A Quick-Start Guide to Editing Research Papers
  • 6-minute read
  • 23rd February 2023

A Quick-Start Guide to Editing Research Papers


Proofreading/editing research papers comes with a number of additional considerations. These are documents with a particular structure and register, and writing for academia involves adhering to various conventions. If you don’t have a background in writing/editing research papers and are unfamiliar with these conventions, take some time to read this quick guide, which will point you in the right direction.

The abstract

Following the title, the first thing you’ll generally see in a research paper is an abstract. This is basically a summary of the paper. It allows the reader to get an overall picture of what the study is about, how it was conducted, and what its main conclusions are. Some things to note:

  • The abstract should predominantly be in the present tense; however, if actual results or observations are reported, these can be in the past tense.
  • The abstract may or may not have sub-headings related to the different sections of the paper. This is fine, and not something you need to worry about in general. The exception may be if you have been asked to follow the guidelines of a specific journal, in which case you should check that the way the abstract is presented fits the guidelines and alert the author if it does not.
  • The abstract may or may not be followed by keywords. As above, this is usually fine, but you may need to check if you’re working to specific journal guidelines. In this case, if keywords are missing, don’t add them—just alert the author to the omission. Ensure consistency in the punctuation and capitalisation of the keywords. Full terms, rather than abbreviations, should be used as keywords.
  • When it comes to acronyms/initialisms in the abstract itself, treat it as a separate document. In other words, no abbreviation is needed if the term is only used once in the abstract, and any acronyms/initialisms given in the abstract must be introduced again the first time they are used in the main body of the paper.

Tense use throughout the paper

How tense is used in a research paper, depends on which section we’re dealing with, but also on what the sentence is referring to. Some basic guidelines are given below.

  • Introduction and literature review—present tense (Smith and Jones (2020) note that…)
  • Methods—past tense (The participants completed the survey instrument…)
  • Results—generally past tense (There was a significant increase in the level of…)
  • Discussion—If summarizing findings, past tense may be used, but if discussing the significance of the findings, use present tense. Future tense may be used for future research recommendations.
  • Figures/tables—refer to these in present tense.
  • Avoid sudden, unwarranted tense shifts, especially within sections/paragraphs.


Research papers often contain a lot of abbreviations, so some things to remember:

  • An abbreviation is not needed if the term only appears once.
  • On first use, the full term should appear followed by the abbreviation in parenthesis.
  • Do not add missing full terms/abbreviations unless you are 100% sure they are correct. Even then, leave a comment asking the author to confirm your addition.
  • Abbreviated forms should not generally be used in table/figure captions or table/figure legends.
  • Abbreviated forms should not be introduced for the first time in headings.

Names of organisms, genes and proteins

There are conventions for the Latin genus and species names of organisms (Lactobacillus acidophilus, Homo sapiens, Ursus deningeri, etc.).

  • They should always be italicized. 
  • The genus name should always have a capital letter, even when used without the species name, i.e., “Many Canis species display traits similar to…”
  • After the first use, the abbreviated version of the name should be used (L. acidophilus, H. sapiens, U. deningeri, etc.)

For genes and proteins, use the full name on first use, followed by the symbol in parenthesis. Use the symbol thereafter. The symbols for genes should be italicized, but the symbols for proteins should not. If there appears to be inconsistency, and you are unsure whether something relates to a gene or a protein, leave a comment rather than making changes. 

There are complex conventions relating to which letters in a gene symbol are capitalized. Unless you really know your stuff, if you see inconsistency, alert the author with a comment rather than effecting changes yourself.


There are various conventions in academic writing about what should and should not be italicized.

Do italicize:

  • Latin genus and species names (Canis lupus, Panthera leo, Escherichia coli, etc.)
  • variables represented by an English letter. (P-value, t-test, etc.)
  • the abbreviated names of genes (HTT, AFP, etc.)

Do not italicize:

  • variables using Greek letters
  • the abbreviated or full names of proteins
  • common Latin terms, such as in vivo, in vitro and et al.

Units of measurement

Measurements are also common in research papers. The bare essentials are given below.

  • Do include spaces between numerals and units (e.g., 5 nM).
  • Do not repeat units in a list (e.g., 20, 40, and 60 kg).
  • Do not add spaces between numerals and symbols (e.g., °C and %).
  • Do repeat symbols in a list (e.g., 74ºC, 85ºC, and 100ºC).
  • Watch for consistency in the capitalisation of unit symbols. If you’re not sure whether a symbol should be upper or lower case, leave a comment.

Citations and references

Pay attention to how citations (and references if they are to be worked on) are presented and whether this fits the referencing system you have been asked to work to. We won’t go into details here, but be sure you are familiar with how citations and references should be formatted in a given referencing system or have a reference guide open to refer to.

Use the style guide

We’ve highlighted some of the particular conventions when it comes to research papers, but the information here is not exhaustive, and is intended only to draw your attention to potential issues if you’re unfamiliar with the genre. Always consult the appropriate style guide in detail when working on research papers.

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