Whitesides' Group: Writing a Paper

By George M. Whitesides

1. What is a Scientific Paper ?

A paper is an organized description of hypotheses, date and conclusions, intended to instruct the reader. Papers are a central part of research . If you research does not generate papers, it might just as well not have been done. “Interesting and unpublished” is equivalent to “non-existent”.

Realize that your objective in research is to formulate and test hypotheses, to draw conclusions from these tests, and to teach these conclusions to others. Your objective is not to “collect data”.

A paper is not just an archival device for storing a completed program; it is also a structure for planning your research in progress. If you clearly unstand the purpose and form of a paper, it can be immensely useful to you in organizing and conducting ypur research. A good outline for the paper is also a good plan for the research program. You should write and rewrite these plans/outlines throughout the course of the research. At the beginning, you will have mostly plan; at the end, mostly outline. The continuous effort to understand, analyze, summarize, and reformulate hypotheses on paper will be immensely more efficient for you than a process in which you collect data and only start organize them when their collection is “complete”.

2. Outlines

2.1. The Reason for Outlines

I emphasize the central place of an outline in writing papers, preparing seminars, and planning research. I especially believe that for you, and for me, it is most efficient to write papers from outlines. An outline is a written plan of the organization of a paper, including the data which it rests. You should, in fact, think of an outline as a carefully organized and presented set of data, with attendent objectives, hypotheses, and conclusions, rather than an outline of text.

An outline itself contains little text. If you and I can agree on the details of the outline (that is on the data and organization), the supporting text canbe assembled fairly easily. If we do not agree on the outline, any text is useless. Much of the time in writing a paper goes into the text; most of the thought goes into the organization of the data and into the analysis. It can be relatively efficient in time to go through several (even many) cycles of an outline before beginning to write text; writing many versions of the full text of a paper is slow.

All writing that I do – papers, reports, proposals (and, of course, slides for seminars) – I do from outline. I urge you to learn how to use them as well.

2.2. How Should You Construt an Outline ?

The classical approach is to start with a blank piece of paper, and write down, in any order, all important ideas that occur to you concerning the paper. Ask yourself the obvious questions: “Why did I do this work ?”; “What does it mean ?”; “What hypotheses did I mean to test ?”; “What ones did i actually test ?”; “What were the result? Did the work yield a new method of compound? What?”; “What measurements did I make?”; “What compounds? How were they characterized?”. Sketch possible equations, figures, and schemes.It is essential to try to get the major ideas. If you strat research to test hypothesis, and decide, when you see what you have, that the data really seem to test some other hypothesis better, don’t worry. Write them done, and pick the best combinations of hypotheses, objectives, and data. Often the objectives of a paper when it is finished are different from those used to justify starting the work. Much of good science is opportunistic and revisionist.

1. Introduction

Why did I do this work? What were the central motivations and hypotheses?

2. Results and Discussion

What were the results? How were compounds made and characterized? What was measured?

3. Conclusions

What does it all mean? What hypotheses were proved or disproved? What did I learn? Why did it make a difference?

Next, take each of these sections, and organize it on yet finer scale. Concentrate on organizing the date. Construct figures, tables, and schemes to present the data as clearly and compactly as possible. This process can be slow – I may sketch a figure five to ten times in different ways trying to decide how it is most clear (and looks best aesthetically).

Finally, put everything – outline of sections, tables, sketches of figures, equationa – in good order.

When you are satisfied that you have included all the data (or that you know what additional data you intend to collect), and have a plausible organization, give the outline to me. Simply indicate where missing data will go, how you think (hypothesis) they will look, and how you will interpret them if you hypothesis is correct.
I will take this outline, add my opinions, suggest changes, and return it to you. It usually takes four to five iterations (often with additional experiments) to agree on an outline. When we have agreed, the data are usually in (or close to) final form (that is, the tables, figure, etc., in the outline will be best the tables, figures,… in the paper).

You can then start writing, with some assurance that much of your prose will be used.

The key to efficient use of your and my time is that we start exchanging outlines and proposals as early in a project as possible. Do not, at any cirumatances, wait until the collection of data is “complete” before starting to write an outline. No project is ever complete, and it saves enormous effort and much time to propose a plausible paper and outline as soon as you see the basic strucure of a project. Even if we decide to do significant additional work before seriously organizing to paper, the effort of writing an outline will have helped to guide the research.

2.3. The Outline

What an outline should contain:

1. Title

2. Authors

3. Abstract

Do not write an abstract. That can be done when paper is complete.

4. Introduction

The first paragraph or two should be written out completely. Pay particular attention to the opening sentence. Ideally, it should state concisely the objective of the work, and indicate why this objective is important.

In general, the Introduction should have these elements:

  • The objectives of the work
  • The justification for these objectives: Why is the work important?
  • Background: Who else has done what? How? What have we done previously?
  • Guidance to the reader: What should the reader watch for in the paper? What are the interesting high points? What strategy did we use?
  • Summary/conclusion: What should the reader expect as conclusion? In advanced versions of the outline, you should also include all the sections that will go in the Experimental section (at the level of paragraph subheadings) and indicate what information will go in the Micro-film section.

5. Results and Discussion

The results and discussion are usually combined. This section should be organized according to major topics. The separate parts should have subheadings in boldface to make this organization clear, and to help the reader scan through the final text to find the parts od interest. The following list includes examples of phrases that might plausibly serve as section headings:

  • Synthesis of Alkane Thiols
  • Characterization of Monolayers
  • Absolute Configuration of the Vicinal Diol Unit
  • Hysteresis Correlates with Roughness of the Surface
  • Dependence of the Rate Constant on Temperature
  • The Rate of Self-Exchange Decreases with the Polarity of the Solvent

Try to make these section headings as specific and information-rich as possible. For example, the phrase “The Rate of Self-Exchange Decreases with the Polarity of the Solvent” is obviously longer than “Measurement of Rates”, but much more usefulto the reader. In general, try to cover the major common points:

  • Synthrsis of starting materials
  • Characterization of products
  • Methods of characterization
  • Methods of measurement
  • Results (rate constants, contact angles,whatever)

In the outline, do not write any significant amount of text, but get all the data in their proper place: Any text should simply indicate what will go in that section.

  • Section Headings
  • Figures (with captions)
  • Schemes (with captions and footnotes)
  • Equations
  • Tables (correctly formatted)

Remember to think of a paper as a collection of experimental results, summarized as clearly and economically as possible in figures, tables, equations, and scheme. The text in the paper serves just to explain the data, and is secondary. The more information can be compressed into tables, equations, etc., the shorter and more readable the paper will be.

6. Conclusions

In the outline, summarize the conclusions of the paper as a list of short phrases or sentences. Do not repeat what is in the Results section, unless special emphasis is needed. The Conclusions section should be just that, and not a summary. It should add a new, higher level of analysis, and should indicate explicitly the significance of the work.

7. Experimental

Include, in the correct order to correspond to the order in the Results section, all of the paragraph subheadings of the Experimental section.

2.4. In Summary

  • Start writing possible outlines for papers early in a project. Do not wait until the “end”. The end may never come.
  • Organize the outline and the paper around easily assimilated data – tables, equations, figures, schemes – rather than around text.
  • Organize in order of importance, not in chronological order. An important detail in writing papers concerns the weight to be given to topics. Neophytes often organize a paper in terms of chronology: that is, they give a recitation of their experimental, starting with their cherished initial failures and leading up to a climactic syccessful finale. This approach is completely wrong. Start with the most important results, and put the secondary results later, if at all. The reader usually does not care how you arrived at your big results, only what they are. Shorter papers are easier to read than longer ones.

3. Some Points of Style

  • Do not use nouns as adjective:
    Not: ATP formation; reaction product
    But: formation of ATP; product of the reaction
  • The word “this” must always be followed by a noun, so that its reference is explicit.
    Not: This is a fast reaction; This lead us to conclude
    But: This reaction is fast; This observation leads us to conclude
  • Describe experimental results uniformly in the past tense.
    Not: Addition of water gives product.
    But: Addition of water gave product.
  • Use the active voice whenever possible.
    Not:It was observed that the solution turned red.
    But: The solution turned red. or We observed that the solution turned red.
  • Complete all comparisons.
    Not: The yield was higher using bromine.
    But: The yield was higher using bromine than chlorine.
  • Type all papers double-spaced (not single- or one-and-a-half-spaced), and leave two spaces after colons, and after periods at the end of sentences. leave generous margins.

Assume that we will write all papers using the style of the American Chemical Society. You can get a good idea of this style from three sources:

  • The journals. Simply look at articles in the journals and copy the organization you see there.
  • Previous papers from the group. By looking at previous papers, you can see exactly how a paper should “look”. If what you wrote looks different, it probably is not what we want.
  • The ACS Handbook for Authors. Useful, detailed, especially the section on references, pp. 173 – 229.

I also suggest you read Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (Macmillan: New York, 1979, 3rd ed.) to get a sense for usage. A number of other books on scientific writing are in the group library; these book all contain useful advice, but are not lively reading. There are also several excellent books on the design and figures.






2.1 为什么要写提纲?

在此,我必须强调提纲在论文写作、学术研讨及研究规划中的核心地位。我尤其相信,对于大家而言,以提纲为基础进行论文写作是最有效的方法。提纲是一份书面的行文计划,其中包括论文所依赖的数据。事实上,提纲不仅仅是列出各段的文字内容, 而是按照目的、 假说、 结论来精心组织和呈现数据。



2.2 如何写好提纲?

最经典的方法就是拿出一张白纸,随意写下当时脑子里蹦出的与论文有关的任何点子。自问一些显而易见的问题:“我为什么要做这项工作?” “它的意义何在?” “我想要验证哪些假说?” “我实际验证了哪些假说?” “结果如何,是否产生了新的化合方法?” “我进行了哪些测试?” “有哪些化合物,它们是怎么表征的?” 并且勾勒出可能的反应式及图示。抓住这些主要想法非常重要。如果你的研究起初是为了证实一个假说,可是当你仔细审视手头的资料时却发现,这些数据似乎能更好地证实另外一个假说,也不要担心。将这些都写下来,从中选择一个假说、目标、数据相互匹配的最佳组合。时常,论文完成之时,其目的与最初的目的已经不一样了。要知道,很多优秀的科学往往是机会主义与修正主义的碰撞产物。


1 引言


2 结果和讨论


3 结论


接下来, 将以上各部分更好地组织起来。尤其着力于整理数据,尽可能用清晰简洁的图表来展示数据。这个过程可能比较慢,因为我可能5次甚至10次尝试以不同的方式去描绘一张图,以求达到最清晰最美观的程度。

最后,把所有这一切 – 内容提纲、表格、草图、方程式,安排好顺序。




2.3 提纲的内容


1 标题

2 作者

3 摘要


4 引言



  • 研究目的
  • 研究的意义:为什么重要?
  • 研究背景:有谁做过同样的研究?是以什么样的方式?我们之前做过哪些研究?
  • 指引读者:读者能从中得到什么?哪些想法很独特且有意义?我们采取了哪些策略?
  • 总结:读者应期待怎样的结论?完善的提纲版本应该包括实验部分的所有环节(具体到段落小标题)。

5 结果与讨论


  • 烷基硫醇的合成
  • 单层膜的表征
  • 邻二醇结构的绝对构型
  • 滞后现象与表面粗糙度的关系
  • 温度对速率常数的影响
  • 自交换速率随溶剂极化度而降低


  • 初始材料的合成
  • 产物的表征
  • 表征方法
  • 测试方法
  • 结果(速率常数,接触角等)


  • 章节标题
  • 图表(附说明)
  • 示意图(附说明和脚注)
  • 方程
  • 表格(格式正确)


6 结论


7 实验部分


2.4 要点总结





  • 勿将名词用作形容词:
    ATP formation;reaction product
    formation of ATP (ATP的形成);product of the reaction(反应产物)
  • “this”后面必须接名词,以便明确指代对象。
    This is a fast reaction;This leads us to conclude
    This reaction is fast;This observation leads us to conclude
  • 描述实验结果一律要用过去时态。
    Addition of water gives product.
    Addition of water gave product. (加水后生成了产物)
  • 尽可能使用主动语态。
    It was observed that the solution turned red.
    The solution turned red. or
    We observed that the solution turned red. (溶液变成了红色)
  • 完整描述对比双方。
    The yield was higher using bromine.
    The yield was higher using bromine than chlorine. (用溴比用氯时产出率高。)
  • 使用两倍行距,冒号、逗号和句末的句号后空两个英文字符,留出足够的页边距。

同时我推荐Strunk和White所著The Elements of Style(《文体要素》),阅读此书找找文体格式用法的感觉。也可以在化学学会的图书馆借阅很多其他有关学术写作的书籍,这些书中有很多有益的建议,只是不够生动有趣。那里也有一些非常不错的有关图表设计的书值得一读。


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