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Writing the introduction to a journal article

Page history last edited by claire 7 years, 9 months ago

Paul Thorman and Raja Guhathakurta have put together some guidelines to writing the introduction to a journal article. 

 

From Raja: 

The introduction is the most difficult part of the paper to write.

I tend to start by writing down a a logical flow of ideas - starting from as
broad as possible and ending with items that are very specific to your paper.
Think of the shape of a funnel - and how you would start by getting the
attention of a broad audience and funnel them toward the specific ideas
associated with your project.

We're talking about 5 to 8 (max 10) ideas or bullet points.  Each bullet
point/idea should turn into a paragraph in the introduction (one idea per
paragraph is one of those golden rules of writing).

The logical flow part is also important in that the idea associated with
each paragraph should be linked naturally and in a logical way to the idea
associated with the next paragraph.

Finally, the goal of scientific writing is to make it *easy* for the reader
to read - no drama, no suspense, no guesswork, etc should be required on the
reader's part.  It's good to think about strong opening and closing sentences
for each paragraph.  The opening sentence should reveal what the theme of
that entire paragraph is.  And the closing sentence may often be used to tell
the reader where you're going next.

 

From Paul: 

The goal is to write a few paragraphs that will introduce
the background needed to understand how this paper fits in with the
state of the field. Good examples would be the introduction to Raja's

paper on Andromeda streams:

 http://iopscience.iop.org/1538-3881/131/5/2497/pdf/204232.web.pdf
 and Alis's paper on the stellar halo:

 http://arxiv.org/pdf/1104.3220v2.pdf

 Ideally, the introduction should answer the question: "Why would
 anyone undertake this research, and what has been done on the topic
 before now?" As you can see in the linked examples, nearly every
 sentence has at least one paper reference -- everything we say in the
 introduction should be either obvious, referenced, or something we
 intend to prove in this paper.

The Astrophysics Data System (http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abstract_service.html)

will help you get started: 

 You should be able to put a few keywords into the "Abstract" search
 field (e.g., "orphan stream", "stellar halo") and get a list of recent
 papers to start from. (Google has been working on a "Scholar" search
 engine, but I'm not familiar with how well it works -- I always use
 ADS.)

 Once you find and click on a paper that seems to be on our topic
 (discovery of the Orphan stream, other ways of looking at streams and
 the halo, other studies characterizing its distance and density, deep
 pencil-beam surveys of the Galactic halo), you can usually get the
 arxiv e-print version of the article for free by clicking on that link
 at the top of the page. Another REALLY useful functionality is that
 you can click on "References in the article" to get a hyperlinked list
 of references THIS article used (which might show you earlier work on
 the subject) or click on "Citations to the article" to find out who's
 used this article as a reference (which will point you to NEWER work
 on the subject). Both of these can be helpful, since you generally
 want to cite a mixture of seminal papers (to give those authors credit
 for their original discoveries) and recent work (since you want your
 readers to be aware of the latest in the field).

 It is absolutely okay to find a paper on a related topic and start off
 by looking at their introduction and their references -- there's no
 point in starting off blindly or duplicating effort. You should always
 go to the original reference before using it yourself, though --
 there's a possibility that the reference given is incorrect (wrong
paper by the right author, I've seen a lot of these), or that the
 author misunderstood the reference, or simply that it was on-topic for
 them but not for us. And, of course, we'll be writing our own original
 text from scratch around those references, not plagiarizing someone
 else's introduction.

 I know this sounds like a lot of work, and it IS -- if you're doing
 this right, you should be chasing down quite a number of references,
 looking at papers you don't even end up using, etc. But a well-written
 introduction can be used as a resource by other authors in the future,
 and can really make your paper much more appealing.

 If you are writing the introduction with collaborators, it may be easiest to make the introduction a shared Google

 document, so that everyone can work on it, and the most useful way to
 share citations would probably be to use a simple format.

 Example:

 Previous studies have used spectra to determine metallicity and radial
 velocity for halo stars [1], but this work is based solely on
 photometry.

 [1] http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2012ApJ...761..161S\

 By including the ADS link to each paper, we can easily build a "custom
 library" at ADS later, and have the ADS system output all of our
 references in a single text file for inclusion and cross-referencing
 in the paper. (Trust me, this is the most convenient way to keep track
 of references that I know of.)

 

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