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Writing and Publishing Scientific Papers

Gábor L. Lövei

Part I. Before you start

1. Some Basics

Texte intégral

1Arpád Tóth, Hungarian poet, bemoaned, in a heart-rending poem written in 1923, that there is no direct route “from soul to soul”. While his pessimism is perhaps not totally warranted, he was right. When we have an idea, a discovery, and want to let others know, we have to bridge a gap between ourselves and others: we must express ourselves somehow. Trying to grab others, take them where we saw the new fact, and let them see for themselves is not usually enough nor practicable. The human race has long abandoned this as the sole, or chief, method of passing on acquired knowledge. We have invented different systems that have one thing in common: we have to use some system to code the information we possess. Language is one of those codes. The initiator must understand the new information then learn a coding system to express herself. However, even though this is not easy, it is only the first half of the communication process. The rest is the receiver’s task: to decode the information in order to understand it. Thus, for effective communication, two processes must be conducted successfully. The initiator’s responsibility is bigger here, as she can make the decoding process really, even if often involuntarily, difficult. She can also try her best to help the receiver, i.e. the person(s) trying to decode and understand the information.

2It is very common that we, when in the role of initiator, use the coding system differently when we face different receivers. For example, when we talk about our scientific work, we instinctively use different words (modify the code), depending on whether we are speaking with our peers, friends, family, or our children. Why? Because we are aware of their differences in levels of expertise in the subject, in vocabulary, in attitude. In other words, we modulate our message, our use of coding, to try to meet the expectations and level of skill of our communication partners. We try to make the decoding easier for them. So, effective communication requires successful coding as well as decoding. These processes are done by different people, who are often not in personal contact, thus the two processes are typically conducted separately. The receiver is often on her own, to interpret (decode) the message successfully.

3From this follows the most important principle of communication: the simpler the code, the easier is the understanding, and the lower are the chances of misunderstanding. So, the coding of information not only has to be precise — it also must be expressed using the simplest possible code. However, there is a conflict here: precise coding is often very complicated. As we move from the complicated to the simple, the message will lose precision, and will also lose complexity and articulation. We can move along the complexity-simplicity continuum towards simplicity only so far, before the message will become too simple. At such oversimplification, the message will become so general as to be meaningless. Therefore, we should aim for simplicity, but we should very judiciously guard how far we go in this process. Nonetheless, the most frequent problem in scientific communication is unnecessary complexity, rather than oversimplification.

4A special point here is that we want to present new discoveries — facts that, so far, no one has established. Understanding novelty is a challenge, so we best serve the receiver if we do not unnecessarily make her task more difficult by using a very complicated code. If communicating successfully requires that we use the simplest appropriate coding, then in the case of presenting new discoveries, the use of the simplest possible coding is mandatory.

5Actually, we are in luck. The fact that today’s scientific lingua franca is English helps us. Why? Because English is a language where simplicity is also a stylistic virtue, so we can write both effectively and elegantly by using uncomplicated language.

6So, all elements are consilient: we have data that we genuinely trust are new, exciting and reliable. We would like to show them to the wide world. When presenting new discoveries, simplicity eases understanding; it also increases elegance.

7A final note: scientific publishing is not only about ourselves. It is not merely to show off, as it were, our ingenuity to the world, our discovery of a number of “firsts”. It is to start a dialogue, to invite feedback. It is a continuing dialogue about the world, about its facts, rules, and exceptions. About its beauty, and about the beauty of the call of the unknown. A quest that has no end, and whose reward is not an occasional rest on some peak, or plateau that we have reached, however small. Rather, the reward is the unending vista, the continuing pursuit. It is the voyage with no arrival.


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.


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