Draft of a scientific article being prepared

4. Write clear articles thanks to Maeda's simplification algorithm

Remove general statements, don't write a review, build a chain of evidence.


If your paper is interesting, it will attract readers from other fields. How do you make sure it is crystal-clear for them? By using a simple but powerful procedure, Maeda's simplification algorithm. It consists in 3 steps:

  1. Remove the obvious;
  2. Remove the meaningless;
  3. Replace them with the meaningful.

Let's see how they apply to a paper, step by step.


1) Remove the obvious: drop general statements

For a paper, removing the obvious is similar to previous advice for a¬†funding proposal: drop the clich√©s. You know the kind of general opening you see in almost every paper in your field? Don‚Äôt use it. No need to wax lyrical about climate change ‚Äď everybody knows about it. You‚Äôll save yourself precious time by not writing about it.


2) Remove the meaningless: don't write a review in the Introduction

What's meaningless for readers? Everything that's not useful for understanding your study (this principle is also called Chekhov's gun). Therefore, the Introduction should not contain an overview of your field; instead, you should refer readers to reviews.

If you’re not convinced, think about occasions when you tried to read papers from a new field. Most of the time, there were several concepts you couldn't understand, even though the introduction tried hard to explain them, right? You ended up having to read reviews, and most of them were not so useful.

Explaining difficult concepts is too hard for the Introduction - instead, it’s a job for a (good) review. So by directing readers to the best reviews, instead of writing one yourself, you do them a great favor. 


‚ÄúBut shouldn‚Äôt I try to make the Introduction interesting, e.g. by providing historical anecdotes‚ÄĚ?
I see your point and enjoy historical anecdotes too, but the quicker you write your papers, the more time you have for research. Whereas including in your paper anything not directly relevant takes up more of your time: for writing, proofing, referencing… 


What you should focus instead on making interesting is the scientific logic behind your papers. In particular, the fact that you built a chain of evidence ‚Äď let‚Äôs see how.


3) Replace with the meaningful: use result headings that form a chain of evidence

Your results should form a chain of evidence


What's meaningful for readers? Whether your article's conclusion is warranted by your results. Therefore, your results should form a chain of evidence towards this conclusion. The best way to showcase this is to design your result headings (which summarize your results) so that they form a chain of evidence.


Consider these headings:

   Transport and trust are the main barriers to HIV screening

      [Corresponding details...]

   Household screening of HIV is acceptable, as it doesn't require transport

      [Corresponding details...]

   A HIV focal person is required to generate trust in household screening

      [Corresponding details...]


And the article’s conclusion (which should be stated in the title):

Household screening of HIV is acceptable but requires trust-building by a focal person


This chain of evidence is clear and convincing, right? By reading only the headings, you gradually reach the same conclusion as the authors. Conversely, if the headings don't form a chain of evidence, readers struggle to understand how you reached your conclusion.


Alas, a common problem occurs when result headings do not state results, but instead general topics (e.g. ‚ÄėAnalysis of transport‚Äô). This is bad practice, as it doesn't help the reader understand your chain of evidence. So always state¬†results in the headings, not general topics.

Another common problem occurs when there is no clear logical conclusion in the article (or at least it is not stated in the title, as it should be). This makes it impossible to build a chain of evidence towards this conclusion. So you should always organize your paper around a clear conclusion, stated in the title (unless your paper was purely exploratory).


Actionable points

¬†ūü°ļ Have a look at your article‚Äôs Results section. Do the headings read like a chain of evidence towards your article's conclusion, stated in the title?¬†In my experience, that's rarely¬†the case, yet¬†a few tweaks are often¬†sufficient¬†to generate a satisfying chain of evidence. Let me know how this test went for you¬†at david@moretime4research.com.


  PS: For more advice about writing clearly for non-experts, you can download my free guide, Being clear without dumbing down. It's short and practical. And you'll find a step-by-step methodology for designing whole proposals (or papers) so that they can be quickly understood in my book The speed-readable grant application.

¬† PPS: I‚Äôve noticed that quite a few researchers from the social sciences and humanities had joined the newsletter ‚Äď welcome! So I‚Äôll try to alternate examples from these fields with examples from the asocial and inhuman¬†sciences ;-).


Header image: Image by Freepik
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