Formatting scientific research papers

Why does research paper formatting matter?

Whether you are a graduate student, undergraduate, or postdoctoral researcher, you probably loathe formatting your research papers and journal articles. Academic journals require specific, exacting standards of manuscript preparation, as do academic conferences and symposiums. As such, most science professors expect the same high standards from their own students, to help prepare them for future work as a professional scientist.

But research papers aren’t just held to a high formatting standard in order to drive you crazy. Formatting ensures that all journal articles and research papers are laid out in a uniform and readable way, when they are printed and bound for distribution. Formatting also ensures that tables and figures retain their structure and layout, so that they remain easily interpretable, making it easy for the reader to look up data points. Finally, having a consistent structure makes journal articles and research papers easier to navigate. If every paper followed a unique, idiosyncratic format, it would be a struggle to read each and every single one.

So while it may be an immense pain to format your manuscript, all the effort is ultimately worth it. A properly formatted paper is easy to read and looks professional. It is more likely to be shared, cited, and accepted for publication. But how do you actually format your paper correctly? Here is some advice.

Use section breaks to create section-specific formatting rules

Most formatting guides require different pagination for the front matter (title page, table of contents, abstract, and list of figures) than for the main body of the text (the chapters and body text). Some formatting guides even require that the pagination style is different on the first page of each chapter, compared to the rest of the chapter pages. If you are unfamiliar with Microsoft word’s formatting settings, this can be an absolute nightmare to navigate.

To set up a document with multiple sets of inconsistent formatting rules, insert section breaks into your paper. Each chapter, title page, appendix, reference list, and table should get its own section. After inserting section breaks throughout your paper, click on the headers and deselect the “link to previous” option. This will allow you to edit one section without those changes influencing the other sections. Do this throughout the document. Then you can begin editing each section according to the prescribed rules. Make sure to print out your final document before submitting it, as it is easier to check hard copies for formatting errors.