Writing a good academic paper is a lot of work. When I started I found it difficult to work out exactly how I was meant to go about it. There is a lot of good information on the available on the surface requirements: layout, spelling, presentation etc but there are other deeper aspects that are as essential but often forgotten. To have a chance of getting accepted in a good conference or journal a paper must be:
Science is a process of examining a problem, working through it logically, comprehensively examining and following the available evidence to come to a reliable conclusion. A research paper is meant to be a demonstration that you have followed this process and that your conclusions are in some way justified.
The typical structure of a research paper falls out naturally from this. The root of the paper is your introduction which connects your research with the rest of the world. Every subsequent paragraph answers some question that was implicitly raised in the previous one:
- What problem are you trying to solve?
- Why is it worth solving?
- Have others attempted this?
- What were their results/approaches?
- What hasn’t been tested/tried?
- How does your work fit in?
…and so on.
This isn’t unlike how you might structure any piece of writing but a scientific paper requires more rigour. A break in the logic or an unanswered question implies you might not have fully considered all of the evidence and damages your conclusions.
There are only three statements you can include in a scientific paper:
- Tautologies, that are true by definition
- Statements that are supported by work that you reference
- Statements that are supported by evidence you present
Anything else is suspect, perhaps even dangerous since others may reference your assumptions as if they were facts. Accuracy issues can slip in easily and by accident. When I first started writing I made a lot of statements that I thought were obvious. More often than not I found these statements were only so accurate and I’d missed small but important details.
Suitably precise data and figures are obviously necessary since people are going to be making conclusions from them. Less obvious is the precision required in the wording.
If you’re like me, when you write you may naturally use a lot of adverbs but they can be difficult to quantify. How good is ‘much more effective’? How frequent is ‘quite often’? While imprecise statements might not be outright false they are open to interpretation.
Precise language leaves no doubt. Rather than ‘much more effective’ it is more precise to say that something is ‘2.5x more effective on average…’. Of course you then need to ensure there is no doubt what ‘effective’ and ‘average’ mean in the context…
Conferences and journals get prestige from publishing important papers. Hence it helps to do important work. This is a problem since most science is iterative. More troubling, academics are incentivised to publish as many papers as possible. So even if your work is not all that significant yet it is essential that you make it sound like it is.
To do so you must first make it very clear what the novel parts of your research are. If your peer reviewers cannot tell what contribution/conclusion you are trying to make then they cannot give you a favourable review. Past that you may need to find ways of highlighting the area around your work. When the research is not yet mature you can do this by emphasising the importance of the problem you are working to solve. If it is a small improvement over some existing technique emphasise that it now surpasses a well established bit of research. You will need to figure out what works for your situation.
Unfortunately the incentives to get published can turn good research bad. Some people try and cover up for a lack of novelty by explaining it in a very convoluted way (see much of nature inspired optimisation research). Others play with statistics and figures or use imprecise wording and misleading logic to reach shaky but impressive sounding conclusions. A lot of harm has been done this way. We can aspire to more.
There is much more that could be said about writing a paper but I think these four are the most important. That said there is one other thing I’ve found to correlate with the quality of a paper:
word count practice.