15 Writing papers

On 2020-04-06 I presented at how to write papers using Google Docs. The video and notes mostly highlight these tools including Sciwheel and CrossReference.

Most recently I presented at the LIBD rstats club more ideas behind writing papers. Here are the notes.

15.1 Things to keep in mind

While you’ll want to check those videos and notes, a lot of it comes down to being organized and using the right tool for the job.

In more detail, you’ll want to keep track of software versions as you develop your project so you have the information readily available when you write the methods. You’ll want to use big font sizes and consistent colors across your figures so you don’t have to re-make them later. Once you have a journal in mind, you’ll want to check the guidelines from that journal and potentially use their LaTeX template in Overleaf, although for a general journal, Google Docs works quite well and is easier to use by everyone. With both Overleaf or Google Docs (through the Cross Reference addin), you’ll definitely want to use automatic figure, table, equation, and citation numbers. Doing so will enable you to easily re-arrange your figures/tables/equations/citations and avoid having to manually update all numbers which would be very painful. Most journals will also require that you cite figures and tables in order of appearance and that all supplementary materials are referred to in the main text (introduction, results, discussion sections) or even be linked to a main figure/table. Funding is quite important too, so make sure that you check with all co-authors that all their funding sources are listed. Once the authors are defined, you’ll want to have their email, affiliation name(s), affiliation address(es), and ORCiD so you can fill that information in the journal website 24. Similarly, you and the team will want to think about potential reviewers which involves getting their emails and affiliations.

A paper has a lot of components and you’ll need to check that the information provided is consistent, include small things such as (A) vs (a) in the figures. So it takes a while to write a paper and it’s best to subdivide it into many small tasks so you don’t feel overwhelmed. That way you can check off items off your list. If “write the paper” is the item in your list, it’ll feel like it never ends.

15.2 Writing process

When we start a paper, we like to write bullet points for the different sections or results we want to show, as well as write in text the figures we would like to make. This makes it easier to then write one short paragraph at a time and to grow the paper that way while keeping an overall idea of the flow of the paper in mind.

Editing is also easier to do than writing from scratch. So you can expect to receive edits 25 in the process of writing a paper. Other labs ask the first (co-first) to write a full draft. We prefer to write the paper together, although the lead writers might write most of the first versions for each paragraph while others will mostly edit. Given this style we use, it’s useful to re-read the final draft to make sure that we are consistent throughout the paper. For example, data set vs dataset.

Also, don’t be shy with the methods and supplementary material. Typically, journals allow us to include as many details as we want. That way, you’ll be able to refer back to sections of you paper in the future when people ask you how you did X or Y part of the paper.

In a similar sense, don’t be shy about tagging others in your paper in case you need feedback on a section you just wrote or you need others to help you write. We are a team in the end and are in this together =)

15.3 OneDrive: publication files

In OneDrive 26, use a directory like submission_01 for the first submission as there will be multiple rounds for any paper. Follow this general structure for the publication files:

  • submission_01
    • bioRxiv author information
    • Manuscript: for the PDF/docx version of the manuscript and other files required by the journal such as the table describing software and methods used, the cover letter, etc.
    • Figures: include a directory for every single Figure such that we can keep all files related to that figure in that directory and use Adobe Illustrator to link the different panels together.
      • Name the directory with the same name you use for CrossReference. For example, fig_overview. if overview is the name you use in CrossReference. That makes it easy to remember what are the names you are using in CrossReference.
    • Tables: if the tables are small, consider combining them into a single Excel file where you include one sheet with the table legends. Keep the advice from Karl Broman and Kara Woo in mind (DOI 10.1080/00031305.2017.1375989) when making the table files.
      • In many journals, a table counts the same as a figure in terms of display items. We thus tend to not use tables (only supplementary tables).
    • SupplementaryFigures: similar to Figures, you want to have each directory name to include the CrossReference code used for the figure. See the Mendelay Data example mentioned further below.
    • SupplementaryTables: similar to SupplementaryFigures.
      • If you have related supplementary tables, you could use an Excel file with multiple sheets.
      • Remember to describe all columns, such that others can understand them without absolutely having to send an email asking about the table: you want to minimize getting lots of emails about them! Though of course, getting the occassional email because something wasn’t clear is ok.
  • submission_02
    • Manuscript: revised manuscript, response to reviewers, cover letter, etc.
    • Figures: any revised figures. Sometimes we copy them all if most of them have some modifications or if the numbers changed.
    • Tables: any revised tables, similar to Figures.
    • SupplementaryFigures: similar to Figures.
    • SupplementaryTables: similar to SupplementaryFigures

Unlike version controlled files in GitHub, for all files related to the publication, we will keep multiple copies of them across submission versions.

15.3.1 Examples

See Regional heterogeneity in gene expression, regulation and coherence in hippocampus and prefrontal cortex across development and in schizophrenia. Collado-Torres et al, Neuron, 2019 on Mendeley Data which contains our final Figures/, SupplementaryFigures/ and SupplementaryTables/ directories. We shared all full resolution images as some were large files.

A second example is Figures_Maynard_Collado-Torres_et_al_Nature_Neuroscience_2021.zip that contains the Figures/ and SupplementaryFigures/ directories for that paper. This included large .tiff images with RNAscope results that we thought others might be interested in using at some point, since the versions of the images on the paper itself are not high-resolution enough to extract data from them.

Both Mendeley Data and Figshare give you a DOI that you can refer to in the manuscript of the paper associated with the figures and tables that you are sharing.

15.4 Revisions

When responding to reviewers, make a new Google Doc where the feedback from the reviewers is in bold or some other font, and add placeholders for responses. You can then tag the co-author(s) that can help the most with the response for each point.

As examples, check:

15.5 Details

Here are more details:

  • Title: check character limits.
  • Author list: affiliations numbers have to appear in order.
  • Affiliations: include zip code and country.
  • Abstract / summary: check word limits, don’t include citations.
  • Introduction: motivate the problem we are trying to solve and give an short summary of what we did. Remember to define any acronyms.
  • Results: describe what we found. For how we did things, refer to the appropriate methods section.
  • Discussion: any speculation goes here as well as potential drawbacks to the work we did. You’ll also want to highlight the main results and conclusions from our work.
  • Acknowledgements: information about the donors as well as any requests from consortiums like GTEx.
  • Funding: include full grant IDs and who they supported.
  • Author contributions: use the CRediT contributor roles taxonomy
  • Conflicts of interest: in case any authors worked for companies, list that info here.
  • Figure/table legends: figure/table number and figure/table title should be in bold font. Then the description in plain text. I also like to use (A) instead of (A) whenever the description of a sub-panel begins. Some journals will ask that you also link to all supplementary figure/tables from the main figures. Check also the allowed text length for figure legends.
  • Methods: use sub-sections for the different parts of the work and sort them in order of appearance from the Results section. Use version numbers and a different font style for software / functions to make it easier to identify those words as names of tools. Cite every single software you used! Don’t interpret results here, that should be in the Results section.
  • Data and software availability: link to GitHub and cite using Zenodo which provides DOIs for GitHub repositories as shown in this guide. Note that we start most of our GitHub repositories as private, but we make them public by the time we post a pre-print. You’ll want to have a high quality README.md in your repository that shows how the work should be cited and guides visitors to the different components included in the repository. Several journals will require to you also complete more detailed forms such as this Reporting Summary example from one of our papers.

Finally, feel free to sign up for a Data Science guidance session with anyone in the team that recently wrote a paper.


  1. Note that bioRxiv has an author information template table that you can use.↩︎

  2. Likely using suggestion mode in Google Docs. Also note that both Google Docs and Overleaf allow you to name versions, which makes it easier to refer back to them and compare against them.↩︎

  3. In the past we used Dropbox, but because OneDrive is free through JHU, we switched to it.↩︎

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