2019 09 01 archive

Friday, September 14, 2019

A sin to conclude?

A recent Nature Physics editorial highlights the importance of writing a clear and accessible paper that has a ‘story’. Thus, anything that does not directly add to the story should be either left out, or placed elsewhere (eg, putting details of certain methods or supporting data in Supplementary Information).

They include a few random but useful tips such as avoid clichés, use adjectives judiciously, and do not use the word ‘very’.

To the list of words to avoid I would add:

‘novel’ (almost every paper is describing something new),

‘remarkable’ (a subjective word, often mistakenly used in place of ‘marked’), and

‘paradigm’ (see article by Goodman in BMJ)

The editorial also suggests that conclusions are not always necessary. Quoting an article by Jonathan Shewchuk entitled “Three sins of authors…”, they say that if the conclusions repeat what has been said elsewhere in the paper, they are not needed.

According to the editors at Nature Physics, following the standard rule for presenting an argument in English of “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them” makes for a sloppy paper.

I do not agree. The key to writing a paper that convinces your readers lies in the way they will read and remember a paper.

The deluge of scientific papers means most readers develop an approach to reading articles that allows them to quickly assess whether they should read the whole thing. I will discuss this in a future post, but one of the first things I read is the conclusions of a paper to see if they justify reading the rest. It is a snapshot of the key findings and implications of the work, that I can read in 10 seconds.

Furthermore, a pithy conclusion distills your work into a single nugget of information that the reader is more likely to remember.

The conclusion should also give the key implications of your findings – what do they mean, where are they leading – in a single sentence. Thus, in two or three sentences your reader knows what you found, what it means and where it is going.

One note: avoid stating the obvious “more research is indicated” in the last sentence.

And finally, for a conclusion that quietly suggests the implications of the findings, it is hard to beat that of Watson and Crick’s 1953 Nature paper:

“It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

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