On writing scientific papers — 13. April 2016

On writing scientific papers

I recently found the essay On our duties as scientists. I liked the following sentences in particular:

The purpose of writing scientific papers is to communicate an idea (or set of ideas) to people who have the ability to either carry the idea even further or make other good use of it. […]
An idea can be a new way of looking at objects (e.g., a “model”), a new way of manipulating objects (i.e., a “technique”), or new facts concerning objects (i.e., “results”).

To me, the first sentence nicely formulates the essence of scientific papers. I imagine at least one person sitting a talk I’m giving and really thinking: “That is a good idea, I could use that, why didn’t I come up with that.”

I seems to me that in the branch of research I’m working in (neuromorphic engineering), it is more of a competitive than of a collaborative situation. People publish their circuits to show how far they’ve come and what their chips are able to do. Many of these publications are mere advertisements or computer system descriptions than scientific research reports in the sense of the above-mentioned essay.

However, this does not imply that there are no new ideas hidden in these papers. But the systems or chips that are described are, in my opinion, not solutions to well-defined problems and therefore cannot and will not be reused.

The authors of the papers whose existence I’m questioning might have found very good and new solutions for a particular problem, for example an asynchronous serial data link (or any other part of their system). Therefore, I opt for breaking papers up into smaller portions of which each one conveys only one idea that can really be useful for other people. Papers on large circuits or even on whole systems won’t help anyone in the wider scientific community except the author(s).

But, these system description papers will help the group in which the system itself has been built. So they should be written as internal technical documentation and not as public scientific articles. This has the additional advantage that there is no limitation on the number of pages and no constraint on the page layout whatsoever. The compromise which one often has to seek, between too full detail and few pages, disappears.

I think that by having to focus one’s publications on parts of one’s work that really contribute new and useful and reusable ideas one will maybe start thinking more collaboratively.

Two-Column Scientific Journal Articles — 7. January 2016

Two-Column Scientific Journal Articles

I was wondering why I find many two-column scientific Journal publications so hard to read.

I guess the main reason is that the figures are often too far away from their references. As shown here:



What you can see here is that there is a huge distance between the reference to figures 1 and 2 and the actual figures. When reading this on a computer screen you have to scroll around a lot.

The reason for this seems obvious: Journal publications layouts are still optimized for being printed on paper in letter format. Therefore, they use two columns because the lines of text would be too wide otherwise, except if they wasted more than half the page’s width by leaving it blank.

But it seems to me that the figure placement becomes really hard with these layouts. And it becomes even worse with strange  rules like “no figures on the front page” (at least it seems to me that such a rule exists. I think that it would be much more convenient if the text was laid out in one single column and if the figures were directly places next to their references (and in case of multiple references to those that explain the figure first).

Some Journals have obviously already realized this problem and I’m not telling a new story here, but still, I wonder why someone started to use this strange layout in the first place.