Monday, November 10, 2008

Paper sections, hunh, what are they good for?

Phew, it took a helluva lotta time, but the twin attention grabbers of finishing/submitting our manuscript and then the U.S. election have finally subsided. And that's good, because I was going crazy, first obsessing over the details of the paper, and then the daily election polls.

Working on the paper made me realize that I am simply crazy about some things. Like, I'll argue six ways from Sunday against abbreviations, which any sane person would just let go of. And that there are some aspects of a paper that I will work for hours upon end to reach some personal Platonic ideal, whereas there are others that I couldn't care less about. That made me think more about the goals and importance each section in a paper (e.g. Abstract, Intro, etc.). Coincidentally, today Female Science Professor posted about Introductions.

It made me wonder how other people rank the importance of paper sections. For me, I would put it as follows:

  • Figures. It's the data stupid! Figures have to look good, and embody the points you want to make. I love it when a good figure whallops me with its significance. I'll admit that this is damn hard, and I can't be sure my own figures always meet this criterion. And, it's not simply the visual design of the figure; it's also a combination of experimental design, clarity of the data themselves, and the placement within the flow of the argument. This is perhaps obviously the part I spend the most time and effort on.
  • Abstract. I put this here, even though typically the amount of time and effort spent writing the abstract isn't terribly large. But it's so important IMO for two reasons: first, it's indexed in PubMed, so beyond the keywords, this is a place to put terms you think your target audience will be searching. Second, it's a place to put the one or two take home messages that you want the reader to come away with. Something short and sweet that will stay identified with your paper, perhaps a nice number indicating the size of your effect.
  • Results. Speaking as a reader, I may not always fully read this section, but if and when I do turn to it to evaluate one of your experimental findings, it'd better be super clear. Usually I want to know why. Why did you actually do this experiment? Sure, it might be obvious to the authors, but it's not always to the reader. So tell me. Throw me a frickin bone once in awhile. Then tell me what you think the results mean. Don't leave the interpretation to the methods.
  • Materials and Methods. Again, these are required to really evaluate the experimental findings. And by the gods, if you use a method but mention it solely by referencing one of your old papers, then you're likely to lose me. It's ok to reference yourself there, but at least give me a brief sentence to describe what you're doing.
  • Discussion. Try and tell me where your stuff fits in with the previous literature, and extend what you think it might mean. Suggest new experiments.
  • Introduction. Turns out I differ from FSP here. I like a nice short and sweet introduction, with just the barest essentials. But I wonder if this is a disciplinary dependent effect: there are so many reviews published in biosciences now, that it's easy to reference those as a stand in for any more detailed consideration in a single given paper. Is that the case in physics?
Actually, this list make perfect sense to me. I have always considered myself very datacentric person, in that data has the highest priority over theories, models, frameworks, whatnot. And, this list matches the order of sections when I read papers, and the importance I give to each. For example, if I'm pressed for time, I might not read the Intro or Discussion at all, or maybe just read the first sentence of each paragraph.

Still though, maybe other people have different lists, and if so, perhaps my papers are failing them? So let's hear it readers!


Comrade Physioprof said...

I put this here, even though typically the amount of time and effort spent writing the abstract isn't terribly large.

This is a big mistake, especially when submitting to journals for which "more appropriate for a more specialized journal" is a rejectable review outcome. Reviewers asked to judge the "importance" of a paper and whether it will be of "broad interest" almost always come to a conclusion about that issue after having read just the Abstract.

In terms of Intro and Discussion, the breadth of these depends highly on the journal you are submitting to: C/N/S demands very broad; Journal of Plant Root Hair Physiology, less so.

Nat Blair said...

Ah, I phrased it badly here. The position of Abstract in the list meant that I do consider it crucial. Just empirically, it doesn't take much time to make it reach an acceptable level. Likely that's because I don't write the Abstract until I've written the entire Results, and have a good idea of what I want to write in the Discussion. So it seems to flow very quickly.

But you're right about the Intro and the target journal. You gotta justify it to those not narrowly interested in the subtopic.

Anonymous said...

It takes me ages to write the abstract. And somehow I always end up with 216 words when there is a 200 word limit. . .
I'd look at a paper differently, but then I am also in a different sub-field. And it depends what I'm looking for eg to try out their methods, or similar, or to get into the literature (close reading of intro and discussion), In a way, I'd probably pay least attention to the results (at least to start), as I have to decide first whether I think I believe them. . .

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Hm, I'd agree that the abstract takes me a godforsaken amount of time, because of its importance. Even then, I just screw it up over and over by getting hung up in the details rather than in the reader-grabbing bits...

I'm totally with you on the anti-abbreviation. We spend so much brain space remembering what SEM and PTP and GAD and so forth are that I just don't have spare neurons for random newly-created abbreviations. MARCM, CRACM, 2PLSM, FRA--these things drive me NUTS.

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