Scientific English is used in many different situations and places; however, none is more visible than in scientific articles. There are many types of scientific articles: short and to the point, long and extremely detailed, and everything in between.
What are the different types? What kind of information does each one have? Why should I write one type instead of another? We are going to explore all these questions and more:
Before we get into the different types of publications, the first thing we need to know is what a “manuscript” is. A manuscript (in Scientific English) is a scientific article. It could be published, unpublished, one you are writing now, one you wrote in the past, or one you wrote half of and then forgot about. “Manuscript” is just the generic word for “scientific paper”. Usually, the term “manuscript” is used for something that isn’t published yet. When you are still performing experiments and begin to write the first words that will be in your article, this is the start of your “manuscript”.
Types of Scientific Articles
If you look at 5 different journals, you may see that they call the different types of manuscripts 5 different things. The names of the article types may vary but generally, they look similar to this:
- Original Research
- Rapid Communications
- Review Articles
- (Clinical) Case Studies
- Clinical Trials
- Book Review
- Technical Reports (Data)
- Technical Reports (Methods)
Original research papers also called “research articles” or just simply “articles”, are the most common type of scientific publication. These are the ones you are probably familiar with if you have ever read a scientific article. These articles have full introduction, methods, results and conclusions sections – there are no sections missing.
While the exact format of the article depends on the journal, most original research articles are between 3,000 and 6,000 words, although some can be as long as 12,000 words (depending mostly on the field and the journal). The number of pages also varies from journal to journal. Some have a word length; others have a page length. Nature for example doesn’t let you go over 6 pages for most papers or over 8 pages for biological papers.
The goal of an original research article is to (you may have guessed already) present original research. This is the research that you do in the lab, in the field, with colleagues or by yourself. However you contribute to your field, this is the type of article that shows that contribution.
The average publication time depends greatly on the journal and their publication process. However an average “average time” is about 3-4 months from submission to publication.
A rapid communication (or short communication) article is (as you may have guessed), shorter than an original research article. These types of articles only have absolutely essential information. There is usually very little or even no introduction. In that case, the abstract or even the title may have that function.
The goal of a rapid communication is to inform the scientific community very quickly about something. A good example is the coronavirus pandemic. Scientists published many rapid communications so the scientific and medical communities could come up with a response.
Authors publish rapid communications for a number of reasons. Editors might want to highlight research in a certain field, authors might want to be the first to publish in an up-and coming or highly competitive field, and scientists who work in industry may publish about how scientific discoveries can be useful or be the basis for a product that they work with.
Like original research articles, short communications come in many shapes and sizes, depending on the journal. Usually, these are between 1,500 and 4,000 words and usually only a couple of pages with very few (if any) figures.
Because these are much shorter, the average publication time is also much shorter – about 1.5 to 2 months depending on the journal.
This is the holy grail for students – review articles. Review articles or literary review articles are comprehensive summaries of a field of research. They often include information on the current state of the field, analysis and comparison of methods/results/conclusions and recommended ways forward. Most importantly, they regularly use more than 100+ primary sources.
There are three types of reviews: literary reviews (further types: primary and secondary), systematic reviews, and meta analyses. Literary reviews look at original research papers (primary) or other publications and reviews (secondary). Systematic reviews use scientific publications to review a premise question/methods/materials/experiments/quality/etc. Meta analyses aim to make a determination in an “unclear” field. An example is whether taking vitamin C when you have a cold has any effect.
Unlike the previous types of publications, where an author submits there work to a journal for publication, editors usually invite specific authors to submit reviews. The authors they invite are usually leaders in their fields. As a result they are very knowledgeable already, which is essential as review articles can often be very long and involved.
So why would an author accept such a task? Unlike original research and short communication articles, reviews are almost always widely read and highly cited works. For many scientists who need high-profile articles for their career, an invitation to write a review is exactly what they want.
(Clinical) Case Study
A case study (or clinical case study for medical/clinical trials) focuses on specific phenomena (in medicine, often a single patient) that the author things other scientists should know about. Case studies go into great depth about the situation, possible causes that led to the phenomenon/phenomena and any impact that this may have on the field. As a result, the format varies widely depending on the field and the journal. However they have one thing in common: it is extremely detailed (where possible). This usually means it can also be very long, especially for clinical case studies.
In medicine, clinical case studies are often used to report emerging diseases. Some example sections of a case study include:
- Case Introduction
- Presenting Complaints
- Case Conceptualization (emphasis on clinician’s thinking and treatment selection)
- Theoretical and Research Basis for Treatment
- Course of Treatment and Assessment of Progress
- Complicating Factors (including medical management)
- Access and Barriers to Care
- Follow-Up (how and how long)
- Treatment Implications of the Case
- Recommendations to Clinicians and Students
Clinical trial report
If you take a clinical case study and multiply it by either all the patients in a clinical trial or all of the arms (= groups of patients), you get a clinical trial report. Rather than focusing on just one phenomenon, you describe absolutely everything. What was the difference in the arms? How many people did you start with in each group? What were the inclusion criteria? What were the exclusion criteria? How many people were still available at the end of the trial? What were the variations between the arms in the trial? Did any patients react differently from others in their arm? Did the arms react the same?
There are a lot of questions that need to be answered as well as describing the trial procedures, identification and selection processes, discussing any anomalies, etc. As a result, these are some of the long documents you will ever have to read if you are in the medical field.
Just like you might have done in school, a book review is when an author reads a book by a scientists and then comments on/analyses it. The focus depends on the book in question.
Book reviews are often very short and have a brief commentary and analysis of the books analysis. “Yes, I agree with the author because I think their methods make sense and it seems like the right answer to me.” Usually book reviews are similar in style and length to a short communication.
Comments (elaborate, criticise or correct previously published articles) and replies (author’s responses to comments) are also very similar to short communications. They usually are very short documents (maximum 2 pages). It is almost like the written social network – with comments, replies and replies to replies.
Sometimes you will find articles called technical reports. Rather than focusing on a research question, these focus on how research is done. There are two types:
Technical reports that focus on methods usually describe new analytical or experimental methods or improvements on old ones. This can also include using new algorithms or new computer programs/programming. These methods then focus on comparing the new method with an older, well-established method. An example is PCR vs quantitative PCR.
Technical reports may be independent documents or may be an appendix to an original research article. This depends mostly on the journal and if they allow appendices. If they don’t, authors may publish the technical report separately.
Technical reports that focus on methods are usually only a few pages in length. Since the goal is to establish a new method, authors compare it with the older method. Since the older method is already well established, these reports do not need to go into much detail about them. Instead the focus is the new method and how it compares to the old method. Unlike original research articles, the focus is not on the data obtained but rather how they got it.
Whereas original research articles focus on the new science gained from the experiments and use data to support those claims, data technical reports focus on the data itself. Usually they have information about data, such as why and how it was taken, how it was analysed, applied, etc. The focus is the data, not the interpretation.
The length of these technical reports depends greatly on the amount of data in the set(s) and the journal restrictions. These can be very short or very long if allowed. Like method technical reports, authors often publish data technical reports to support an original research article.
Want to learn more about Scientific English? You can find some more articles here. If you want to see more information about what goes in each part of an article, you can read that here: Parts of a Scientific Manuscript.