What is the structure of a scientific paper?


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Scientific papers might be very short (1-2 pages), or monographs (dozens to hundreds of pages long), but most are typically between 4 and a few dozen pages long. Monographs are primarily used to thoroughly document a single particular topic: a complete description of the anatomy and biology of a particular species or group of species; a review of the geography or the geology of a particular region; the results of a particular space probe; etc.: in other words, topics with a large amount of observations in a very narrow topic. Very short papers tend to simply announce a new discovery, document an important new observation, or respond to a particular criticism of previous work. The middle range papers are where most the hypothesis testing goes on.

Table 2: List of databases containing free, full-text scientific papers and data sets.


The highly technical language of most papers doesn't help matters. While much of the jargon serves as a kind of "shorthand" among scientists to refer to common methods or basic findings, it can make scientific papers difficult or impossible to understand for those who aren't involved in the field.

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Now that you've had a guided tour of one scientific paper, it's time to attack another one with a little less assistance. The sections below raise some important questions that you'll need to answer in order to understand this paper about sexual selection.


Robert Day was for many years the Vice President of the Institute for Scientific Information, the world's largest commercial producer of information services covering the professional literature. Day has written a number of articles and reports on various phases of scientific writing, editing, and publishing. The following selection is from his book How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, considered definitive in its field.To properly define "scientific paper," we must define the mechanism that creates a scientific paper, namely, valid publication. Abstracts, theses, conference reports, and many other types of literature are published, but such publications do not normally meet the test of valid publication. Further, even if a scientific paper meets all of the other tests, it is not validly published if it is published in the wrong place. That is, a relatively poor research report, but one that meets the tests, is validly published if accepted and published in the right place (a primary journal, usually); a superbly prepared research report is not validly published if published in the wrong place. Most of the government report literature and conference literature, as well as house organs and other ephemeral publications, do not qualify as primary literature.A scientific paper is a written and published report describing original research results. That short definition must be qualified, however, by noting that a scientific paper must be written in a certain way and it must be published in a certain way, as defined by three centuries of developing tradition, editorial practice, scientific ethics, and the interplay of printing and publishing procedures. As you embark on your own original research project, you'll find it necessary to read in-depth scientific literature in your chosen research field. However, this may be the first time you've tried reading a scientific paper and you may find yourself confused about how to proceed. This guide, which is broken into four sections, is intended to help you get started:Many people have struggled with the definition of "valid publication," from which is derived the definition of "scientific paper." The Council of Biology Editors (CBE), an authoritative professional organization (in biology, at least) dealing with such problems, arrived at the following definition.... Scientific papers are the heart of the science community; they're one of the major ways scientists communicate their results and ideas to one another. If you're considering doing original scientific research, reading the scientific literature is a Read the roundtable discussion about by students who successfully competed at the top-level science competitions, and you'll quickly see that scientific papers were vital to those students when it came to both choosing their topics and carrying out their experiments.At first reading, this definition may seem excessively complex, or at least verbose. But those of us who had a hand in drafting it weighed each word carefully, and we doubt that an acceptable definition could be provided in appreciably fewer words. Because it is important that students, authors, editors, and all others concerned understand what a scientific paper is and what it is not, let us work our way through this definition to see what it really means. Scientific papers contain the most up-to-date information about a field. So if you have a topic you're interested in studying, reading the scientific literature in that field will help you understand what has already been discovered and what questions remain unanswered. The great thing about science is that every time one question is answered, the answer unlocks twice as many new questions. This means that once you've read the literature and know what people have already discovered, you'll probably be able to see what still needs to be done in the field and use that to design your own relevant research project.