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How to Write a Scientific Paper — Sort Of

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Scientist and sci-fi writer gives us the nuts and bolts.

Greg Benford, University of Californa, scientific paperWhen Greg Benford isn’t working as a physicist at the University of California, Irvine, he’s writing science fiction novels. And a few years ago, he wrote a “guide” for writing a science paper. As you’ll see, it’s very tongue-in-cheek. Or is it?

A new formulation of the traditional academic paper is considered. The way scholars really read scientific papers is discussed. This paper itself is written in the new method herein proposed. Studies among the author’s friends indicate that reading time for most scientific literature can be reduced threefold by use of this method. For some papers, reading time approaches zero.

Everyone knows that scientists write badly–everybody, that is, except scientists. They think they’re merely being precise and orderly, and everyone else on the planet is either (a) illiterate or (b) sloppy or (c) a humanist or (d) all of the above. In some cases, of course, the individual scientist is not well acquainted with the English language. (In the opinion of English scientists, this frequently explains the unintelligible papers of Americans.)

The scientist is, by his reliance on the passive voice, hobbled, leading to sentences like this one, in which the subject, a lumpy noun, is acted upon by pallid adjectives and wan verbs, all without ever saying exactly who the action is done by, so that the sentences get longer and longer as you read and never seem to end, even when there is clearly nothing more to say in the sentence, at which point the reader sometimes gets a meager little semicolon; this gives him a rest, so that he can go on and read another long phrase without really learning anything more, because the writer’s hand has kept on moving even though his brain is disengaged.

What to do? Straightening a scientist’s syntax is like unsnarling week-old spaghetti, sticky and unappetizing. Far better, then, to change the overall packaging of the sentences. Scientific papers are written like elaborate lab reports — first A, then B, on to C, plodding on to the conclusion like a dray horse. They assume the reader is fascinated by the pearls of wisdom that ooze through the barnacle-ladened sentences. Fruit buried beneath the aspic of gray rhetoric is seldom tasted. The sad truth is that hardly anybody ever reads a paper all the way through. A study by a British physics journal showed that the average number who get through the whole paper was 0.5 — and that included the author! Apparently, most scientists can’t bear to reread their own work.

In this paper a new scheme for paper-organizing is proposed. It does not rely on weaning scientists away from the passive-voice sentence, like that last one. Instead, we should recognize how scientists actually read.

Our calculations, statistics; and closely-reasoned analysis appears in the body of thc main text. First we summarize our results with merciful brevity.

While reading a scientific paper, scientists are led by two needs: (a) ego and (b) desire for information. Our research shows that Need (a) always dominates. Therefore, papers should be organized to satisfy this. The preferred scheme follows:

Maximize buzz words, even if irrelevant (Indeed, some will misread this non-connection as going over their heads). Try to include many verbs that end in –ize.

Avoid initials. People remember actual names. Let your students be represented by their initials if they want; readers will assume they are nobodies.

The most important part of the paper, yet the most neglected. References cited must contain a broad spectrum of sources, to insure the greatest probability of naming the reader. Use multi-author papers to maximize the number of people mentioned. Corral any paper even slightly related to your field; Nobel winners are preferred, no matter how thin the connection. A scientist will always give greater attention to colleagues who cite him, if only to find where in the text you mention him. Thus the best strategy is to cite everybody you can but place the citations in an unlikely place in the paper. Then they have to read carefully to find it, and might even discover what the paper is about. The highest-risk strategy is to cite someone in the list of references but not in the text. Then he will read the whole paper. The disadvantage, of course, is that he will be livid with rage and frustration by the time he finishes. But at least he will not forget you!

Another important ego-feeding ground. Thank the big names in your field, even if your sole contact with them was schlepping coffee at a conference three years ago. The list should be lavish, implying close connections with all the movers and shakers. Avoid mentioning dead people; they can do you no more good, and their rivals are still around. If space permits, include those who actually helped you.

Your grant monitoring officer will always look for this, so put it early. Others will want to know what agency got suckered into paying.

Here you explain what you plan to do. Promise a lot. Few will reach the MAIN TEXT to see if you actually did it.

Always overstate your results. Claim certainty where you have vague suspicions. Graphs proudly showing agreement between theory and experiment should be prominent. Only in a footnote (tiny type!) should you explain that the theory has been scaled to the experiment in the first place, the coordinates multiplied by a fudge factor, or other artful dodges.

With any luck, there will be no need to actually write this section. Everyone will have turned to the next paper.

Source: Greg Benford

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