship policy outlines what contributions are necessary for someone to be considered an author of a document. Most universities have authorship policies (e.g. UTAS), as do publishing companies, editorial committees and research institutions. The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2007) section on Authorship (5.1) states: …“To be named as an author, a researcher must have made a substantial scholarly contribution to the work and be able to take responsibility for at least that part of the work they contributed. Attribution of authorship depends to some extent on the discipline, but in all cases, authorship must be based on substantial contributions in a combination of:

  • conception and design of the project
  • analysis and interpretation of research data
  • drafting significant parts of the work or critically revising it so as to contribute to the
  • interpretation.”

2. Identify what contributions are necessary before assigning tasks to authors

If there is no lead author who is in charge of the writing project, as a group, co-authors should decide what contributions are necessary before assigning, or agreeing to tasks. This will ensure essential tasks are not overlooked and may prevent additional, unnecessary tasks (i.e. the preparation of 12 images for publication when one will suffice).

3. Use an Authors' Roles and Responsibility spreadsheet

An Authors' Roles and Responsibility spreadsheet describes each contribution and allows co-authors to list who is responsible for each task. This spreadsheet can also include timelines for completion and monitor changes over time. This spreadsheet can also be developed as a template for future projects.

Once the contributions of each co-author are assigned and agreed to, then the writing can commence. If co-authors maintain regular communication while preparing the document, any changes to contributions can be further monitored.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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Find out more about our writing workshops here.

The difference between a writing rule and a good idea

Why do we have writing rules?

There is a lot of advice about how to improve writing. Some of it is not very helpful or may even make writing more difficult, especially if the advice is delivered as a rule.

How do writing rules evolve?

Sarah struggled with writing long paragraphs and found it helpful if she forced herself not to write more than seven sentences for each paragraph. Sarah said to Peter, “You should restrict your paragraphs to no more than seven sentences.” Peter tried this and it worked for him. He also found that it helped him if he also made sure his paragraphs were not too short. Later, he told his friend Sia that “It’s a good idea if paragraphs are no more than seven sentences and no less than three”. Sia told her friends in her tutorial group, “I’ve heard that paragraphs should be no more than seven sentences and no less than three”. If a suggestion is communicated with absolutes, such as, ‘should’, then it is more easily passed off as a rule. Problems then occur as many do not question something, if they believe it is a rule.

When teaching I am often asked questions phrased as ‘What is the writing rule for…’. I respond by making a clear distinction between what is a rule and what is simply a good idea. Then there is a third option that requires critical thinking and considered thought, before any advice is followed. This is the “Well it depends…” option.

Perhaps some advice ends up as a rule because it appears easier to teach using a black and white perspective. The problem with writing rules is that there are always exceptions. If there are too many exceptions then the rule becomes ambiguous, difficult to learn and difficult to teach. This is the case for some grammar, spelling and punctuation rules.


Some rules are good

Some rules are more important than others. Many grammar rules are essential. We need verbs in sentences otherwise we wouldn’t know what was going on; we need a subject so that we know who or what was doing the thing that was going on. Some grammar rules are important and some are no longer used or followed. Some rules are termed usage rules. Descriptive grammar is when grammar rules are taught based on current usage of the language while Prescriptive grammar is when grammar rules are taught based on rules that generally don’t change and are seen as absolute.

Some rules are archaic or out-dated

Never split your infinitives’ is a rule that dictates one must never place an adverb between ‘to’ and a verb’ (‘You have to quickly speak’ versus ‘You have to speak quickly’). This rule is no longer supported by the Oxford Dictionary yet is still commonly taught. The justification was based on an ancient Latin rule.

Some good suggestions need not be considered a rule

Some rules are just good ideas disguised as rules, for example, the advice that will help your consistency and flow, such as, ‘Always have the same size bullet point indents’. Instead ‘Be consistent with bullet point indents‘ is better: you will not be fined or lose your job if you change the size of your indents halfway through your report.

Some rules are not so good

Then there are rules that are, perhaps at best, only vaguely helpful. A student once claimed that their supervisor strictly enforced the rule to ‘Never write paragraphs shorter than three sentences or longer than seven’. Why? Why not? Who is this rule going to help? Once writing rules are let loose, they are hard to reclaim. Take the mantra we learned at school to supposedly help us with spelling, ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. This was nicely fielded by Simon Taylor’s tweet ‘Except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbour’ and is now also a t-shirt. Also, ‘Never start a sentence with, ‘However’, which must have come from the rule that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction. Personally, I have no problem starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’, as long as it makes sense. But down that path lies doom as it goes against writing convention. Then there is the ‘which and that‘ rule which, according to Jonathon Owen, someone simply made up, while the ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’ rule is one of Grammar Girl’s Top Ten Grammar Myths.

Some writing rules might help some people some of the time, but it’s the exceptions that leaves others fretting and googling. Some people prefer rules because they appear easy to learn and follow instead of having to work through writing problems.

Some rules reflect current convention

Then there is convention, which is defined as ‘what people usually do‘ or ‘an agreement between states covering particular matters, especially one less formal than a treaty‘. There are many writing conventions that are also camouflaged as writing rules. For example, the imperative not to use active voice is very strong in some academic disciplines as it is argued that it is un-objective, which, in science, is bad. The jury is still out and different disciplines have different ideas. There are occasions when active language is necessary; for example, to distinguish your ideas from someone else’s; for example when “It is considered that compound X is not necessary for short assays”, the reader might not know who did the considering; whether this is the author’s conclusion or a general, uncited principle gleaned from general knowledge and understanding of that topic. There are occasions when active language is not necessary; for instance in the Materials and Methods sections of reports, but then this might depend on whether a new method is being developed.

Write first

Yes, we want to avoid writing gobbledegook but let us write for clarity first, and then worry about convention. The top priority when writing about science is not to compromise your meaning. Make sure that what you write is clear and succinct and that your presentation is consistent and easy to navigate. Always get feedback from your friends and colleagues if you want to know if you are making sense. Then you can worry about whether you have followed conventions that will allow your document to get published.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.

Find out more about our writing workshops here.