In this lesson, we go through the main sections of a scientific paper. Please note that we will skip the “state of the art” paragraph, which is dealt with in another lesson. We start from the very first thing the reader bumps into: the abstract. What is the abstract? The abstract is the marrow of your work. It should be self-contained. In a sense, you can think of the abstract as a “parallel” and independent document with respect to the paper, where you find all the relevant elements of the study. This brings us to the consequence that, if appropriate – please mind, only if appropriate –, you can copy and paste sentences from the main paper into the abstract. This is absolutely allowed. The abstract is usually a quite short text, so a real communication challenge. The schema could be: first, what the paper is about; second, what the goal of the work presented, plus the overall significance; third, what was the method used, fourth, the main results and, fifth, the discussion or conclusions. If there really isn’t enough space, you can skip the method. Now we say something about what the abstract is not. The abstract is not an introduction. An introduction is all about the topic and the significance of the work, as we will see in a minute. The abstract has to be much more than that – and in less space. The abstract is not an index. So, please, avoid saying things like “In the first paragraph, we present the method, then the main results of the work are discussed…”. These sentences are just “pointers”. There is no substance, no info you share with the reader, while the abstract has to convey a message, and a strong one. The real beginning of a scientific paper is the introduction. In the introduction, you have to state what the question you deal with is, why it is relevant and in what sense the study will contribute to understanding the question. You also have to frame it into a context, by which I mean a theory or a scientific field or a trend of research. In some cases, the introduction also entails a sort of “index” of the paper. Something like: in the following paragraph, the state of the art will be presented, next the method will be introduced… In the abstract, as we said, this is forbidden, while in the introduction it is allowed. After the introduction, we usually find the method of the study, where you explain how the study was undertaken. Your concern in this paragraph must be to provide all the elements to allow the reader to replicate your study (she may not actually do it, but this is the idea). So you have to be crisp on one side (no one wants to be submerged with useless details) but on the other you have to make sure to include all the elements that were crucial for the experience. This may sound easy, but it’s not and it’s a typical issue I remark as a reviewer. Authors tend to take for granted things that are well known to them, in that they ran the study, but completely unknown to the reader (of course) and still super-important in order to understand what happened. A way to check whether you have done a good job with your “method” section is to have it read by someone else and ask him or her to tell you how the study was run. Gaps and faults in the tale will be eye-opening, I can assure you. The final paragraphs of a paper are “results” and “discussion”. Sometimes results and conclusions are combined together. To give you an idea of the difference: the “results” section is where you say that you have discovered that “2 + 2 makes 4, 2 + 3 makes 5, 3 + 4 makes 7…” and the discussion or conclusion section is where you say “Hey, if you add a number to another, you get a larger number!”. Out of analogy: the results section is where you present your data. If you can, use graphs or tables. Boil down your data to the relevant ones. If any of the collected data was eliminated, say it and explain for what reasons. If the case – this really depends on the field – you may want to include qualitative data. Also anecdotes may be useful, to convey the flavor of an experience and its outcomes. In the discussion or conclusion section, draw lessons out of your results. The lessons must be in line with the stated goal of the study. Again. It may sound obvious, but this is often not the case: results sometimes seem to be if not unrelated, poorly related to the stated goal or goals of the paper. Maybe they are listed in a different order with respect to the goals, with something less relevant coming first and with something unexpected introduced as obvious. It may be useful to favor the connections by recapping, better is with the same words, the stated goals and complement them with the corresponding results. There can be something unexpected as well, something that you had not foreseen at first: do include it, and make it clear that that was not expected but still it is an interesting additional result, and under what respects. You also have to make reference to the field of study, highlighting in the what sense you are contributing to it and advancing it (as you should have “promised” in the introduction). Eventually, make sure to discuss limitations and weaknesses of the results and implications for future research. We are at the end of this lesson, so we can recap what the main sections of a paper are. Abstract: the marrow of your work Introduction: what you did and why. Method: how the study was undertaken Results: what you found out. Discussion/conclusion: what you learnt from what you did. The state of the art, which we will discuss in another lesson, can be found in different positions. The most typical ones are after the introduction or right before the discussion. Finish up with references: the publication venue will provide guidelines on how to handle them, but usually it is a good idea to include every citation in text, and vice versa. Don’t forget to thank, in the acknowledgement section, anyone whom should be thanked: the agency that funded the research, any colleague that provided advice, any user who volunteered to undergo your experiment, any collaborator who did not sign the paper and yet was helpful. Last thing: if there is any additional material you deem useful – and there is room for it – add it: figures, questionnaires, “raw” data, etc. And this is all I think – you should be set to go. Good luck!