Scientific Papers and the Research Process
Since the last four posts were on databases, I thought I would spend the next four posts on scientific writing. Today, I start with the basics: the structure of a scientific paper.
Scientific papers follow an idealized form of the scientific research process.
- Pick a topic and learn as much as can about what has been done.
- Figure out the next step that needs to be taken.
- Formulate a hypothesis (if A, then B) that addresses that next step.
- Design an experiment to test the hypothesis.
- Run the experiment.
- Collect data.
- Reduce data.
- Analyze data.
- Draw conclusions.
- Suggest future work.
Notice how I said above an “idealized” process. In real life, steps 1 to 10 are not necessarily linear. As a student, you might come into the process at step 5 because your adviser has already gone through step 1-4. Sometimes there isn’t a step 4 that can test step 3 so you have to change step 3. Many times, as you go through steps 5 & 6, you realize that step 4 needs to be redone. Sometimes it’s not until step 7 or 8.
Nevertheless, by convention, a scientific paper filters out all the deadends and detours and presents everything with 20/20 hindsight as if you knew exactly what you were doing the whole time and everything went as planned. So, the parts of a scientific paper are
C. Results (sometimes split into C1 Results and C2 Analysis)
Steps 1-3 are usually in Part A. Step 4 is in Part B sometimes with Steps 5, 6, and 7. Sometimes steps 5, 6, and 7 are with Step 8 in Part C. It doesn’t really matter as long as the division makes sense. Finally, Steps 9 and 10 are in Part D.
Knowing the structure of a scientific paper is important not just when you’re trying to write a paper, it can also be useful when you’re reading a paper. Depending on what Step you’re at in the research process, you might only need information from Part of the paper you’re reading.