by PhilipJ on 12 November 2007
One of the first entries written for this blog over two years ago was on the sad state of writing in the sciences, and, not surprisingly, little has changed. The September issue of Nature Physics went so far as to include a guideline for writing papers (open access, PDF), largely because “so many papers deserve to be better written than they are”. I couldn’t agree more, but I have ended up frustrated with this editorial, and I’ll explain why.
According to Nature Physics, your paper’s title must be succinct and informative, but should also tempt a reader to at least look at the first paragraph. That first paragraph should set the stage for the “story” of your paper, and why that story should be told to begin with. The story of the paper should then underlie the rest of the article’s structure, and overly technical details should be left to the Methods or Supplemental Information sections.
You should explain, not hype! Avoid cliches “like the plague”, and refrain from unnecessary use of adjectives. Be quantitative in lieu of using superlative prefixes (femtosecond instead of ultrashort, and I doubt you really are studying a quantum nanobiological effect).
This is all sound advice, but vanity journals have really only themselves to blame for the overhyping and the near-ubiquitous quantum-, nano-, and bio-fication of (novel!, which they somehow forgot to mention) scientific results.
Furthermore, pushing aside the actual science into the all-too-brief Methods and Supplemental Information sections is rarely helpful. Methods are never complete enough to reproduce an experiment, and in the case of Supplemental Information (which is relegated to an extra file to download)*, often replete with errors. Real science is technical, and I thought that journals like Nature introduced the Editor’s Summaries and News and Views features so that the basic results of a paper could be read and understood by everyone. We either need to find better ways to incorporate those bothersome, technical details (which are the heart of science, in my opinion) into our science papers, or give Methods and Supplemental Information sections their due with proper editing and sufficient detail. Currently, science articles fail at both.
The best advice given in the editorial, however, is on the final paragraph of a paper:
It is commonly advised that a paper should begin by stating what will be said, continue by saying what is to be said, and then conclude by summarizing what has been said. This is bad advice that recommends lazy composition. Conclusions are not mandatory, and those that merely summarize the preceding results and discussion are unnecessary (and, for publication in Nature Physics, will be edited out). Rather, the concluding paragraphs should offer something new to the reader.
They go on to quote Jonathan Shewchuk:
“Here’s a simple test: if somebody reads your conclusions before reading the rest of your paper, will they fully understand them? If the answer is ‘yes’, there’s probably something wrong. A good conclusion says things that become significant after the paper has been read. A good conclusion gives perspective to sights that haven’t yet been seen at the introduction. A conclusion is about the implications of what the reader has learned.”
This in particular is something I will strive to follow in my own writing, and is by far the best advice of the day. Abstracts already play the role of brief accounts of the paper, conclusions shouldn’t be another repetition.
Unfortunately, the editorial didn’t link to what it considers to be some prime examples of well written science, a real shame given that being able to write a good science paper will only come to a new author after reading lots of well written science papers. If anyone has any examples of particularly well written papers, please share them in the comments!
* I’d like to know the relative number of downloads a supplemental information file gets compared to its parent article!