How To Write Highlights for an Academic or Scientific Paper

How To Write Highlights for an Academic or Scientific Paper
Although some academic and scientific journals have a long tradition of requesting summaries of key findings from the authors of articles accepted for publication, highlights are, for the most part, a relatively recent development in scholarly publishing. Elsevier first introduced highlights in some of its scholarly journals less than a decade ago, with its other journals and many produced by other publishers soon picking up this feature as well. The increasing popularity of highlights for research articles can be explained by their usefulness and appeal for both readers and authors in an online publishing environment. Readers are able to find and view in an extremely concise format the results presented in a published manuscript and thus determine very quickly whether they want to read the paper or not. With the Elsevier Research Highlights app, they can easily do this on their smartphones and even have the articles they wish to read sent to their inboxes. Authors benefit because their papers are given the advantage of greater visibility and discoverability, which can lead to more readers and higher citation counts. In addition, condensing the key elements of a research article into a few highlights can help an author focus more effectively on the primary contributions of his or her research.

The content, length and format of highlights for a research paper differ somewhat among academic and scientific journals, so one journal may simply want a bulleted list of keywords or key phrases, whereas another will require a thorough summary of the research results in the form of a brief paragraph. Elsevier journals ask for a list of bullet points that communicate the core findings of an article, conveying the essence of the research as well as its distinctiveness, but eliminating the background, methodology and other information that might appear in an abstract. Between three and five highlights are usually required, with each one not exceeding 85 characters, including spaces. The Elsevier model may be a good one to use if the journal to which you are submitting a paper indicates that highlights are desirable but provides no specific instructions or guidelines. Yet varying preferences mean that it is always wise to take a close look at the highlights in papers the journal has recently published, particularly any papers that are very similar to your own. In some cases, highlights will not be required until a paper is accepted for publication, so be sure to note when highlights should be submitted as well what form they should take.
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Regardless of the exact format of the highlights required, they will almost certainly need to be concise in order to condense a great deal of complex information into a very little textual space. Shortening phrases, simplifying vocabulary, eliminating redundant words and using the active voice will help with observing word and character limits, and replacing long words with shorter synonyms will also help with the latter. These are good writing strategies when addressing a wide or general audience in any case, and this tends to be a desirable goal in highlights for a research paper, as does avoiding jargon and highly technical language. Do note, however, that a few journals will want authors to assume an audience of specialist readers for their highlights, in which case the guidelines will probably specify this. Keywords and key phrases are often encouraged in highlights, but nonstandard abbreviations are best avoided and must be spelled out when first used if they prove necessary. Highlights are usually written in full sentences even when they are presented as bullet points, and it is essential to write clearly and correctly if you wish to communicate effectively with potential readers and hold out the prospect of an excellent paper, so errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation and logic must be eliminated. A logical approach to highlights that begins with clarifying the nature of the research, proceeds with clear statements about the most important results and finishes with outlining the paper’s contribution to the field will generally prove successful.

Keeping both your readers and your research firmly in mind as you write your highlights is vital. Simplifying language and tucking everything you need to say into short and engaging highlights can lead to oversimplifying or exaggerating research findings, especially since the highlights must stand alone without any of the explanations, nuances and complications offered in the main paper. It is therefore imperative to give your highlights serious thought, ensuring that they accurately represent for readers the primary or most exciting results presented in your paper, and also that the paper itself lays emphasis on the findings prioritised in your highlights. For this reason, highlights are best drafted after the paper is written, and some authors will even go back after the highlights are written and revise their papers to achieve a clearer focus on the highlighted results. The process of writing appropriate highlights can therefore enable effective editing and help an author produce a better paper. However you choose to work at writing the highlights for your academic or scientific paper, remember that they will probably be the first thing after the title that a prospective reader encounters and they may even appear in the journal’s table of contents, so you want your highlights to make the best possible impression and lead readers to a paper that lives up to their claims.

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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.

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