Monday, November 10, 2008

Selling More Of It

Once you've come up with the perfect title for a paper -- one that will convince people to read past the title and one that does not involve a yes-or-no question -- you then need a compelling abstract and introduction. Today I feel like writing about Introductions because recently I've been involved in a paper in which a colleague and I differ greatly in our Philosophy of Introductions.

This colleague doesn't like introductions that spend much, if any, time/space talking about the larger context of the work. To him, this is fluffy decorative stuff that detracts from the paper's main purpose: to present new data/ideas. His preferred introduction goes straight to the most detailed and technical level of the paper: We did X and Y and here it all is.

I agree that introductions shouldn't go on for so long and in such a general way that the reader becomes impatient and thinks "So what did you do? What is this paper really about?". I do, however, like to start big and work my way to the more technical levels, as to me this a good way to explain why we did the work and why anyone else might be interested. It should be possible for most papers to do this is an efficient and interesting way.

I suppose I am also aware that my intended (= hoped-for) audience isn't just the small group of people in my specific field at its most narrow definition. I'd like graduate students and colleagues in related fields to understand my papers. That doesn't mean I explain every single term and concept in great detail as if writing for a non-expert, but it does mean that I don't assume that readers will immediately understand the motivation and context of the work.

When I give an invited talk at some universities, students read 1-2 or my papers in preparation for my talk and visit. In some cases this is part of an organized seminar intended to get students more involved/interested in the seminars, and in other cases the reading is part of an informal research group activity. Discussing papers with these students is actually a great way for me to figure out whether my papers are understandable to anyone but me and a couple of reviewers (albeit too late for me to fix any problems if the papers turns out to be rather cryptic to non-specialists). [note: In some cases I am asked to recommend which of my papers would be most suitable for this purpose, and in some cases I am not asked]

Based on this kind of feedback, I know that some of my papers are not very accessible to this broader audience. (note: "not very accessible" is a euphemism for a highly technical jargon-filled paper of uncertain purpose and result). That's OK, as long as some are reasonably accessible, e.g. review papers, slightly longer papers that have room for an expanded introduction, or short general-interest papers.

I was going to come up with a hypothesis about why some people hate general intro sections in papers and others like them and think they are important, but none of my hypotheses withstood even my own brief scrutiny. Example: The aforementioned intro-hating colleague is way more famous than I am and people are going to read his papers no matter what is in them; maybe he doesn't feel the need for extraneous intro material because he knows his papers will be read anyway. But then, it's not hard to think of other famous scientists who think that people will be fascinated by their every utterance and so they utter a lot, and a lot of it is not interesting.

Surely there is a happy compromise in even a fairly technical paper -- i.e. introductory text that gives the broader context but that doesn't wallow in it for pages and pages.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm in a Humanities field, so context-setting is essential. The question is: which context? It's all determined by the journal's general audience. But you've always got to justify your existence, to some extent. This usually occupies anywhere from 500-1000 words of an 8,000-word article, in my experience.

I guess I'd think some similar principle would operate in science fields, though a bit less so, since I'm assuming that science journals may speak to much more precisely-defined audiences than Humanities journals. But I'd think that a paragraph or so of context-setting would establish the importance of your findings for a reader who is not necessarily a part of a specific subfield.

Anonymous said...

Do you think your attitude relative to Introductions can be qualified as more "female" and inclusive, compared to the colder, more straightforward "male" approach advocated by your colleague?

Candid Engineer said...

My favorite type of introduction is about 1-1.5 double-spaced pages in Word. Plenty of room to concisely state the context of your work without boring the crap out of your audience.

quietandsmalladventures said...

hi, short time lurker here. i really had to comment on this because i agree with you on the purpose of introductions.

having a fair amount of expertise in my master's field and very little in my (new and very different) ph.d. field, i appreciate when the author puts their ideas in context. in my master's field, there were several times when i proposed lines of experiments or conclusions based on current data (from my and other labs) and needed to put them into perspective for my advisor. currently, i read the intro's the reinforce what i'm learning about the new field and to find other works where the procedures or reasoning can be applied to my work. no one has the ability to keep up with everything in their field (ok, maybe if it's small?) and relevant literature for related fields. this is why i like a comprehensive (and succinct, maybe 1-2 pg) introduction.
also, i really like this series you've started. i have yet to write a first author paper, so i'm filing the information under near future endeavors! thank you!! :)

Nat Blair said...

This is a very interesting topic. I posted some more thoughts about this here, but with more discussion about other sections of the paper.

Still, I'll admit that as of now this is just an isolated brain thinking about these things. Perhaps the way I'm doing it isn't working as well for actual live readers.

Anonymous said...


You are right, your famous colleague is wrong :-)

Well, it's not about being right though, is it? An excellent introduction does BOTH--it describes the work in "sufficient" detail and puts it in a larger context. Which may be what your famous colleague actually does, although his "larger context" may not be as large as yours.

Now that I am getting old and cranky, I like a good introduction! It shows that the author(s) is/are not just blindly slaving in the lab or at the computer.

Anonymous said...

I try to aim for shorter rather than longer in the intro, but that's to compensate for my tendency to write too much, so I wind up "just right." Or so I hope.

The worst is when, during a series of reviews, various assumptions are challenged so I'm required to do a longer and longer and longer literature review (which goes into the intro in some journals, rather than its own section) until finally the intro is so long that a reviewer says "You know, this intro could be shorter."

When it's the same reviewer who keeps harping on notation, well, the sacrosanct anonymity of reviewers is the only thing preventing me from punching him.

Anonymous said...

The breadth of an Intro has to be properly calibrated to the journal you are submitting to. If it's to C/N/S, then you obviously have to describe the context as broadly as possible. If it's to the "Journal Of Green--But Not Blue--Hephalumphs", then not so much.

barbara said...

I tend to write a short but open-audience introduction, including a brief what's-where-in-this-paper (if it's more than 40 pages I include a table of contents).

I also have a "preliminaries" chapter where I recall everything nonstandard I'll be using; the idea being that experts can skip to the next (hopefully juicier) sections, but PhD students and people from other fields can get pointers to the literature if they're lost.

PhizzleDizzle said...

FSP, I love your blog and have referred to it many times, and plan to reread this post as I write an intro for a paper next week. At the same time, I would greatly greatly appreciate your input on something I just wrote about how professors select and evaluate graduate students. When I become an FSP (someday?) I am totally getting one of your mugs :).

Female Science Professor said...

The intro should of course be calibrated for the specific journal, but I think even rather focused journals/papers require some general intro; my colleague disagrees.

Ψ*Ψ said...

I gravitate toward applied research. If I can't skim through a paper and understand why it's awesome, I don't often read through critically. Sometimes it's immediately obvious why certain bits of research are important. Sometimes it's delineated pretty clearly in the introduction. If neither of these is the case, though...

Anonymous said...

Comrade Physioprof, that makes perfect sense if you are expecting your audience to read the article within the context of a particular journal, but they won't have that context if they find it through a database or repository search which spans a number of publications. The audience of Green-not-Blue Hephalumphs may be only your first wave of readers. The Hephalumphs editors possibly will not want to consider the effects of this on presentation, but your article's electronic life will likely be broader than their pages.

Anonymous said...

As an anonymous graduate student, I'm interested in your thoughts on having students read your papers in preparation for your talk. Recently, there was a bit of an uproar from students in a seminar in my department who believed that they were being "forced" to prepare for seminar talks by reading and discussing papers prior to the talk. The consensus from students was that this should be optional (this particular seminar is a requirement in the program).

However, my view is that the students, when taking this seminar, are 'new' or 'young' enough to need to prepare for the talks at this level - a reason that I am sure was considered when making the decision to add this component to the seminar in the first place. You mentioned that sometimes the students read your papers in a seminar, and yet others read them in an informal discussion group - which do you think works better? Should the introduction of a talk contain enough background so that those who have not read the paper in advance can follow, or should it be assumed that those not directly in your narrow field be prepared by having read the paper (and more background) in advance?

Anonymous said...

I work mostly in applied mathematics on interdisciplinary projects and here the norm is for long-ish introductions and context setting. This is mostly due to non-experts writing papers collaboratively rather than a naive hope that non-specialists will read it. In many areas of pure math and also computer science the idea is to not provide introductions as they are a waste of space - "No one but specialists will read the paper, so why waste their time?"

I understand both scenarios but much prefer the first.

Ms.PhD said...

Here's a hypothesis: all his papers are on, or very near, the exact same topic?

I for one get tired of using the same stock phrases to describe the context of what I work on. I've managed to avoid noxious repetition by working on related areas that are each different enough to merit mostly new writing for the introduction sections.

My thesis lab, while not publishing tons of papers, tended towards stock phrase re-use. It made me think my research there was boring and that everyone else would think so, too.

I think many people believe that a broad introduction section necessitates stock phrase reuse. Or they're too lazy to try to write about the importance of their supposedly favorite topic in a new and interesting way.

Personally, I find writing the broader part of the introduction is often illuminating. It reminds me why what I'm doing is actually important, even if sometimes I can't remember why I started doing it in the first place.