Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

Writing meaningful Highlights in scientific papers

One novelty in scientific papers in the last decade was Elsevier’s introduction of highlights. Are authors paying sufficient attention to highlights writing?

 

Highlights are 3 to 5 short sentences containing core findings of the research described in the paper. Highlights are available only online with the purpose of driving a person’s attention toward reading the paper. Therefore, when we’re invited to review a paper, the core findings are one of the first things we need to review and … what a mess!

Instead of core findings we read a short version of the title, operating conditions, etc. It’s like we’re reading an abstract divided into short sentences. So I wondered, is it possible to find guidelines to write more meaningful highlights by ourselves, instead of paying someone else to do it for us?

I find highlights a very important step in scientific articles. Thus, these are my 6 “Highlights” for writing more meaningful highlights based on experience, Journals’ recommendations and the little advice we can find in the web.

1. Understand Highlights Meaning

When I read the highlights in a paper I review, my first question was –  “do authors understand what highlights mean?”

I think if authors realized how important highlights are, they would pay a lot more attention to them. Besides the title, highlights are the first thing a person reads while searching the web for any publications in a certain field. It’s my opportunity as an author, or co-author, to capture someone attention to read my research.

Things are changing in the scientific articles publishing industry, and there is a movement toward the relevance of having more “reads” of your paper, rather than publishing in high impact factor journals.

If you understand what highlights may represent in leading people to read your paper then you realize how important it is to know their meaning.

According to Elsevier, the publisher which introduced highlights, these convey the core findings and provide readers with a quick textual overview of the article. Highlights describe the essence of the research (e.g. Results, conclusions) and highlight what is distinctive about it.

Core Findings.

Quick overview.

The essence of research. 

These are the keywords to understand highlights meaning. The challenge is how to express them in sentences shorter than a tweet…

2. Clear view of the nature of your research

When details in our research work are challenging, we tend to focus our writing describing them. Details are important, especially if challenging, because someone else might want to reproduce your experience and needs those details. But the details of your thought process, or experiments are not the nature of your research. Therefore, they shouldn’t be highlights.

The nature of your research is your WHY.

What is the ultimate question your research is trying to answer?

Why are you researching on a certain topic in the first place?

What drives your research?

Some topics are easier than others, but having a clear view of the WHY in your research is essential for writing meaningful highlights.

3. Realize people know little about your topic

I remember speaking to a small audience and feel I’m not making myself understood. This is a common flaw. Even if you have one, two or more experts in your field in front of you, when presenting an article at a conference, you should always assume there’s someone in the audience who is not an expert in your field. And when you prepare your presentation, you are speaking to this person, not the experts.

Highlights audience is the world. Therefore, you are 100% sure people which know little about your topic will read your highlights. You must write to them. 

This is a major challenge because, ideally, you should be able to express the complexity of your topic in simple, clear and concise words. A way to test these highlights is asking a friend from another field for an opinion.

4. Evidence your contribution in the field

I struggle when people literally waste their highlights with things that don’t provide the nature of their research or evidence their contribution. Let me give you an example. 

If I write 

“a hollow-cone spray is used in an impinging process occurring on a flat surface”

Why is this a highlight? Actually, this is close to what I read recently in a paper I reviewed. In all research about impinging sprays, isn’t it logical this impingement occurs in a surface? Why is this a highlight? The surface can be flat, curved, dried, wetted, structured or not, but this sentence does not explain the nature of research, nor expresses any contribution in the field. 

If we wanted to change this sentence to something more meaningful, it could be 

“Hollow-cone sprays in cooling processes address heterogeneities in temperature field.” 

The sentence is not perfect, but it has 85 characters (after 2 iterations) and contains the nature of research. It introduces the type of sprays; if they’re used in cooling processes, it means their impact on a surface is logical; and it states the purpose of that impact, which is cooling the surface and addressing heterogeneities in temperature fields, thus pointing to the challenge. Let me repeat, this is not a perfect example, but illustrates what I mean.

Another example where a small change can make a difference, at least from my viewpoint. Again, close to what I’ve read recently.

“The effect of drop dynamics, surface temperature and spray height on the liquid film formed after spray impact.”

First, it’s too long, so it needs to be shorten. But it contains what’s included in the paper’s scope, when the journal requires the core findings. Suppose the authors found these three parameters produced an effect on the outcome, a small change can resolve the issue,

“Drop dynamics, surface temperature and spray height affects liquid film formation.”

While the highlight in the first example contextualised the reader, spray cooling involves the formation of liquid films. And through this highlight, the reader knows which parameters affect the outcome and, if interested, he will read the paper to know how.

5. Be clear, concise, and go straight to the point

A non-negligible number of papers I reviewed doesn’t pay much attention to the 85 characters limitation. It forces us to seek clarity in our statements. Be concise in the words used to convey meaning. And go straight to the point because that’s what highlights are for, right? Lead the potential reader to make a quick assessment whether he should read the paper or not.

A good exercise is to distance yourself from your paper. Put yourself in the reader shoes and be critical. Would you read this paper about a topic in your field with these highlights?

6. Use simple terms

This is probably the greatest challenge. But it is important to understand what we mean by simple terms. Some research topics involve words which are not simple because their part of the lexical used in the field. Simple terms come naturally when we have a mature and clear view of our main breakthroughs.

Highlights help you refine the message in your research, evidencing only what really matters. And when we express what matters in simple terms, a reader should experience clarity and the desire to know more. 

These reflections are not exhaustive and I hope these “guidelines” motivated you to be more careful in writing meaningful highlights.

QUESTION: Are there any other suggestions, based on your experience, that would help authors write more meaningful Highlights?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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