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Jul 2001 Vol. 5   No. 2

........   TEACHING TIPS   ........
Advising Graduate Students on How to Write Technical Papers
Associate Professor C.M. Wang
Associate Director, CDTL
Department of Civil Engineering

When doing research, as much effort should be put into writing a paper on the work done as was expended in the preparation/execution of the project and the subsequent data analysis. So as not to waste the time spent on the research, the paper should clearly present the objectives, research methodology and findings of the research to the reviewer/reader.

Unfortunately, our graduate students tend to write their research papers in a hurry so that they can get on with the next research project. With so little time given to preparing each paper, it is no wonder that a relatively large number of papers are not acceptable for publication due to poor presentation. Consequently in this article, I wish to share with fellow teachers the advice that I give to my graduate students on how to write technical papers.

Writing Tips

A good research paper is one that is “clearly, precisely and attractively” written such that not only is the reader enticed to read it, but also he or she can easily understand the contents1. Contrary to popular belief, clear equations are insufficient for effective communication in a scientific paper; they should be accompanied by clear prose that leads the reader through the paper. The following are some guidelines for your students to consider when writing different sections of a scientific research paper:

Title: Make the title short, attention grabbing, and above all, reflect the central theme of the paper. It should not claim generality when the paper is specific in nature.

Author’s name and affiliation: Spell your name and affiliation in the same way for each paper so that all your papers are cited accurately. Include your email address if you wish for readers to communicate directly with you.

Abstract: People make a decision to read or not to read the rest of the paper based on the abstract. So summarise concisely the main claims (and secondary claims, if any) of the paper and the conclusions drawn from the study. Limit the number of claims to prevent confusing the reader as to what the key message of the paper is. Reserve other major claims for future papers. Do not include references, figures and equations in this section.

Introduction: Describe briefly the importance of the area of study. State why your paper should be published (e.g. explain how your work fills an important gap in existing knowledge/provides new methods for solving difficult problems). Provide the background of the current work (e.g. review existing literature or give an overview/history of the problem).

Problem definition: Define the problem/topic studied, explain basic terminology, and establish clearly both the objectives and hypothesis/assumptions of your paper. Note that papers are often rejected for publication because authors provide only objectives without any hypothesis.
Theoretical formulation, materials and methods: Present the theoretical formulations and assumptions plainly. List comprehensively all materials and methodology used so that readers are able to reproduce your study. For experimental studies, do not describe everything through a diary of events; instead, reorganise details into a coherent account. Use more efficient and accurate methods, rather than outdated techniques. Give credit to other people’s work through references: furnish details of concepts discussed and/or refer to sources.

Results: Tabulate results, but withhold the inferences for the ‘Discussion’ section. As papers with tabulated results will obtain more citations because later researchers can use your results for comparative purposes, compose tables well with proper headings for rows and columns. If possible, use attractive figures, graphs and other diagrammatic representations to illustrate data clearly—well-designed figures make the paper come alive. Common faults in research papers include inappropriate usage of tables and figures that confuse readers, display of wrong statistical tests, and/or lack of sound statistical analyses.

Discussion: Reviewers will accept your paper for publication if they are convinced that your results are valid. So provide adequate and convincing arguments, mathematical proofs, examples, equations, statistics, patterns/trends, opinions and ideas beyond the collection of tabulated and graphed numbers. Make comparisons with previous researchers’ results (if any). Suggest applications for your work. Propose future work, but be frank and realistic about what needs to be done as a continuation.

Conclusion: Summarise/highlight and stress main ideas and contributions.
Acknowledgements: Give credit to persons and organisations for any technical and/or financial help you received while completing the study. Also acknowledge any copyrighted material for which you have permission to use.

References: Give complete information on references.

Appendices: Insert, as appendices, information that is not provided in the main text (e.g. questionnaires and software used).

Besides paying attention to good organisation and unambiguous presentation of objectives, facts and conclusions, you should spell accurately and write grammatically so that the reader does not have extra problems in understanding what you are trying to say.

Concluding Remarks

We as teachers play a critical role in helping our graduate students to become effective writers. Apart from encouraging students to say what they mean clearly, precisely, concisely, and attractively, we can also relate to them the satisfaction of having one’s research paper being cited and appreciated by fellow researchers as well as being archived for perpetuity (if the paper is published). Suitably inspired, students will probably begin to write their own papers. The more experience they gain in writing papers well, the easier they will find to write even more and better papers.

Endnote

  1. G. Batchelor. (1997). ‘Research as a Life Style’. Applied Mechanics Review, ASME. Vol. 50, No. 8, R11-R20.
 

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