Manuscript Preflight Checklist

My dad flies his own airplane, a Cessna 182 Skylane in which I have occasionally traveled with him.  I've always been impressed by how safe a pilot he is -- he plans conscientiously, he doesn't cut corners, and he doesn't get in over his head.  Each time he takes off, he performs a full preflight checklist and if there's anything that doesn't check out, you will not go flying with him today.

I was thinking about my dad's checklist recently in a different context.  You see, one of my roles around the Weiss lab for the last year or so has been to help "expedite"  manuscripts.  Ron is an excellent science communicator, but his time is limited and once he becomes involved in preparing a manuscript for submission, he rapidly becomes the rate-limiting step.  The more I can help my colleagues get things in order before he gets involved, the faster we can go from draft to submission.

I've been involved in this role for three manuscripts thus far, and it has been amazing to me how careful, otherwise detail-oriented scientists who have been reading papers for many years miss some of the most basic things about science communication.  Not subtleties about narrative structure or debatable questions about the work's larger import -- I'm talking about "did you label this axis" kinds of missing pieces.

So, in the spirit of my dad's checklist, I present a preflight checklist for manuscripts.  Are your seatbelts buckled?

Content

Abstract (http://mitcommlab.mit.edu/be/commkit/journal-article-abstract/)

  • Does the abstract follow a “funnel” format?

  • Is the first sentence interesting enough to “hook” a reader? Is it something your audience will care about?

  • Does the abstract clearly communicate the problem you are trying to solve (or the knowledge gap you're trying to fill), the way you have solved it (or filled it), and the impact or implications of your work?

Introduction (http://mitcommlab.mit.edu/be/commkit/journal-article-introduction/)

  • Does the Introduction comprehensively yet concisely introduce the general background that the reader will need to appreciate your contribution?

  • Does the Introduction specifically introduce the problem you're trying to solve and clearly articulate why it's important that it be solved?

  • Does the Introduction introduce all the relevant literature that can be considered “prior art” or “competition” and define their shortcomings?

  • Does the Introduction clearly, concisely and forcefully define how your work addressed these shortcomings?

  • Does the last paragraph of the Introduction provide a “road map” for the rest of the paper?

Materials and Methods (http://mitcommlab.mit.edu/be/commkit/journal-article-methods/)

  • Does the M&M describe each experiment you did in sufficient detail that a reader can evaluate the validity of the results?

    • For common protocols, a simple reference suffices

    • For new protocols or more complex ones, more details are required.

  • Does each material, reagent or kit used include details on the vendor from which it was acquired?

  • Does each M&M section begin with a sentence stating the reason for using that method?

  • Many readers will skip M&M entirely, or only come back to it after they've read Results. Is the big-picture comprensible without reading the M&M?

Results (http://mitcommlab.mit.edu/be/commkit/journal-article-results/)

  • Does each Result reflect a single takeaway, a “thing you were trying to show?”

  • Does each Result start with the motivation for doing the experiment? (ie, what you were testing or looking for or trying to show?)

  • Does each Result include enough experimental detail to understand how you got the data you're presenting?

  • Does each Result include a concise statement of what you found?

  • Does each Result include an interpretation of the data, nothing whether or not it supported your hypothesis, and anything unexpected?

  • Are the Results ordered in way that makes sense narratively? Are there transitions between them, making explicit how they are connected?

  • Do the Results avoid inappropriate speculation?

Discussion (http://mitcommlab.mit.edu/be/commkit/journal-article-discussion/)

  • Does the Discussion begin with a summary of the paper's main conclusion (one or two sentences)?

  • Does the Discussion compare the paper's results with previous results, or explicitly discuss how it overcomes previous barriers to understanding or practice?

  • Does the Discussion include a detailed explanation of the paper's implications? (Around the Weiss lab, this includes the paper's explicit relevance to biology, bioengineering, medicine, etc.)

  • Does the Discussion avoid unfounded conclusions or claims of significance?

  • Does the Discussion end with a forward-looking statement?

Figures (and figure legends) (http://mitcommlab.mit.edu/be/commkit/figure-design/)

  • Does each figure have a caption?

  • Does each figure have a “message” or a “main point?”

    • This is the statement you're trying to convince the reader of.

  • Is the figure's “main point” the first sentence of the caption?

  • Does the data presented in the figure support the “main point”?

  • Do the figure annotations and figure legend include enough detail that a reader can figure out what experiment was done without reading the corresponding Results section?

    • Many readers who are in a hurry just look at paper figures. Is your paper readable by just looking at the figures?

Style

Prose (https://cseweb.ucsd.edu/~swanson/papers/science-of-writing.pdf)

  • Did you actually read “The Science of Scientific Writing” (linked above)? Or did you say “oh this is too long I'm sure I know all this already”?

  • Does each paragraph make a single point? Can you state that message in a single sentence?

  • Are there appropriate transitions between paragraphs? Is the relationship of the last paragraph to this one explicit?

  • For each sentence:

    • Is the “old information” in the topic position?

    • Is the “new information” in the stress position?

    • Is the subject followed immediately by the verb?

  • Are there any run-on sentences? In general, if the sentence is longer that 25 words or so, you should take a second look. (Also, avoid using more than 3 prepositional phrases in a single sentence.)

Figures (http://mitcommlab.mit.edu/be/commkit/figure-design/)

  • Are the figures easy to interpret?

  • Are the figures no more complex than is necessary to convey the point?

  • Are the figure legends present and large enough to read?

  • For plots: Is the plot type you chose the most appropriate for the data you are showing?

  • For plots: are the axes appropriately labeled?

  • If plots are meant to be compared to eachother, are the axes consistent?

  • For gels: are the lanes appropriately labeled?

  • For diagrams: are they simple and easy to interpret? Is color and line style used judiciously?

Formatting

  • Does the manuscript follow the format requested by the journal? (Word count, number of figures, which sections to include, etc.)

  • Is the authors' list complete? Are the authors' affiliations complete? Are the authors' attributions (who did what) complete?

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