7 common mistakes to avoid in a research article: editor’s and reviewer’s perspective

Want to know how to get your research article published? I share my editorial and reviewer experience on the common mistakes in research papers.

Publishing your research can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially at the very beginning of your academic career. It is because of the pressure that you may experience from your supervisor, peers and even yourself to publish your work in top journals.

Although most of us actively work towards more productive and supportive work environment, the “publish or perish” culture is still there. A change for the better needs time. I’m sure you’ll play an important role in it. In the meantime, you still need to disseminate your research to build your academic profile.

As you could read in the ebook that Magda and I put together, the opportunities to share your research are endless – mostly limited by your imagination. However, publishing your research in the form of a research article is still recognised as the most viable way of sharing your work.

It is mostly because your research will be:

  • peer-reviewed by experts in your field before it’s published
  • associated with a recognised journal in your field, gaining additional quality recognition
  • shared with the existing research community, gaining immediate visibility

These are just a few reasons why papers are still perceived as the best outlet for your research. And, of course, the quality of your research articles and the rank of the journals will help you become an internationally recognised expert in your research field.

However, with the pressure to deliver your project on time and publish high-quality research articles in prestigious journals, small mistakes may creep into your writing. It may result in your paper being rejected. It’s something that we all want to avoid – believe me, I know how difficult it’s to see your work being rejected.

But what if I told you that there’re some common mistakes in writing research articles that are fairly easy to avoid?

Having reviewed more than 150 manuscripts as the peer reviewer at Nature, Elsevier and American Chemical Society, and Editor at Wiley, I observed that there are 7 common mistakes that result in a rejection or a major revision if you’re lucky.

I thought I’d share these with you so that you can avoid these common issues, improve the quality of your writing, and get your research articles accepted in top journals!

Writing literature review for your research paper and research article takes lots of time to be done properly

#1 Literature review is not sufficiently thorough, confusing or outdated

A literature review is a crucial part of a research article. It provides the context for your work and helps the reader understand the state-of-the-art in your research area. It should explicitly specify the rationale for your work.

So what seems to be the most common issues with a literature review?

Well, in my experience, I can tell that the most common issue is that the literature review is too vague. It means that it doesn’t include enough detail to give the reader the full picture of the most important ideas and context to the paper. For example, you may only briefly explain the key trends in your research area and refer to a group of papers. It doesn’t provide a sufficient level of detail as each of these papers made a different contribution.

It doesn’t mean you’ve got to write extremely long literature reviews in your research papers. Select only the KEY papers that will accurately represent the current state-of-the-art and provide a strong rationale for your research.

Another issue with the literature review is that it’s confusing. What it means that it doesn’t read well, there’s no logical flow of information or even information not relevant to your work. Make sure that you refer to papers that are relevant to your work, support your arguments and ideas, or present relevant counterarguments that you want to tackle in your work.

Last but not least, the fundamental issue with the literature review is that it includes outdated sources. When I was writing my very first literature review for a research article, I was told that one should only use sources from the last 3-5 years. I’d argue that we should rather focus on sources from the last 2-3 years, considering the current pace of the development across a broad spectrum of research fields. However, here are some exceptions! If you refer to a concept that was introduced much earlier and not discussed since, or if you want to refer to the origin of a specific idea, then it’s OK to use older references.  

#2 Rationale and motivation for the research is not clear

The literature review in the research article has another, very important role. It provides the reader with a sufficient understanding of the research area to understand the rationale and motivation for your research study.

If the literature review isn’t thorough and/or clear enough, then your reader may be confused about why your study is important. And remember the first reader of your work is usually the editor and your peers who review your work. It’s up to them to decide whether your research article will be published in the specific journal.

Therefore, to make their life easier and increase your chance of getting published, ask yourself a question “why this research is important” when writing your literature review. Make sure it clearly comes across in your final draft.

writing research paper can be exciting - find the best place to do this

#3 Novelty 

This one is a true paper killer to which you need to pay attention when writing your research article. If you don’t present the novelty of your research in your research article, then you may be more than certain that your work will be rejected from any respected journal.

The main reason why we publish our academic work is that we created or enhanced our understanding of specific phenomena, concept or idea. We contributed something new to the existing body of research. And we need to be able to explain it to the others concisely and clearly.

And it can be a difficult thing to do, believe me.

Why? Because you’ve spent so much time doing your research and analysing your results that the main idea of your work became obvious to you.

We all tend to assume that others see the world and have the same understanding of things as we do. But this is not the case.

To clearly explain the novelty of your work, write it down in 1-3 sentences. Get really down to what is your contribution and state it explicitly in your research article. That’s it.  

#4 Structure of the paper is confusing

Unless otherwise stated in the guidance for authors, which I strongly advise you to read before you submit your work to any journal, most of the journals follow the same structure and include the 5 common parts:

  • Introduction
  • Methods and Materials
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusions

If your manuscript doesn’t include any of these sections, your readers will miss the key piece of information that will help them fully understand your work. I know this seems simple, but you’d be surprised how many papers I reviewed that didn’t include proper discussion section.

#5 Methods not explained clearly or sufficiently 

A methods and materials section of your paper is crucial for the readers to understand how you did your research.

The main challenge with this section is that it should allow your readers to replicate your work and verify your results. But this isn’t always the case, is it? I bet you’ve read some super confusing papers, and you were asking yourself “how they did this” and “why they did this way” and so on. I get it a lot from my students.

And that’s why I want to encourage you to include the full description of the methods and materials you used in your research, in a way that others can replicate your work.  

writing does not need to be daunting, just make sure you avoid key mistakes

#6 Results are not clearly presented and discussed

As I mentioned above, we write research articles to share new data, results and ideas. One of the key reasons why manuscripts get rejected, or worse published and not cited at all, is that the results are poorly presented and discussed.

The results can be poorly visualised or presented as large, confusing datasets. It means that the research manuscript includes no meaningful discussions of the results, beyond the current state-of-the-art in the specific research area. The discussion may be very vague, stating obvious facts (beware of the word “obvious” in research papers!) and not reflecting on the implications of the results on the current state-of-the-art.

To make sure your research is properly presented and discussed:

  • thoroughly analyse your data and present implications of your research
  • refer back to the data and ideas from the literature review to provide a clear proof of the advancement that you made in your research  

#7 Inconsistent conclusions

Conclusions, right after abstract, is one of the most commonly read part of your research article. It’s because the readers are looking for the key outcomes and conclusions presented in the paper before they decide to read the full paper.

The main mistakes I observed in the manuscripts I reviewed, and ones you should avoid in writing the conclusion section, are:

  • introduction of new data in the conclusion section
  • conclusions not supported with data presented earlier in the manuscript
  • too long conclusion section

Although these issues are unlikely to get your paper immediately rejected, you may improve the perception of the reviewers and editors by including only the main outcomes of your work in the conclusion section.

A final word…

Writing research articles is the main way to share your research. And it may be challenging, especially if you haven’t published before and don’t have sufficient support.

In this article, I shared my take on the key issues and mistakes I noted in research papers as a peer reviewer and editor.

What annoys you most in writing research articles?

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Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

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