Scientific English as a Foreign Language
Answers to Lesson of December 12, 1997
How to Write a Paper II
There are no firm rules about the exact contents of a scientific publication, but the guiding principle is that you should write so as to aid the reader. Think, therefore, how YOU go about looking at a paper. You read the title, look at the figures, read the abstract and conclusions. Then and only then, if you are still interested, you plunge into the text. As a reader, you would like to see 'the story told' in the title, abstract, figures, tables, and conclusions. The text acts only as supplementary material.
In the course of several semesters of laboratory instruction, I have noticed that students are sometimes not aware of the relative roles of the Abstract, Introduction, Discussion, and Conclusion sections of an article. (Theory, Experiment, and Results are obvious.)
An ABSTRACT, along with the title, is entered into literature databases. This is all the information available from a database search. Hence, the Abstract is a distilled version of your paper. It contains the background, rationale, conclusions, and implications of your work.
The INTRODUCTION places your project within the context of societal needs and interests, and with respect to the work of other groups. Try to answer the questions "Why is this study important?" (background) and "Why did we do it the way that we did?" (rationale) For a longer paper, the Introduction will explain the development of your article.
The DISCUSSION compares theory and experiment, explains possible errors, revisits the work of other groups in light of your new results, and mentions possible avenues for future work, in other words, "What are the implications of what you have done?"
The CONCLUSIONS restate the major results. Write the Conclusions as if a reader has read your paper once, filed it away for a year, then wanted a reminder, in more depth than in the abstract, of what your major results were.
A certain Phys Rev referee
Considers all papers with glee:
"What's new is not true,
And what's true is not new,
Unless it was written by me."
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Created April 30, 1998, by Nancy Burnham and Fred Hutson.