The process of moving from idea to published manuscript can be a daunting one. Here we break that process into a series of steps designed to make this essential task more manageable. Our list has been modified and expanded from a list provided by the Council of Biological Editors, 1968. If 20 steps are too many to manage, focus on the 13 steps that we have marked with an asterisk (*) – these cannot be skipped!
Determine the authors. When designing a research project, we recommend preparing an initial list and order of authors. Such a list of authors should be based on established guidelines and should make explicit the estimated contribution of each individual to the project. We recommend that every research group establish and make known to its members the criteria for authorship on papers resulting from the work to be conducted. In so doing, the group may wish to make use of existing guidelines; see our essay on “Components of a Research Article” (Fischer and Zigmund, 2004).
A list of authors will ensure that all individuals to be involved in the project understand at the outset whether or not they can expect to be an author and, if so, what their contribution is to be. It should be viewed as a tentative list, as the final version should reflect actual contributions to the work. (Also, there may be more than one list as it might be anticipated that more than one paper will derive from a given project.)
Start writing before the experiments are complete. Start writing while you are still doing the experiments. Writing often evokes new ideas: you may realize that there are additional experiments to run or additional controls that you need to add. If you wait until you are done in the lab, have dismantled the equipment, and possibly moved on to another position, you will not have the opportunity to test these ideas.
Decide it is time to publish. It is time to publish when your findings represent a complete story (or at least a complete chapter), one that will make a significant contribution to the scientific literature. Simply collecting a given amount of data is not adequate.
Draft a title & abstract. Drafting a working title and an abstract helps define the contents of the paper, identifying which experiments you will publish in this paper, and which studies you will save for inclusion in another paper. (See our “Components of a Research Article” on the preparation of these two items.)
(Re)examine the list of authors. When you have now determined which experiments will be included in this paper you must select the authors and the order in which they will appear. If you have followed our advice to this point, you already have such a list. Reevaluate it based on the contributions that were made to those experiments and the additional contributions that will be made through the preparation of the manuscript. If a list already exists, make adjustments to ensure compliance with your guidelines. Of course, any changes should be done with caution and tact.