Workshop on papers writing

Today I participated to an Author Workshop by Jaap van Harten (Elsevier) titled “How to write great papers.”

The main take-out of the workshop was that many authors make so many basic obvious mistakes in the writing of their paper, that if you manage to avoid them you are already a step ahead of many others.

In the following, I assume you have the content of your paper ready. You already did your experiments, collected your data, and made sense of the results. But it does not hurt to read even if you are not there yet: you will get there sooner or later 🙂

When you start planning your paper is good to have in mind the image of an hourglass. Your paper will start very general, become narrow talking about your results, and at last get back to general discussing limitations, applications, and directions.

writing_papers_hourglassWhen you actually start writing your paper, you will possibly be stack on a blank page with the word “Introduction”. So how do you make the writing start? An effective way of avoiding the inhibiting effect of straggling to find the initial words to start the introduction, is to not start from the introduction. You should start from what you know the best: your results. You have been working on these results for the past six months or more, you know all their strengths and downsides. So why shouldn’t you start from there?


You can actually start deciding about the figures that you plan to include in the paper. Then just write about them. Making sure to avoid being too descriptive (that part is for the caption), instead try to highlight the point that the figure is supporting: what is the figure showing that is so unexpected, or that is supporting your hypothesis? Once you wrote down these main points, it will be easier for you to build everything else around it and supporting these very same points. The resulting paper will be focused and it more likely deliver your message to the reader.


You invested time performing the experiments and analyzing the data, but still it is unusual that you will be the only author of your paper (at least at the beginning of your academic career). There is no golden rule on deciding who should be author of the paper. In fact, this matter is often source of disagreement and resentment among colleagues. The decision is usually very personal and it depends on the specific case, but the following 4 conditions can help you. To be an author you must:

  1. substantially contribute to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;
  2. draft the article or revise it critically for important intellectual content;
  3. give your approval to the final version of the paper to publish;
  4. agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work.

If ALL these 4 conditions apply to a person, then that person has the right to be an author; otherwise, his name should go in the acknowledgements.

The next dilemma is “Who should be the first author?” Also regarding this matter there are different uses and norms depending on the field. For example, in Math and Theoretical Computer Science, the order of the authors is purely alphabetical with respect to the last name, so no problem there 😉 If you are from any other discipline, you might be facing this dilemma at some point. Good practice is that the first author is the one who had the most contribution (either theoretical or practical).


Good writing to all.



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