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Writing Scientific Papers


  • Typical Structure of a Scientific Paper
  • Audience: Who will be reading your paper?
  • Writing Style
  • The Five Key Points in Your Scientific Paper
  • How the Five Points Map Into your Paper Structure
  • Common Mistakes
  • Reviewing Scientific Papers: Key Roles of a Reviewer
  • More Information for Getting the Details Right
  • Next Project: Review an Introduction

Typical Structure of a Scientific Paper

Abstract This section is key - it's a mini-summary of your paper, intended to allow others to decide whether your work is relevant to their work (and whether they should read on).
Introduction Overall context of the work, short summary of related work and a presentation of the motivation for the work - the problems that are to be addressed.
Related work Relatively dry discussion of prior work and how it is inadequate in addressing the problems that your idea addresses.
Contribution Your idea. This is the topic of the paper. Describe it as clearly as you can.
Evaluation How do you make sure your idea is a good one? How do you convince others that it's a great idea?
Results Present the results so that they support the claims made throughout - and support the idea that your idea (the topic of the paper) is worth publication.
Discussion Optional section - sometimes things that didn't fit anywhere else, but really belong in that paper.
Conclusion This is the conclusion you draw from the work, as presented in the paper. Based on what has been said in this paper, what conclusions can you draw? This is often a semi-summary of the paper.

Audience: Who will be reading your paper?

Ask before you start your research This will determine your research context, experimental paradigm and the emphasis or slant you choose for your work.
This is especially important if you are working in interdisciplinary research or on projects that can appeal to more than one scientific community.
Ask again before you start writing your paper Select the journal / conference first
Do a background search on papers recently published there, to verify that your background section and description of work fits into their context (less important for journals).

Writing Style

Pick your style - be consistent !
The fewer words the better Occam's razor works here: As few words as possible, but not fewer (to paraphrase Einstein).
A scientific paper must be clear and consistent - there may be no way around being “dry”, compared to e.g. creative writing. Your exciting research subject should make up for it.
Clear sentence structure
First person vs. third person Pick your style - be consistent!
A scientific paper is an argument A paper presents arguments for a certain state of the world being true. This goes for all papers, including exploratory ones. There is always an argument. Try to make that argument as strong as possible and you will be on your way to a good paper.
A scientific paper tells a story A story requires that the things described in it are connected: One thing leads to another. The same goes for scientific papers. The human mind has an easier time grasping things that follow logically. If you can't fit everything in the same paper (without making it disconnected or too long) write two papers - or a book.
Acronyms Avoid them as much as possible. Don't forget to explain what acronyms mean: NASA (National Aeronautics & Space Administration).

The Five Key Points in Your Scientific Paper

What is your topic and why is the topic worth studying? Present the context and motivation for your work.
What's your contribution? Scientists are interested in your ideas (the “meat” of your paper). What are you working on? What is your key contribution / idea?
Remember, the main emphasis is for the particular paper - do not explain the point of a multi-year research program in a single paper (in any detail), just the point of the material presented in the paper itself.
Why is your contribution important? To understand your ideas they will need some background (context in the form of motivations, related work).
How does your work build on what came before? What does it add?
Can it be believed? To evaluate and understand your ideas they want to see results of evaluations (results).
Can your results be trusted? To understand the results you need to explain how you got them (experimental setup).

How the Five Points Map Into your Paper Structure

Topic and motivation Abstract (1-2 sentences)
What's your contribution? Abstract (2-5 sentences)
Introduction (briefly)
Technology / Topic description
Why is your contribution important? Abstract (1 sentence)
Motivation paragraph/section (often part of introduction, sometimes its own short section)
Can it be believed? Results section
Can your results be trusted? Experimental setup / Evaluation sections

Common Mistakes

Writing to a particular person (e.g. your instructor) If you are a fiction writer, it may work to write to your mother or lover, but scientific papers are always addressed to a group.
Not following standard templates or guidelines Most conferences and journals have a standard format and provide templates. Follow the templates!
Formatting the references wrong Before you decide that your reference style is the most convenient/easiest to read/easiest to set up/best looking, know what conventions you are breaking!
To know what conventions you are breaking you must learn the conventions (this can take years).
Not letting the material drive the layout and flow of the paper If you have answered the question about what your contribution is up front, your material will suggest a certain layout and flow. (Remember, a scientific paper is an argument - it's almost like a lawyer arguing in court.) Try to follow that flow as much as possible. If you try to cram material into a format where it won't fit you will end up with a paper that is difficult to read (i.e. a bad paper).
Not connecting the major points in your paper by a the necessary A-follows-B logic The only way the human mind can comprehend things is when there is a logical relationship between phenomena and events. Make sure there is a story in your paper.

Reviewing Scientific Papers: Key Roles of a Reviewer

Highlight the paper's strengths When reviewing, it is always important to note a paper’s strengths, so that the author will not lose these in the process of revision.
The author often forgets the big picture This happens because it is easy to forget oneself in all the details that have to be right.
Point out how the paper could be organized differently to better convey its topic.
Select well what you criticize Make sure the comments you write are about things that really make a diffierence.
Think like an advisor Try to turn negative comments into helpful comments.

More Information for Getting the Details Right

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