Uncommon Ground

A few thoughts on how to structure a scientific paper

I mentioned last week that I’m reading Williams & Bizup, Style: The Basics of Style and Grace. Yesterday I came across this very succinct advice for the early stages of writing a paper and thinking about how to structure it.

When you plan a paper, look for a question that is small enough to answer but is also connected to a question large enough for you and your readers to care about.

If you’re a scientist and writing a paper,1 you already have the data and most or all of the statistical analyses done. So the “look for a question” part has to happen twice in writing a scientific paper.2 You need to “look for a question that is small enough to answer but is also connected to a question large enough for you and your readers to care about” before you begin collecting data. Then you need to collect data that will answer that question.

Science being what it is,3 after you’ve collected the data you’ll find that there are data you couldn’t collect that you wanted to collect4 and there are data you collected that you didn’t anticipate collecting. In writing the paper you now have to look at the data you have in hand, identify a question that the data in hand can answer that is connected to a larger, interesting question, and (this is the hard part) write the paper using only the data that answer that larger, interesting question. If you’re like me, you5 will have collected other data that don’t fit in this paper. That doesn’t mean they’re useless, and it doesn’t mean you should discard them. It merely means that they’re not useful for this paper. With any luck you’ll find that they are useful for another paper that you’ll write in the future.

  1. Or at least if you’re a scientist like me and writing a paper.
  2. Or at least it has to happen twice if you’re me.
  3. Or at least science being what it is in the way that I do it.
  4. Especially if your research involves work in the field.
  5. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to point out that I almost never collect data myself. It’s my students and collaborators who collect the data. Even when I’m in the field, I mostly hold the field notebook and write down the measurements someone else is making. I rarely make the measurements myself. The closest I usually come to collecting data myself is collecting samples from which someone else derives data.

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