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How to Write a Scientific Paper zt  发贴心情 Post By:2008-11-21 14:34:42

How to Write a Scientific Paper*
By George M. Whitesides
Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University,
Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

 

 

 

 

What is a scientific paper? A paper is an organized description of hypotheses, data and conclusions, intended to instruct the reader. Papers are a central part of research. If your research does not generate papers, it might just as well not have been done. “Interesting and unpublished” is equivalent to “non-existent.”


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  发贴心情 Post By:2008-11-21 14:35:01

Realize that your objective in research is to formulate and test hypotheses, to draw conclusions from these tests, and to teach these conclusions to others. Your objective is not to “collect data.”

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  发贴心情 Post By:2008-11-21 14:35:45

A paper is not just an archival device for storing a completed research program, it is also a structure for planning your research in progress. If you clearly understand the purpose and form of a paper, it can be immensely useful to you in organizing and conducting your research. A good outline for the paper is also a good plan for the research program. You should write and rewrite these plans/outlines throughout the course of the research. At the beginning, you will have mostly plan; at the end, mostly outline. The continuous effort to understand, analyze, summarize, and reformulate hypotheses on paper will be immensely more efficient for you than a process in which you collect data and only start to organize them when their collection is“complete.”

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  发贴心情 Post By:2008-11-21 14:36:09

The reason for outlines. I emphasize the central place of an outline in writing papers, preparing seminars, and planning research. I especially believe that for you, and for me, it is most efficient to write papers from outlines. An outline is a written plan of the organization of a paper, including the data on which it rests. You should, in fact, think of an outline as a carefully organized and presented set of data, with attendant objectives, hypotheses and conclusions, rather than an outline of text.

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  发贴心情 Post By:2008-11-21 14:36:23

An outline itself contains little text. If you and I can agree on the details of the outline (that is, on the data and organization), the supporting text can be assembled fairly easily. If we do not agree on the outline, any text is useless. Much of the time in writing a paper goes into the text; most of the thought goes into the organization of the data and into the analysis. It can be relatively efficient to go through several (even many) cycles of an outline before beginning to write text; writing many versions of the full text of a paper is slow.

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  发贴心情 Post By:2008-11-21 14:36:53

All the writing that I do - papers, reports, proposals (and, of course, slides for seminars)- I do from outlines. I urge you to learn how to use them as well.

 

 

How should you construct an outline? The classical approach is to start with a blank piece of paper, and write down, in any order, all important ideas that occur to you concerning the paper. Ask yourself the obvious questions:“Why did I do this work?” “What does it mean?”“What hypothesis did I mean to test?”“What ones did I actually test?”“What were the results?”“Did the work yield a new method or compound? What?”“What measurements did I make?”“What compounds? How were they characterized?” Sketch possible equations, figures, and schemes. It is essential to try to get the major ideas written down. If you start the research to test one hypothesis, and decide, when you see what you have, that the data really seem to test some other hypothesis better, don't worry. Write them both down, and pick the best combinations of hypotheses, objectives and data. Often the objectives of a paper when it is finished are different from those used to justify starting the work. Much of good science is opportunistic and revisionist.


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  发贴心情 Post By:2008-11-21 14:37:47

When you have written down what you can, start with another piece of paper and try to organize the jumble of the first one. Sort all of your ideas into three major heaps (A-C).

 

A) Introduction
Why did I do the work? What were the central motivations and hypotheses?

 

B) Results and Discussion
What were the results? How were compounds made and characterized? What was measured?

 

C) Conclusions
What does it all mean? What hypotheses were proved or disproved? What did I learn? Why does it make a difference?


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  发贴心情 Post By:2008-11-21 14:40:45

Next, take each of these sections, and organize it on yet finer scale. Concentrate on organizing the data. Construct figures, tables, and schemes to present the data as clearly and compactly as possible. This process can be slow - I may sketch a figure 5-10 times in different ways, trying to decide how it is most clear (and looks best aesthetically).

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  发贴心情 Post By:2008-11-21 14:41:13

Finally, put everything—outline of sections, tables, sketches of figures, equations - in good order.

 

 

 

When you are satisfied that you have included all the data (or that you know what additional data you intend to collect), and have a plausible organization, give the outline to me. Simply indicate where missing data will go, how you think (hypothesize) they will look, and how you will interpret them if your hypothesis is correct. I will take this outline, add my opinions, suggest changes, and return it to you. It usually takes 4-5 repeated attempts (often with additional experiments) to agree on an outline. When we have agreed, the data are usually in (or close to) final form (that is, the tables, figures, etc., in the outline will be the tables, figures,…in the paper.)


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  发贴心情 Post By:2008-11-21 14:41:47

You can then start writing, with some assurance that much of your prose will be used.

 

The key to efficient use of your and my time is that we start exchanging outlines and proposals as early in a project as possible. Do not, under any circumstances, wait until the collection of data is “complete” before starting to write an outline. No project is ever complete, and it saves enormous effort and much time to propose a plausible paper and outline as soon as you see the basic structure of a project. Even if we decide to do significant additional work before seriously organizing a paper, the effort of writing an outline will have helped to guide the research.


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