by Michiel de Moor
Even if you’re in a niche research field, it seems almost impossible to keep up with all the scientific literature that has been coming out in the past couple of years. There are estimations that the global scientific output doubles every 9 years, so it’s not going to get any easier. If you want people to read about your results, you’ll have to stand out. An important part of standing out is having a good abstract.
The abstract contains the essence of the story, and summarizes the most important results. Skimming over the abstract is usually the first filter people apply to figure out whether or not a paper is worth reading in detail. In this sense, the abstract is like the window display of a department store, designed to lure people inside.
Designing a window display is big business, and over the years many courses have popped up that teach aspiring researchers how to write better papers and capture their intended audience. Archetypical phrases can help to quickly communicate meaning: because people are familiar with the phrase, it takes them less effort to get the information contained in it. However, as with most things that get overused, the meaning of these phrases can be lost or transformed over time.
Below are a few phrases that I’ve encountered regularly in physics papers, what signals they send, and what to look out for when using/reading them.
1. <Research field X> has received a lot of attention recently.
By signalling which research field you think your research belongs to, you show people who belong to the same “tribe” that this paper should be of interest to them. It also allows you to place your contribution in a broader context. The proliferation of increasingly specialized journals is a double-edged blade in this case: it facilitates publishing about tiny details of a larger issue, but it also makes it more difficult to connect to researchers outside your tribe. Additionally, it can create an echo chamber, where the same reasons for the field’s existence keep being repeated until they become dogma. Be aware of your intended audience, especially if you’re trying to step across tribal lines and connect with a more general subset of physicists.
2. We find clear signatures of <X>
Sometimes, experimental results can be very clearly explained by an elegant physical model, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Sometimes, while the model doesn’t exactly line up with the experimental results, it paints the same broad-strokes picture while making minimal assumptions. And sometimes, the signal you measure ventures into “Jesus shaped potato chip” territory. Calling your results “signatures” gives the clear signal that a) there’s definitely something here and b) it’s not clear what that something is. And this is okay! Just because you don’t know what’s happening doesn’t mean the observation has no value to others. It is important not to speculate too wildly though: extraordinary claims still require extraordinary evidence.
3. These results pave the way for <X>
This signal tells your audience that not only is this result intrinsically valuable, it also serves as an enabling technology for other things they might find interesting. By “paving the road”, you suggest that all obstacles to further progress have been eliminated. However, it’s important to recognize that not all roads are created equal. For example, even if you manage to go down a steep, winding mountain road on a unicycle, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to do it again. Also, remember that a piece of road is generally not considered useful if it doesn’t connect to a larger network. Because of this, it can be tempting to try to connect a slightly dull result to a more exciting bigger goal in an attempt to get people to pay attention to your paper. If you can justify this, for example because your results might be relevant for a certain community in a way that is not obvious (see point 1), then go for it. Keep in mind, though, that a lot of people also use this tactic as a form of scientific clickbait.
Conveying the results of months (or even years) of hard work in a clear, concise manner is one of the most difficult parts of science (at least, for me it is!). The kinds of phrases I described here can serve as crutches to help you get started on the difficult path towards writing better papers. But just like real crutches, at some point you’re better off casting them aside and learning to walk by yourself.
Michiel de Moor is an experimental physicist working on topological quantum computer. He spends most of time in a loop of fabricating quantum devices and measuring quantum devices. When he’s not working in the cleanroom, he enjoys seemingly pointless discussions and taking part in pub quizzes. Groundhog Day is one of his favorite movies.