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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:

Materials and Methods

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:

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

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.

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