27 April 2016

On Writing Academic Papers

Sometime ago, my husband asked me to give a small talk in one of his classes on introduction to research. He currently belongs to the Faculty of Computer Science, fyi. In the meantime, other than turning-on-and-off and using Microsoft Office, I don't really know much about computer, let alone computer science. What can I share?
"You can share your experience on writing academic papers. You have published some", my husband said. Which then reminded me that it has been a (long) while since the last time I produce a full-length research paper. Which then (again) reminded me that I have not made a personal note on research-manuscript-writing-tips like I did for poster presentation. And since up to now only Allah knows when I will get the chance to put down another academic paper, I guess I'd better write the note before I forgot a lot of things. So here we go.

***

The writing process is divided -by myself- into 3 parts, which are usually, but not necessarily sequential.

The Big Picture
Main idea
I guess this point needs no further explanation. Clearly, you should have an idea about what you're going to write.

Logic structure
At this point you make a (rough) outline, make sure you make it is (easily) understandable by your target reader.

Appealing plot
Only after some time do I realize that an interesting plot is not only important for fiction stories. It also does for academic papers. So, one of my paper presented more than one finding. I prepared the draft and checked the structure, it was logic and understandable so I sent it to my advisor for review. His comment was that the draft was okay, but plain. It was not so strong. I did not really understand what he meant, so he suggested me a techical advise to restructure the draft. He said something like, "try to move this part here, this one there, and make this section your concluding remark". I did, and surprised with the result as the paper became more interesting to read.
The data you have is like scattered pieces of Lego bricks, waiting to be made into something meaningful. You can just stack up the bricks, making a straight high blocks, which is an understandable shape. But it is plain, if not boring. With the same set of bricks, you can instead make, let's say, a miniature of Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building or even chain of a particular polymer (if you're that geek), which is more appealing to see.
I hope I make my point clear here.

Suitable journal
So now you have in your head that brilliant idea about what to write on your paper. Select some journals that match your topic.
In the ideal realm, no matter where you're going to submit your manuscript, you will give your best to prepare the paper. In this pragmatic world, to where you plan to submit your paper will somehow affect the intensity of your effort. Submitting the work to a reputable journal definitely requires way much effort than if you send it to an unknown journal that sends you a random invitation. If your work is on chemistry, of course you know you have to work real hard if you plan to publish your paper in Angewandte Chemie (2014 Impact Factor: 11.261). Plan to submit to Chemical Review? (2014 IF: 46.568, like, seriously!) I wish you the best luck. To be noted, impact factor is not a perfect parameter to determine quality of a journal, but for a quick look before you review more thoroughly, it's enough.

The Actual Writing
Yes, of course you should write the whole manuscript. Yet before you start, doing a careful read on the journal's specific guideline for author is very strongly recommended. I make it an obligatory for myself. It will save you from the pain of editing the little details that often hurt your eyes (due to the need of extensive staring at your computer's screen). It is important to comply with the guideline, as it's the preliminary aspect that the editor will check before further review. It may also show your professionalism, as negligence could infer laziness, so yeah. The details that are usually varied for different journals are:
- general formatting requirements
- image formatting
- table formatting
- image and table numbering
- math fomulae formatting and numbering
- references style (!)
There you go now, let your fingers dance on the keyboard and pour your ideas. Don't forget to be mindful of grammar and punctuation, whatever language you write your paper in. Because eventhough you plan to use language editor service, there is a limit to what they can do, and at the very end it is yourself that has to do the finalization.

The Refinement
In this part, your work is as simple as re-reading, and re-writing, then adjusting the work based discussion result or suggestion from your co-author. Next step is re-reading, and re-writing, then adjusting the work based discussion result or suggestion from your co-author. And the next is re-reading, and re-writing, then adjusting the work based discussion result or suggestion from your co-author. Repeat n-times.
Yess.. this part is often reaaally exhaustive. But, unless you are Stephen Hawking of the field, it's a bitter step that you need to take. Never feel like your work is almost done when you finish your first draft. No, it's not. Well, of course unless you are Stephen Hawking. It is still a long and windy road that you need to face, so brace yourself. In the end of this road, when your manuscript has been perfected and all ready to be sent to the editor, you will be grateful you are not embarrassing yourself by sending the first draft to the editor (I know, unless you are Stephen Hawking, okay).
Now you can sit back and relax for a while before, you know, (severe) comments from unknown reviewer reach your mailbox. After this, you know what to do next, right? Yep, it's another series of re-reading, and re-writing, then adjusting the work based discussion result or suggestion from your co-author.

It is indeed a hard work to bring your manuscript to see the sunrise, especially for an early-stage researcher or graduate student, but it worth the effort. I mean, you have the chance to change the world and how cool is that! :p Okay, on a more realistic scale, publishing your work meaning making it accessible to practically limitless number of people. Who knows, someone somewhere find it really useful and beneficial to complete his/her own research or develop his/her work. That would be enough, right? (Then, together, you can change the wooorrrlld! Ha!)

Anyway, I still remember that afternoon, when I got the news that my first paper would be published.
Earlier, my professor instructed me to publish my master thesis. He suggested a journal that was not very difficult to get in (not so high impact factor, that is), which I found suitable for a first-timer like myself. But my advisor (an assistant professor at that time), who worked more closely and more intensively with my research, somewhat disagree with the suggestion. He challenged me to publish in one of top journals in the field. Simply saying, even with a loooot of help from my advisor, for the next few months the work costed me blood and tears. The blood part is an exaggeration but the tears were of course for real :p.
When the manuscript finally reached completion, it was my advisor who submitted it to the publisher, so that it was him who knew the progress of editing and reviewing process. He usually informed me the latest update by e-mail. But that afternoon, he suddenly appeared at my table holding a piece of paper. "Congratulations!", he said with a smile while handing me the paper. It was an e-mail from the editor informing that my work had been accepted for publication. It was one of the rare and precious "congratulation" that I heard from him. He intendedly printed the e-mail and went up all the way to the 4th floor (his room was on the ground floor) to give the news directly. Once he dissapeared, I couldn't think of other things to do beside hurrily went to the rooftop, my self-claimed musala, and prostrated before The Almighty. Oh, the joy. I still smile when I remember this moment :). 

And.. I guess that would be pretty much all that I remember about preparing academic papers. Thank you for reading this entry and I hope you find it beneficial. Good luck with publishing your work! :)

Dear Watanabe-sensei and Tsuchiya-sensei, I know that there's almost no chance that you'd read this, but thank you for everything that you have taught me. I am forever grateful that I worked under your care.

2 comments:

Daswochenende said...

Oh my God.. Utie, you genius! You should have written this bloody brilliant article 6 years ago, before I started writing my papers. I don't think, that anyone had ever explained so clearly as you do by your article. This kind of class should obviously be made mandatory for the med-students here in Germany..Do you give classes now in Indonesia?

Vuterlanik said...

Thanks, Dee :). I'm just about to start again working in academia.
Such class is mandatory here in my husband's university. Unfortunately the general syllabus mostly only comprised of theoretical matter to be memorized, which is impracticable, that in the end students still confuse when facing real research-related work. Challenge for the lecturers, I guess :)