How to write a paper that makes me want to scream

Can you tell I’ve been reading and reviewing papers recently? Every time I end up doing this, I seem to learn more. More about me. More about what I can’t stand reading in reviews. And more about what I can’t stand when it comes to reading papers.

So, since I wrote on Wednesday about what I hate when reading reviews, today you get a list of about common problems in papers. They’re easily avoidable. They never (in my experience) benefit a paper. In fact, for me, they generally make me hate the paper more, and detract and distract from the actual content (which may actually be worth reading).

  1. Using the citation link in place of the authors names. For example “In [10], the authors showed…” or “The work of (Doe, 2008) is very important…”. Is it really too hard to refer to the authors by name? And put the citation at the end of the sentence? 
  2. Do not make it easy for reviewers to figure out who you are if the review process is suppose to be double-blind. This means, don’t mention that your study involved participants from University X or in city Y (unless X and Y really aren’t linked with you university) or that the experiment methodology can be found in paper Z.
  3. When the paper is full of small grammatical and/or spelling mistakes. While I can forgive the occasional mistake, it’s when there are so many that it becomes clear the authors did not bother to edit. Or really lack the skills to edit themselves. If it’s the second case, find someone to edit for you or to teach you how (even better). But either way, suck it up, it’s part of writing papers.
  4. When authors ignore the page limit. I don’t know why, but there always seems to be at least one person who decides the page limit doesn’t apply to them, but applies to everyone else. It’s frustrating, because you can’t usually just stop reading at the page limit for your review. And, just removing the offending pages usually just means not reading the references. Which doesn’t actually detract from their paper, and just gives them an edge in length. Although, to be honest, I’m more annoyed with the PC, for not catching this and correcting it and/or not accepting the paper. I personally think this is part of their job.
  5. When the reference section is either too long or too short. Yes, you may be working on something that very few to no others are working on. But, I doubt everything that makes up what you’re doing has never been researched before. Even if you have broaden your search terms or look at your problem in a more dissected way, make sure you find some related work. On that note, your paper does not need to list every single person who has ever even briefly mentioned the topic. There is likely a page limit, make sure you’re still devoting enough space to adequately explain your own work.
  6. On the same note of above, if you need to provide some background information, that may not specifically fall under related work (as it’s more knowledge the reader needs to understand what you’re doing), be careful that this doesn’t overwhelm your paper. If you find this is taking up over 1/4 – 1/3 of the space, then you probably need to either a) find a venue with a longer page limit or b) trim it down. Another way of telling you’re giving too much background (or too highly detailed), when it takes more space to explain the background then it does to explain what you did and your results. Remember, the paper is suppose to be about your work.

I’ll read almost anything you put in front of me. And, I’d love to hear about your research, even if it has nothing to do with mine. But, I really want to hear about your research, so make sure that it’s what comes out as being front and center in the paper. If I walk away thinking about all the information you referenced, then, really, you failed at writing a paper on your own work. It’s what you’re working on, so you must be (at least somewhat) passionate about it. Make sure some of that passion comes through in the paper. If you can manage that (and this often shows up in the motivation of the paper), you’re readers will be more likely to stick with your paper to the end. 

I’m sure I could keep extending this list. But the above are some of the first things that come to mind. Once again, anyone want to add to the list?

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2 thoughts on “How to write a paper that makes me want to scream

  1. I know exactly what you mean! Yesterday at work I was sorting through over 200 abstracts for research projects, and I was shocked by the number of people who just didn’t bother to follow the formating guidelines (or for that matter check their spelling). I mean, in real life if you did something like that there would be consequences. You can’t just arbitrarily decide not to listen to your boss and add an extra three pages to a five page brief. Sigh. I feel like this whole phemonenon speaks more to the fact that people do not LISTEN or READ anymore. They just skim along and hope that they are getting the gist. Silly people.

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