Creative Commons License Copyright © Michael Richmond. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Writing your own scientific paper

Mechanics of writing the text

There are many sources of information on how to write a scientific paper -- see the links under For more information below. I'll keep this section short, and provide my own personal preferences.

Astronomical papers describing observatios tend to be organized like this:

  1. Abstract: a paragraph explaining what you did, and what you found. Some people play coy and leave the numerical results for the Conclusion, but if there's one big quantitive result, it should be included here.
  2. Introduction: provide background to the project, history of previous work, and your goals
  3. Observations: include description of equipment
  4. Data Reduction: this can be very short if you do the "standard" reductions
  5. Results
  6. Discussion: compare your results to those of others, interpret in terms of models, connect to theory
  7. Conclusion: a simple list of what you accomplished
  8. References
  9. Appendix: (optional) if you really want to explain the gory details of some steps in the reduction, or in the theory behind the interpretation, do it here

As for style, there are many opinions. Different disciplines have their own conventions, so read papers by others in the field. Some general comments, with my own opinions:

What will it cost?

Most scientific journals do not carry any advertising, and have a very small base of subscribers. In order to cover their costs, they levy page charges on their contributors. In astronomy, the page charges are steep: the Astrophysical Journal charges $120 per page for papers in its main section, and $165 per page for its letter section. Even short papers can easily run over $1000, so the advice to "keep it brief" makes good economic (as well as scientific) sense.

There are several outlets which don't charge for submissions:

Distribution channels

Not all scientific publications appear in the big refereed journals. There are a number of ways to distribute your results to the world at large. You should think carefully about your mode of distribution before you start writing, because the scope, style, and level of presentation can vary quite a bit.

  Channel                     Pro                        Con
Refereed journal          is refereed                is refereed
                          prestigious                expensive
                          solid archive              long delay to press
                          in search engines
                          good on resume 
                   Bottom line: the only way to go for important work

Conference proceeding     no peer review             moderate delay to press
                          okay on resume             not archived
                          free w/ registration       not in search engines
                                                     read by few

                   Bottom line: if you're going to the conference, why not?
                                good for progress reports

Poster paper              no peer review             not archived (abstract?)
                          okay on resume             not in search engines
                          free w/ registration       read by attendees only
                          immediate response
                          encourages creativity

                   Bottom line: if you're at the conference anyway, why not?
                                good for progress reports
                                more fun than regular papers

Popular science press     you may get paid!          low prestige (generally)
                          archived                   can provoke jealousy
                          in some search engines     only occasionally relevant
                          audience isn't stuffy      audience isn't trained
                   Bottom line: good idea for the right story

Press release             no cost to you             not in search engines
                          _may_ reach TV news        doesn't go on resume
                          will impress some          will annoy others      
                                                     very rarely appropriate
                                                     will be misinterpreted

                   Bottom line: be very, very careful.  

Organization bulletin     free                       rarely refereed     
                          archived                   low prestige
                          not in search engines      often not available
                                                     not widely distributed
                   Bottom line: if you have the chance, use it for minor
                                papers -- support your local organizations

WWW page                  free                       not refereed
                          in some search engines     low prestige
                          available to all           lost in obscurity
                          you have control           doesn't go on resume

                   Bottom line: use it for small projects that don't fit
                                elsewhere (e.g. some student projects)


For more information

Last modified 5/3/2002 by MWR

Creative Commons License Copyright © Michael Richmond. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.