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Redesigning Scientific Literature

Scientific literature has a traditional style and format, which evolved over many years and likely has its merits, but this no longer reflects how people read these papers:

“I start by reading the abstract. Then, I skim the introduction and flip through the article to look at the figures. I try to identify the most prominent one or two figures, and I really make sure I understand what’s going on in them. Then, I read the conclusion/summary. Only when I have done that will I go back into the technical details to clarify any questions I might have.”

– Jesse Shanahan, master’s candidate in astronomy at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut

Shanahan’s habit reflects nicely the theme from most of the people quoted in the story linked above. As it turns out, few people—especially the target audience of professional researchers—read a study the way it’s presented, which means the presentation is wrong. Scientists, researchers, academics and intellectuals now have to deal with a flood of papers as human knowledge expands. The outline of these papers should reflect this reality.

Here is how a standard paper is organized:

Abstract
Introduction
Materials and Methods
Results
Discussion
References
Acknowledgments

It should be an easy task to rearrange the sections of a scientific paper in such a way as to match the needs of the primary readership. The first change that’s required is very easy: Don’t bury the lede, the conclusions of the paper should not be buried somewhere in the middle of the latter third of a paper. Abstracts normally state the conclusions of the study, and I believe the abstract as it exists is pretty much perfect. A well-written abstract is one of the most wonderful experiences in a world of technical literature that is generally dreadful as the phrase “technical literature” implies. Therefore, the abstract remains at the top.

Next would be a “select” graphic, preferably just one graphic but two or three would be fine. A graphic is perhaps the most important element of a study, as it turns data into something visual, which is easier to grasp. If warranted, a select graphic should appear just below the abstract. Properly captioned, this should assist the readers in understanding the magnitude and importance of the results of a paper. Some papers won’t have graphics, and in its place we could perhaps find a table or equation.

The results of the paper, written in clear language, is perhaps the most important part of the paper. It is very important to not overstate the conclusions, and to make any issues of context clear and explicit. It should be the first thing people read, after the abstract. In all likelihood, the conclusions section will end up being the only section of the main body of the text to be read.

Following this should be the discussion section, including clear references to previous research in the topic (I would even bold those references to make them easier to find). These references are important—several researchers mentioned it—because it allows them to immediately see the study in relation to previous literature and they can even see any bias (such as avoiding an important previous study). The introduction section is eliminated, any concepts that have to be introduced to understand the problem or study can be mentioned in the discussion.

The actual methodology of the study is only useful to those trying to replicate the study or specialists in the field and we therefore put it at the end. It will contain all the nitty gritty details of how everything in the study was done, with all the excruciating minutiae and jargon and acronyms a subfield specialist would demand. Personally, I would still attempt to make everything in the paper accessible to non-specialists. Ideally, even the methodology section should be written in clear enough language that someone outside the field can understand how the research was done. However, as long as the conclusions and discussions are clear, the methodology section can be as incomprehensible as the authors feel is necessary to communicate their own expertise.

Finally, all the tables and graphics should come at the end, including a reproduction of anything used at the top of the paper.  A standard reference section should follow, with any acknowledgments coming at the very end. Here is the final outline:

Abstract
Select Graphics or Tables
Results or Conclusions
Discussion (with any introductory material and a select summary of previous research)
Methodology
All graphics and tables
References
Acknowledgements

A physicist friend of mine from college (we shared an addiction to handball) told me “If it’s not in the first or last sentence of the abstract, it didn’t happen.” So maybe this was all for naught.

DB Cooper Notes: February

  • Obviously, the big story in the Cooper world is still the McCrone Labs Analysis of the particles pulled from Cooper’s tie. I’ve been getting emails and have been following leads. The recent focus has been on manufacturers in the Pacific Northwest, especially Tektronix, which did some electronics work for Boeing.
  • Tektronix has a nearly complete employee yearbook from 1959 to about 1971, it has pictures of nearly every employee, about 18,000 total people. I failed to get a copy, but it wouldn’t take too long to go through every picture. This is exactly the sort of thing that can solve this case. The tie should be easy to photo-match, we know what the tie clip looks like and we know there’s some kind of tie tack on it too.
  • Whether the evidence collected will ever reach the threshold necessary to prove any suspect is Cooper is an open question. It appears that most of the guys at the Cooper Forum want either a bill from the ransom, or the parachute before they’ll even consider someone a suspect. This is an unattainable evidentiary standard. The money, even if Cooper got away with some of it, would be gone now, laundered and spent. If Cooper survived, the parachute was either buried or destroyed, and in either case it can’t be linked to an individual. In my mind, absent DNA, the only way to really connect someone with the hijacking would be a photo of them wearing the tie. From there, other circumstantial evidence should appear.
  • The “Gunther Hypothesis” got a good discussion on the Cooper Forum, and it took a bruising. No criticisms were raised that I wasn’t expecting, but even if we found out who Gunther was writing about, it wouldn’t persuade anyone the individual was DB Cooper. Again, there is an unobtainable evidentiary threshold to reach.
  • There’s still plenty of actual investigation left in the Cooper case, especially concerning the Tena Bar money find. I’m hopeful some of it gets done, but it’s unlikely since the funding isn’t there.
  • Was clicking around the NamUs database, looking at the stories behind several dozen unidentified bodies in the PacNW. The running theory among those that believe Cooper died in the jump is that Cooper was a transient, and the number of unclaimed bodies belonging to transients is impressive. These were people dead to the world before they actually died. Had Cooper been one of these people, it’s believable no one would have missed him over the Thanksgiving weekend. However, it’s hard to believe Cooper was such a transient. The tie tells a story, and even if the tie was some thrift store purchase, Cooper’s behavior during the hijacking speak to someone well socialized, possibly well-educated and certainly intelligent and familiar with aviation. It’s very unlikely he was some random hobo.
  • I’ve spent over two years on this case, and it’s probably time to move on to the next project. I’ll be following the case for the rest of my life, but I’m now looking at other topics to write about. I think I’ll be sticking to true crime but let this serve as a warning to those now following my blog because I’ve been focused on DB Cooper: I’m moving away from the Cooper case.