Don’t introduce your paper by saying that many people have long been interested in the topic (UPATEDx2)

Scientific papers often start by noting that lots of people are interested in the topic: “Topic X is of wide interest in ecology”, or some similar phrase. Sometimes they also talk about changes over time in how many people are interested in the topic, for instance by writing “Topic X has long been of central interest in ecology” or “Much recent research in ecology considers topic Y”.

Please, please don’t do this.*

As a colleague of mine likes to say, your paper should tell the reader about biology, not biologists. That is, your paper should introduce the biological topic and explain why it’s interesting and important, not say that other people think the topic is interesting and important. No, not even if everyone since the dawn of time has thought the topic interesting and important. Science is not a popularity contest. If the topic really is interesting and important, then you should be able to explain why, in which case the fact that other people also think the topic is interesting and important is at best superfluous. And if the topic is not interesting and important, pointing out that lots of other people think it’s interesting and important just shows that lots of people care about boring and unimportant things. Or at best, that your topic is a bandwagon.

For instance, one line of research in my lab concerns spatial synchrony in population ecology. Populations of the same species separated by hundreds or even thousands of km often exhibit positively-correlated fluctuations in abundance. Which is frickin’ amazing when you think about it. (UPDATE: Judging from the comments, that last sentence is confusing readers. My bad. The important thing about synchrony is not that I personally think it’s amazing, or that many others do too. The important thing is that it’s a real phenomenon (not just noise), and that it’s unexplained.) It’s like “action at a distance” in physics–how can such widely-separated systems behave as if they’re somehow connected? Such mysterious behavior cries out for an explanation. That’s why spatial synchrony is worth studying.** Not because spatial synchrony has long been of interest in ecology, or because much recent research in ecology addresses spatial synchrony, or etc.

The difference here can be subtle. For instance, there’s ongoing disagreement over whether short-distance dispersal leading to phase-locking is a plausible explanation for the observed long-distance synchrony of population cycles in nature (as opposed to in theoretical models or tightly-controlled microcosms). Alternatively, though not mutually-exclusively, long-distance synchrony of population cycles might be due to the long-distance synchrony of weather fluctuations, known as the Moran effect. If I was writing a paper on spatial synchrony, I might refer to this ongoing disagreement and use it as motivation for my own work. But it’s important to be precise here, and cite the disagreement for the right reasons. The motivation for further work is that there’s an interesting biological question–the causes of long-distance synchrony of population cycles–that hasn’t yet been answered. Resolving disagreement among the people working on this question is not a good motivation for further work. The goal of science is to figure out how the world works, not to produce agreement among scientists as to how the world works. Those are two different things, although it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between them in practice (e.g., it’s hard to recognize if a question hasn’t been answered, if everyone working in the field thinks it’s been answered). So here, it would be better to say something like “There are two alternative, though not mutually exclusive, explanations for long-distance synchrony of population cycles…” Rather than “Ecologists disagree about the causes of long-distance synchrony of population cycles…” The former phrasing is better because it keeps the focus on biology, rather than on what biologists think about biology.

From my own experience, I can tell you that it’s hard to avoid slipping into talking about biologists rather than biology. You have to constantly guard against it, or at least I do. This is a good mental habit to get into. It makes you alert to bandwagons and zombie ideas, and so keeps you from jumping on them or falling for them.*** It also helps you develop the courage of your own convictions and the ability to articulate them. Writing about biologists rather than biology is a crutch. It’s something you do when you don’t really know–and I mean really know–why your topic is worth studying.

p.s. This advice applies to talks and posters too.

UPDATEx2: As noted in the comments, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t talk about the history of research on your topic. The whole comment thread is great, actually, you should read it.🙂

*Note that I’m sure I’ve done it myself, though I haven’t gone back and checked. We are all sinners.

**Well, I could and sometimes do wave my arms about the applied importance of synchronized disease or crop pest outbreaks and argue that my work will improve our ability to predict/manage/prevent those things. Which doesn’t make such arm waving a good thing. Again, we are all sinners.

***In general, I think graduate students in particular tend to overrate the importance of working on “hot” topics. At the risk of overgeneralizing from my own example, I am living proof that you don’t have to work on “hot” topics, or use popular approaches or systems, to have a career in ecology. Spatial synchrony for instance has never been an especially “hot” topic, protist microcosms have never been a popular study system (just the opposite, in fact), and hardly anybody even understands the Price equation. What’s important is that you work on a topic for good reasons that you can articulate. One of the hardest things to do for graduate students who want to go on in academia is to become familiar with the current state and history of their field, while retaining/gaining the ability to think critically and independently. Also while gaining/retaining the confidence that thinking critically and independently, rather than following the crowd, is actually good for their academic careers rather than bad. (Note that “thinking independently” is not at all the same as “not knowing or willfully ignoring what everyone else thinks”, and that “thinking critically” is not at all the same as “thinking everybody else is wrong about everything”. The foundation of independent and critical thought is a broad and deep grasp of previous thinking.)

46 thoughts on “Don’t introduce your paper by saying that many people have long been interested in the topic (UPATEDx2)

  1. Well, I know that I’ve been a “sinner” (nice touch, Jeremy) on this one. But despite my sinning, I would agree with you that “A lot of people are interested in X” is a weak justification for a paper – “Thing X is interesting/important/unresolved” is much better.

    But: I would actually disagree on citing ecologists’ disagreement (ooh, that’s so meta…). One important function of the Introduction is to identify a gap in current knowledge. I don’t know what better evidence there could be of such a gap than disagreement in the literature. So to me, identifying such disagreement, and what it would take to settle it, seems like an excellent rhetorical move, and so I’m not surprised that it’s a standard one in our literature! Swales (1990, Genre Analysis, Cambridge) treats this in some detail.

    • Oh, I agree 100% about citing ecologists’ disagreement! Sorry if that wasn’t clear in the post. What I tried to get across in the post is that you should cite ecologists’ disageement for the right reasons. As you say, disagreements can be a sign of a gap in knowledge, and it’s that gap in knowledge that makes the topic worth studying.

  2. Totally agree, J. Many first sentences can be safely deleted with no negative effect. I think when people sit down to finally write their paper this is just the easiest sentence to stick in there to get the juices flowing. Fine, just remove it when you’re done.

    I dig those papers from the 60s and 70s that have a one-paragraph introduction. Boom, right into the good stuff. I guess we’re accumulated enough history as a field that we can’t do that any more.

    In general, ecology papers seem to have long-winded introductions. Four to six paragraphs should be enough. Do you think other fields like econ or physics do too? “Gravity is one of the four fundamental forces of the universe and has long interested physicists.” ??

    • “Many first sentences can be safely deleted with no negative effect.”

      Your plan is logically flawed: http://dilbert.com/strip/1995-04-09🙂

      “I dig those papers from the 60s and 70s that have a one-paragraph introduction. Boom, right into the good stuff. I guess we’re accumulated enough history as a field that we can’t do that any more.
      In general, ecology papers seem to have long-winded introductions. Four to six paragraphs should be enough. Do you think other fields like econ or physics do too?”

      Great comment. Lots to chew on there. I agree that ecology papers (including my own) often have long-winded intros. ESA talks definitely do. That’s why I’d like to see the ESA go back to scheduling talks 15 min apart, or at least go back to forcing people to talk for no more than 15 min, leaving the remaining 5 min for questions. As it stands, most ESA talks just have too much padding in the intro.

      I can imagine getting some pushback on this from students who don’t know the literature yet. But I say we shouldn’t worry about that, since eventually they’ll have read enough literature to agree with you here.

      • One minor caveat on short introductions–it’s (hopefully) not just senior ecologists reading the paper. Although brevity is a good thing, this should not be at the expense of accessibility to at least a somewhat broad audience. A frequent problem in many papers (some of mine included, particularly early ones) is that they provide so little context for non-specialists that the paper is effectively inaccessible beyond the two or three people who are experts in the topic.

        When it comes to conference presentations, though, I agree that lots of the intro “fluff” could be eliminated. This was most severely manifested in one talk I saw at a recent conference, with most of the folks in the audience hoping for a little info on a recently hyped paper from a major journal. Instead, we got 12 minutes of back story, 3 minutes of real “content”, and absolutely nothing that wasn’t already in the literature. Frustrating to the max!

      • “Although brevity is a good thing, this should not be at the expense of accessibility to at least a somewhat broad audience. ”

        Agreed. I think the way to square this circle is to cite and *briefly* summarize reviews or key papers as needed.

        Re: conference talks, a while back I talked about how I’d mistakenly thought that Ignite talks at the ESA meeting wouldn’t work if people just treated them as short versions of regular ESA talks. I was wrong. You can treat them as short ESA talks, and one way you do it is to cut all the introductory material and assume familiarity with the topic on the part of the audience.

  3. I just submitted the first chapter of my (future) dissertation for review to a journal last week. Go figure that SENTENCE ONE does exactly what this blog advises against. Luckily, it is really the only sentence in the paper that does this, but I really should consider revising it.

    It brings up another issue that I’m currently experiencing myself. Transitioning from writing as a master’s student versus writing as a phd. It’s been a real learning experience trying to get away from writing species centric papers versus papers that are much broader in scope and which tend to be more interesting. Of course, everyone is different and this skill seems to get better with experience (generally speaking), but every little piece of advice (such as this blog) helps! Cheers.

    • “I just submitted the first chapter of my (future) dissertation for review to a journal last week. Go figure that SENTENCE ONE does exactly what this blog advises against. ”

      I was wondering if we’d catch out anyone who’d just done what the post advises against.🙂 Glad you found it helpful.

  4. This is a great post! I literally just went and opened every paper I’ve written to see if any of them started with the offending phrase. They did not. Whew! I would argue that for similar reasons, statements like “…we have a poor understanding of X….” is poor motivation for a study. We have a poor understanding of many things, and rephrasing this statement to emphasize the unresolved question or biological process is much more interesting.

  5. This was a great post. Too bad that the people who most need to heed this advice, the authors of papers about climate science, are unlikely to read it. I think if you removed the “Everyone thinks this is important” and “97% of scientists agree” language from those papers, you’d get an almost un-publishable replacement. “No one understands this, including me, and I just built some computer algorithms but they can’t be tested so I don’t know if they really mean anything. Don’t ask me about data. I don’t collect data and my model does not synchronize well with actual field measurements.”

    • Careful. When climate scientists say “97% of scientists agree”, they’re refuting the claim of climate change denialists that there’s much more disagreement among climate scientists than there actually is.

      Re: the content of climate science papers, please stay on topic. This comment thread isn’t the place to debate climate science.

  6. I’m just going to briefly brainstorm here about a few scenarios where I think this might be an overstated rule-of-thumb.

    1) You might be working on a topic that readers, particularly older ones, feel has already been locked up/resolved for quite some time. Getting it out of the way that there’s been a resurgence of interest in the topic might be worthwhile up front.

    2) What if elements of the paper have as much to do with biologists as with the biology? For example, meta-analyses or discussions of systematic bias by the scientific community? If a key theme of the paper is that you designed your methodology in response to current trends in the community?

    3) I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that sometimes the only real justification for answering certain questions in biology is because we are curious.*

    “Such mysterious behavior cries out for an explanation. That’s why spatial synchrony is worth studying.** Not because spatial synchrony has long been of interest in ecology, or because much recent research in ecology addresses spatial synchrony, or etc.”

    If you look at that snippet, what it really boils down to is that you’re saying it’s worth studying because you personally feel it’s a mystery worth explaining. You didn’t link it to any socially relevant topics like climate change or conservation biology, nor did you tie it to any clear hypothesis about general principles or patterns in ecology. And that’s totally OK. I just don’t see why it’s better for you to say that you find it to be intriguing than to say that the community find its intriguing.

    * Okay this may just be because of my perspective as a paleontologist, rather than a true ecologist. To a large degree we study fossils because people are curious about what happened in the past, and sometimes I think it would be more honest to just say so rather than twist ourselves in circles trying to find a sexier justification for the study.**

    ** Obviously, I don’t mean that we cannot or do not study scientifically meaningful or socially impactful patterns in paleontology, just that sometimes we don’t and I think that’s OK.***

    *** Impactful is not a word, but I’m using it anyway. And that’s also OK.

    • Re: 1, hmmm. On that view, “There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in X” is rhetoric of a sort, intended to get people who would otherwise ignore your paper to sit up and take notice. I’m on record as being ok with using rhetoric for that purpose, so I can hardly object here. But I’d probably still suggest sticking with the science if possible.

      Re: 2, that’s a different situation. If the paper is *about* what scientists think, then obviously you have to write about that! Though I’m not sure what you mean by “designed your methodology in response to current trends in the community”.

      Re: 3, whether or not something is of interest only to you personally, or of interest to you and many others, the key thing is to focus on the reasons for which it’s of interest. If the reason is “I personally just happen to be curious about this topic”, well, that’s totally fine, but you can’t expect anyone else to share your admittedly-idiosyncratic curiosity. Yes, what *counts* as a good, non-idiosyncratic reason for studying topic X is in some sense decided by the community. But that’s different than saying that the *reason* for studying topic X is “because the community thinks it’s worth studying”.

      Also re: 3: I’m not saying anything about the value of fundamental vs. applied research here. I think there are great reasons to do fundamental research: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/why-do-fundamental-research-in-a-world-with-pressing-applied-problems/

  7. Hmmm, I wonder if the manuscript I’m working on violates the spirit of what you are getting at or not. The current opening sentence is, “While parasites were largely overlooked by plankton biologists for most of the 20th century, it is now clear that parasitism is a major force in the plankton.” So, it’s sort of the flip.

    I don’t particularly care how people start the intros of their papers anyway. I’m with lowendtheory: I want them to cut to the chase.

    • Yeah, history-of-the-idea style introductions are a borderline case.

      I agree with you and lowendtheory that authors should cut to the chase. I’m a sinner on this too.

      • Okay, back to finish my comment. (I got interrupted earlier and hadn’t made it back to update!) As I said before, I mostly don’t care how people start their manuscripts, because I focus primarily on the title and abstract to decide whether to read the paper, and then am most interested in the results. But I think it can be really interesting to go into the history of the idea, and, for some papers, this is a key part of the story. The paper I’m working on now (with the opening sentence quoted above) deals with describing a parasite that attacks Daphnia. Our work suggests that it is the same as a parasite that was first described in 1903, and that has been studied sporadically since then, but never fully characterized. So, for this particular paper, that’s it’s something that has been seen regularly and across a broad geographic range is an interesting part of the story.

        All of which is to say: for the people reading this who are nervous because their intro starts out with a sentence related to how long people have worked on something: don’t worry about it. In my opinion, there are cases where that sort of intro is appropriate (others have noted other instances in the comments). And, even if it’s not necessary, your paper isn’t going to be judged based on that.

      • I completely agree. I see a big difference between this sort of history-of-ideas introduction, and people referring to how many people are or have been interested in X as if that in and of itself shows that X is interesting.

        Re: not much caring what people write in their introductions (and discussions?), this is something Andrew Gelman’s blogged about. About how blog posts are like scientific papers with all the boring, inessential bits and technical details removed.

      • I think I agree more with the idea that saying “No one has ever studied X” is not a good way to start, because that always leads me to think “Maybe because it’s not interesting?” I think saying “Lots of people have studied X” might not be the most interesting way to start, but it doesn’t particularly bother me. I may have even used it (but am too lazy to check).

      • @Meg:

        Yup, “No one has ever studied X” is indeed an unpromising start, because one’s natural first reaction is “Maybe there’s a good reason for that.” I talked about this in that old post on weak reasons for choosing a research project.

      • Huh, I never felt that something never previously studied indicated there was any reason for it. In my view, there is SO MUCH that could be studied… infinitely, really, that I am usually drawn to entirely novel works. If there exists a good reason why something has never been published on previously, then the author(s) should address that history and why they somehow managed to crack the nut.

        For my MS degree, I investigated the phosphorylation state of Mitosis Promoting Factor in the fission yeast. All the gurus in the field mocked me- saying this was all resolved13 years before I picked it up, and that I was wasting my time. Thankfully, they were wrong, and my work overturned a major assumption concerning the yeast life cycle. A “Zombie Idea” put to rest, I suppose.

        I wonder if some Zombie Ideas persist because of a reluctance to take a fork on the research road not taken previously?

  8. Excellent post, Jeremy. Good writing skills can’t be emphasized enough. I was blessed with a mentor in English when I was an undergrad who diligently spent years teaching me how to write. The GOLDEN RULE is, do not end any manuscript with the phrase, “Floridly yours, Ginger Bread PhD”.
    In other words- especially for scientific writing- get rid of any verbiage not required to communicate the thrust of your thesis. And do not include information in the text that is readily apparent to the reader. Citing your example- if it is the case you are writing about a “hot topic,” chances are the reader already knows it. If they don’t, then they should be able to decipher it from your reference section.
    The method I have used for a long time now is to edit, edit, edit- ad nauseam, winnowing the verbiage down, until I cannot eliminate anymore without detracting from understanding. My mentor from 30+ years ago would critically evaluate my writing, and very often used the phrase, “Take that word, sentence or paragraph out behind the barn and shoot it!” I’ve never forgotten that sage advice, and I repeat it over and over again as I edit my work.

  9. This doubly applies to abstracts.

    I just plowed through the latest issue of Ecology (which is publishing a lot of great stuff of late). For me, there is a clear hierarchy of decisions when confronting a new issue–Title, Abstract, Figures. If they are consistently good, I download the paper and trust DevonThink to find it when I need it again. Right now the rate limiting step are the Abstracts, which are these daunting blocks of text that usually start with 2-3 sentences of Intro. For me, if the title has caught my eye, it has served the function of the Intro. The next thing I want to see is what makes the paper special.

    In my community ecology course this semester we have been spending time deconstructing abstracts. Dave Tilman often writes, effectively, a tweet that pitches the main result of the paper as the abstract’s topic sentence. The rest kind of backfills the details. This is pretty awesome, if you ask me.

    One final thought–who reads Intros and Discussions? I submit it is the neophyte who is learning about the field, and the one of five people who are the uber-specialists, largely to see if they are cited (!) and if there is any hint of the new direction. I think most people in between–at best–skim these two wordiest of sections, focusing on the first and last paragraph of each. This is because they trust themselves decent judges of the importance of a study after reading the Results and Methods. Those are the sections where grace and clarity of presentation should be focused, after the title and abstract of course.

    • “One final thought–who reads Intros and Discussions? ”

      Well, Brad Anholt told me he keeps up with the field by reading the Introduction (and only the Introduction) of *every* paper published in several leading ecology journals. That’s how he keeps track of what the field as a whole is thinking.

      How to write an abstract would be a good topic for a post sometime. Although there are probably already lots of resources out there on this.

      • I know for myself, I have a bad habit of going immediately to the results section to see the figures & tables. If something is of interest, then I go to the methods and then the discussion. I rarely read intros, but probably should.

        I also have a habit of very quickly perusing citations, because they are an indicator of whether or not the author(s) are up to snuff on the status of things. If I sense someone hasn’t hit the key citations related to their topic, I likely will not go much further, because it indicates some degree of intellectual laziness.

        Concerning abstracts- I have learned to not “trust” them anymore. What I mean by this is that authors often omit critical information from abstracts, and so you can miss out on locating a paper of personal interest if you do not look deeper.

  10. Thank you for this useful post. The intro I’m working on for my current manuscript is full of shout-outs to what biologists may or may not be doing, thinking, studying etc. I have to admit, I hadn’t thought about this issue until I read your post because I read so many papers that begin this way. The process of thinking and writing independently and critically is certainly a process and I have surprised myself with how .. non linear it has been to go from long and windy thesis chapters to short(er) and succinct publications. I’m glad I’m reading a variety of opinions now in the first year of my PhD, rather than in my last year!

  11. I agree this is an overused trope. And especially the point of an intro is to highlight your question and presumably this is not a topic that has been well trodden or opined about forever in the literature (assuming it is a novel question which it better be).

    But I think there are times and places to violate this rule. If I ever get lucky enough to feel like I’ve added a major brick in the wall of our understanding of latitudinal gradients in species diversity, you better believe I’m going to start by talking about how this is a question that has been on the front burner of ecologists minds since Darwin.

    And to lowendtheory and Meg’s points, I totally agree about short introductions. Indeed, my single most common piece of advice as an editor or reviewer is “shorten the introduction by 50%”. (My second most common is shorten the discussion by 50%). These are not garbage cans for everything you ever read or thought on the subject. These are the critical parts in the story arc that forefront your question and what you learned about that question.

    • “a question that has been on the front burner of ecologists minds since Darwin.”

      That’s another cliche I thought about working into the post: Using “Darwin worked on this” as a motivation for studying the topic or reason for thinking the topic interesting/important.

      • Which is easier than ever given that you can search for any phrase in the Darwin corpus and find…*something*…that relates to what you do.

      • All true, but I’m still going to say it (not for every paper, but if I feel like it is a really big advance) …🙂

      • I’m a sinner on this too. I have at least one paper (currently being revised after having been rejected) that in passing refers to an idea of Darwin’s.

        Cheesy references to Darwin are done often enough (especially in talks) that I suspect they’re losing their intended impact at this point.

        Which gets to another topic that might be worth a post: How to grab the audience’s attention at the start of your talk. Or really, hold the audience’s attention, since you ordinarily have it when you first start speaking. There are some common intros that are so overused now that they have zero impact–they just bore people rather than capturing their attention. A collage of pretty pictures illustrating “biodiversity” has to be the most cliched way to start an ecology talk. And while I have limited experience to draw on, I bet “Here’s a pithy quote from Darwin” is right up there as a cliched way to introduce an evolutionary talk. Which raises the question of how to do better.

        Ok, now I’m feeling inspired, will start drafting a post.🙂

      • What about Linnaeus? If that counts as a cliche, I think the intro paragraph of a proposal I just submitted for a general science postdoc grant violated three of your don’t do rules:
        “More than hundred years before it had a name, Linnaeus founded the discipline we now call “Ecology” as the “the economy of nature”. If nature is an economy, then surely its currency is energy. Every one of the diverse forms and functions living organisms use to survive, grow and reproduce, share a common feature: they require energy. Because of its central role in all ecological processes, a fundamental goal of ecology is to understand the mechanisms that regulate the propagation of energy through ecosystems. To date, the scientific discussion has centered around the relative importance of two regulatory mechanisms: “bottom-up” processes, where the biomass of populations is determined primarily by the availability of their resources, or “top-down” processes, where the biomass of populations is regulated by their predators [1,2]. Here, I describe my plan to explore the role of a third and novel mechanism,…”

      • I think that’s a pretty good bid at an attention-grabbing intro. I’m just now drafting a post on the importance of grabbing or holding the audience’s attention right from the get-go.

      • The biodiversity slide works for the evolution side of things too. “Here are pictures of the great [morphological/phenotypic/behavioral/etc] diversity displayed in [clade]. I am interested in why and how this diversity evolved.” Right up there with the quotes from Darwin.

  12. I agree with Brian and some other comments (although in a minority, so not sure if the topic is important ;): we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water – the fact that many people are interested in a particular subject CAN be important information for the reader, and I see nothing wrong with noting that if it’s true. For example, if I may cite from the introductory paragraph of a certain recent opinion paper in TREE

    “The IDH features in numerous ecology textbooks [4–7]. The IDH also remains a popular research topic: Connell’s original paper on the topic [1], which introduced the term ‘IDH’, has been cited over 1000 times just in the past five years according to ISI Web of Science.” (Fox, 2013)

    Essentially, the aim here is to show that the IDH is an widely-used concept for ecologists, and that it is therefore an important issue to see if it is a bad concept. I feel that this is perfectly reasonable line of argument.

    Plus, like Andrew, I wasn’t so sure about the alternative to the “people find it important” argument to establish importance – OK, you may say that the “frickin’ amazing [..] mysterious behavior cries out for an explanation. That’s why spatial synchrony is worth studying”. But it seems to me that any consistent argument of what is worth studying will inevitably go back to the preference of the respective community.

    I personally feel that the bigger problem is not that such statements are used (with taste and where appropriate), but that they are used wrongly, i.e. that unlike claimed, there is actually no increasing interest in a certain topic at all.

    • Re: my writing in my IDH paper: that’s an example where the topic of the paper *is* ecologists as opposed to (just) ecology. That’s why I wrote it as I did. If I was just writing a paper on, say, an experiment testing how disturbance affects diversity, I’d never write the intro that way.

      • Well, if I had data that convincingly rejected the IDH, I would certainly mention how widely cited the IDH is, because that’s the story, isn’t it? If it’s the other way around, however, it may not be such a good idea: 1000 studies have found support for the IDH, and here’s another.

        I don’t understand what you mean by “your paper is about ecologists”. It seems to me you discuss explanations / evidence for the IDH, not the sociology of the field.

    • “Plus, like Andrew, I wasn’t so sure about the alternative to the “people find it important” argument to establish importance”

      Clearly I didn’t write that passage clearly. My bad. The important thing is *not* that I personally consider synchrony frickin’ amazing, or even that many people do. The important thing is that it’s a phenomenon that is (i) real (i.e. it’s not just noise or a meaningless coincidence or whatever), and (ii) unexplained.

      • OK, also with respect to the comments above, I agree that novelty is clearly more important than popularity, and often those two oppose each other.

        But if they come together, popularity is not such a bad thing afaiac.

      • So, I’m totally on board, and I’m just playing Devil’s advocate at this point, but…

        “The important thing is that it’s a phenomenon that is (i) real (i.e. it’s not just noise or a meaningless coincidence or whatever), and (ii) unexplained.”

        Fair enough, but there are countless phenomena that meet those criteria. At some point people want to prioritize which ones to care about. I could argue (but won’t really!) that an increase in the rate of scientific study is a reasonable, though crude, gauge of priority, and worth mentioning.

        At the end of the day though I think your point is valid. There’s a significant difference between having it as your first and only justification for a study versus mentioning it as one component of a broader justification.

      • @Andrew:

        See those old posts linked to in another comment, on better and worse reasons for choosing a research project, for more on motivating one’s choice of what to study.

    • Hmmm, interesting take I’d say. One thing I have noticed in having two substantial careers in two widely separated sciences is the issue of “audience”. In my prior life of cell cycle biology/ cancer work, authors rarely if ever mentioned things like “the hot topic of debate” or “this line of research is especially compelling” or “1000 authors cite”… . The reasons for this were a) anyone reading my paper already knows this and b) if they don’t, then they haven’t done their homework.

      Pause and think for a moment about Watson & Crick’s 1953 paper describing the double helix of DNA. A TWO PAGE PAPER that transformed biology and has since been cited over 10,000 times!

      Gotta love how the ended it too: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

      This is how science should be written.

  13. Your post, and the comments, have me re-working an Intro I’ve been struggling with for the past few days. The idea of focusing on the biology, rather than the history, of my question actually threw me off. I hadn’t even realized I was doing the latter. While the text is now a right mess, I think the points made here will help it out quite a bit. Thanks.

  14. Pingback: Friday links: women and STEM awards, grant review is not a crapshoot, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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