Gas station without pumps

2016 March 19

Introduction of a technical paper

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:19
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I was recently pointed to a post The 5 pivotal paragraphs in a paper | Dynamic Ecologythat gives advice about how to structure a scientific paper.  Most of the advice is good, but I disagree with one statement:

First paragraph of the introduction—you should use this paragraph to embed and contextualize your work in the context of a large classic, timeless, eternal question. What drives species richness. Or controls abundance or distribution. Or gives the best management outcome. Or explains why species are invasive. Or controls carbon flux. You of course are not going to fully answer this question. Indeed no one person, and probably even no generation of scientists will fully answer this question, but ask a really big question. You can then use this big question setup to spend the rest of the introduction summarizing past attempts to answer this question, and show how they have all failed to address the key issue you are about to address.

The first paragraph of the introduction should be the specific point of the paper, not general BS. I read far too many papers (particularly student papers) where there is a huge wad of background dumped before the author gets around to telling me what they are writing about.  It irritates me—especially when I already know most of the background.

Don’t bury the specific goal of the paper at the end of the introduction—your readers may never get that far if you start out with general BS. Start with the specific goal of this paper—not the overall goal of a long-term research project or (even worse) the fundamental dogma of biology.

There is a term for this in journalism—it is known as “burying the lede”, which is considered a major flaw in news reporting.  It is a similarly large flaw in scientific writing.

I recommend that the first paragraph of a scientific article give the specific research question being answered in the article, and that the rest of the introduction then be used for the contextualizing that question—why is it important? how does this study answer it? For engineering reports, the first paragraph should give the main engineering design goal and constraints, again using the rest of the introduction to say why that was important.

If the conclusions of the paper do not answer the question raised in the first paragraph of the introduction, then the question is not specific enough.



  1. My attitude is that the first paragraph is like a funnel. it starts relatively broad, succinctly elucidating the state of the art and emphasizing why a certain problem is important and still open. This paragraph should motivate the question you are addressing, yes. Then, in the 2nd paragraph, you hit them with “In this paper, we show…” and how exactly and what you found.
    So maybe we don’t actually differ very much in attitude, but I would say definitely open somewhat broadly, but then narrow it down pretty quickly, while outlining the important milestones in the state of the art, and ending with what is clearly an important open question.

    Comment by xykademiqz — 2016 March 26 @ 09:18 | Reply

    • I’ve seen many of the “start broad then focus down” intros fail miserably, by either overpromising (cure for cancer!) or by trying to be a tutorial (fundamental dogma of biology!). I now recommend students start with precisely what they are doing, and use the second paragraph to explain how it fits into the state of the art. The difference in focus can really focus the paper. I suggest trying it as an exercise on some paper you are working on.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2016 March 26 @ 09:26 | Reply

      • :) I think you are a bit of a revolutionary here.

        If you go to Physical Review Letters, which is a prestigious journal in the physical sciences, they have very specific guidelines as to how they expect that first paragraph to look. They require that it be broad and engaging enough to be readable by people not in the field.
        People expect a certain form of technical papers, and while it may be true that (some? many?) people might fail miserably at writing intros, I don’t think that funneling intros are really going anywhere; they are part of the canon of technical writing. For instance, when I read a paper, I look at the abstract, the “In this paper,…” paragraph in the intro, figures, and conclusion. Based on conversations with colleagues, my practice is quite typical. If you deviate from the paper structure a lot, it does impede information retrieval. I think if you are a good writer, you can make any structure work for you; honestly, if I had to review a paper that starts with a question they are answering, rather than the common funneling structure, I might be mildly alarmed at what awaits me. To be completely honest, it would likely raise questions about the person’s training (writing also serves as a way of signaling about one’s competence and background).

        For the record, my students suck at writing intros, too, especially initially. Usually I am the one who writes most of the intro for new and mid-PhD students. But by the time they graduate, they can do it competently.

        I will add that there are differences among fields. I have seen math, CS, and signal processing papers follow what you suggest, i.e., start with the question. But it would be quite uncommon in many physical sciences like physics, chemistry, materials science, and some fields of engineering. Based on the post you linked, it seems that some bio fields have the same canon.

        Comment by xykademiqz — 2016 March 26 @ 09:48 | Reply

        • It is true that the cultures differ in different science fields, and my graduate training was in math and in computer science, both fields in which content was prized over form. For example, I prefer section headers in papers and theses that are unique to that paper, conveying information and not just formulaic structure (I see no point to headers that can be moved interchangeably between papers, the way that some biology journals require).

          The formulaic structure of papers in each field does evolve, however, often based on one or two good writers whose style gets used as a model by less confident writers. I’m advocating that the good writers in each field not blindly follow conventions, but strive to improve the writing in their field by showing where the conventions can be improved on by example.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2016 March 26 @ 09:58 | Reply

        • The counterpoint would be Feynman on reading a paper: Read the first paragraph, then jump to the conclusion to see if they got it right. That can’t be done if the intro doesn’t state the problem.

          Point taken on Physical Review Letters, but that is based on the assumption that every paper in that journal should be written so it can be read by ANY physicist even though that only applies when something like the LIGO paper appears. The bigger problem is that papers are simply not read at all. Cited, yes, but not read. That is where journalists have the right idea. because they know there is an exponential decrease in what people read with a “time constant” of about 1 sentence. Most readers don’t get past the headline, let alone the first paragraph. That is why we have abstracts!

          Comment by CCPhysicist — 2016 April 2 @ 18:29 | Reply

          • Feynman is a bit before our time. :) There is a paragraph that states what’s been done, it starts with “In this paper,…” or “In this letter,…” so a person who is in the field will go there directly to see what’s been done, while someone further out will need the funneling paragraph. I think that’s a good balance of conveying quickly the info for people in and outside of the area.
            I appreciate a well-written PRL from a variety of disciplines. But yes, people don’t read enough these days. Thank heavens for abstracts! :)

            Comment by xykademiqz — 2016 April 2 @ 18:39 | Reply

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