How To Write A Scientific Paper

Neatorama welcomes a new collaboration with the magazine Annals of Improbable Research (the folks who brings us the annual Ig® Nobel Prizes), where the article How to Write A Scientific Paper by E. Robert Schulman was first published.


We (meaning I) present observations on the scientific publishing process which (meaning that) are important and timely in that unless I have more published papers soon, I will never get another job. These observations are consistent with the theory that it is difficult to do good science, write good scientific papers, and have enough publications to get future jobs.

1. Introduction

Scientific papers (e.g. Schulman 1988; Schulman & Fomalont 1992; Schulman, Bregman, & Roberts 1994; Schulman & Bregman 1995; Schulman 1996) are an important, though poorly understood, method of publication. They are important because without them scientists cannot get money from the government or from universities. They are poorly understood because they are not written very well (see, for example, Schulman 1995 and selected references therein). An excellent example of the latter phenomenon occurs in most introductions, which are supposed to introduce the reader to the subject so that the paper will be comprehensible even if the reader has not done any work in the field. The real purpose of introductions, of course, is to cite your own work (e.g. Schulman et al. 1993a), the work of your advisor (e.g. Bregman, Schulman, & Tomisaka 1995), the work of your spouse (e.g. Cox, Schulman, & Bregman 1993), the work of a friend from college (e.g. Taylor, Morris, & Schulman 1993), or even the work of someone you have never met, as long as your name happens to be on the paper (e.g. Richmond et al. 1994). Note that these citations should not be limited to refereed journal articles (e.g. Collura et al. 1994), but should also include conference proceedings (e.g. Schulman et al. 1993b), and other published or unpublished work (e.g. Schulman 1990). At the end of the introduction you must summarize the paper by reciting the section headings. In this paper, we discuss scientific research (section 2), scientific writing (section 3) and scientific publication (section 4), and draw some conclusions (section 5).


The purpose of science is to get paid for doing fun stuff if you're not a good enough programmer to write computer games for a living (Schulman et al. 1991). Nominally, science involves discovering something new about the universe, but this is not really necessary. What is really necessary is a grant. In order to obtain a grant, your application must state that the research will discover something incredibly fundamental. The grant agency must also believe that you are the best person to do this particular research, so you should cite yourself both early (Schulman 1994) and often (Schulman et al. 1993c). Feel free to cite other papers as well (e.g. Blakeslee et al. 1993; Levine et al. 1993), so long as you are on the author list. Once you get the grant, your university, company, or government agency will immediately take 30 to 70% of it so that they can heat the building, pay for Internet connections, and purchase large yachts. Now it's time for the actual research. You will quickly find out that (a) your project is not as simple as you thought it would be and (b) you can't actually solve the problem. However (and this is very important) you must publish anyway (Schulman & Bregman 1994).

3. Scientific Writing

You have spent years on a project and have finally discovered that you cannot solve the problem you set out to solve. Nonetheless, you have a responsibility to present your research to the scientific community (Schulman et al. 1993d). Be aware that negative results can be just as important as positive results, and also that if you don't publish enough you will never be able to stay in science. While writing a scientific paper, the most important thing to remember is that the word "which" should almost never be used. Be sure to spend at least 50% of your time (i.e. 12 hours a day) typesetting the paper so that all the tables look nice (Schulman & Bregman 1992).

4. Scientific Publishing

You have written the paper, and now it is time to submit it to a scientific journal. The journal editor will pick the referee most likely to be offended by your paper, because then at least the referee will read it and get a report back within the lifetime of the editor (Schulman, Cox, & Williams 1993). Referees who don't care one way or the other about a paper have a tendency to leave manuscripts under a growing pile of paper until the floor collapses, killing the 27 English graduate students who share the office below. Be aware that every scientific paper contains serious errors. If your errors are not caught before publication, you will eventually have to write an erratum to the paper explaining (a) how and why you messed up and (b) that even though your experimental results are now totally different, your conclusions needn't be changed. Errata can be good for your career. They are easy to write, and the convention is to reference them as if they were real papers, leading the casual reader (and perhaps the Science Citation Index) to think that you have published more papers than you really have (Schulman et al. 1994).

5. Conclusions

The conclusion section is very easy to write: all you have to do is to take your abstract and change the tense from present to past. It is considered good form to mention at least one relevant theory only in the abstract and conclusion. By doing this, you don't have to say why your experiment does (or does not) agree with the theory, you merely have to state that it does (or does not). We (meaning I) presented observations on the scientific publishing process which (meaning that) are important and timely in that unless I have more published papers soon, I will never get another job. These observations are consistent with the theory that it is difficult to do good science, write good scientific papers, and have enough publications to get future jobs.


Blakeslee, J., Tonry, J., Williams, G.V., & Schulman, E. 1993 Aug 2, Minor Planet Circular 22357
Bregman, J.N., Schulman, E., & Tomisaka, K. 1995, Astrophysical Journal, 439, 155
Collura, A., Reale, F., Schulman, E., & Bregman, J.N. 1994, Astrophysical Journal, 420, L63
Cox, C. V., Schulman, E., & Bregman, J.N. 1993, NASA Conference Publication 3190, 106
Levine, D.A., Morris, M., Taylor, G.B., & Schulman, E. 1993, Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 25, 1467
Richmond, M.W., Treffers, R.R., Filippenko, A.V., Paik, Y., Leibundgut, B., Schulman, E., & Cox, C.V. 1994, Astronomical Journal, 107, 1022
Schulman, E. 1988, Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, 17, 130
Schulman, E. 1990, Senior thesis, UCLA Schulman, E. 1994, Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 26, 1411
Schulman, E. 1995, Ph.D. thesis, University of Michigan Schulman, E. 1996, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 108, 460
Schulman, E., Bregman, J.N., Collura, A., Reale, F., & Peres, G. 1993a, Astrophysical Journal, 418, L67
Schulman, E., Bregman, J.N., Collura, A., Reale, F., & Peres, G. 1994, Astrophysical Journal, 426, L55
Schulman, E. & Bregman, J.N. 1992, Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 24, 1202
Schulman, E. & Bregman, J.N. 1994, in The Soft X-Ray Cosmos, ed.
E. Schlegel & R. Petre (New York: American Institute of Physics), 345
Schulman, E. & Bregman, J.N. 1995, Astrophysical Journal, 441, 568
Schulman, E., Bregman, J.N., Brinks, E., & Roberts, M.S. 1993b, Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 25, 1324
Schulman, E., Bregman, J.N., & Roberts, M.S. 1994, Astrophysical Journal, 423, 180
Schulman, E., Bregman, J.N., Roberts, M.S., & Brinks, E. 1991, Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 23, 1401
Schulman, E., Bregman, J.N., Roberts, M.S., & Brinks, E. 1993c, NASA Conference Publication 3190, 201
Schulman, E., Bregman, J.N., Roberts, M.S., & Brinks, E. 1993d, Astronomical Gesellschaft Abstract Series 8, 141
Schulman, E., Cox, C.V., & Williams, G.V. 1993 June 4, Minor Planet Circular 22185
Schulman, E. & Fomalont, E.B. 1992, Astronomical Journal, 103, 1138
Taylor, G.B., Morris, M., & Schulman, E. 1993, Astronomical Journal, 106, 1978
(Image credit: Flickr user Nic McPhee)


This classic article, by E. Robert Schulman is from the airchives of the Annals of Improbable Research. Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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Having just reviewed 30 proposals for an upcoming conference, let me say this "advice" would be tremendously helpful to some "researchers" out there. It's one thing to write well without having something important to say; it's another thing to (as I've seen) write a proposal that has absolutely no structure, submit a ...proposal that is at 600% of the word limit, misspell your own scales, mix and match fonts, or use random words from other languages. Really.
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Miss Cellania - I know and I understand you - I publish scientific and medical journals and deal with papers from their submission right through to being published - I don't underestimate a thing :)...and that post went down so well with my colleagues - thank you :)
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Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Sometimes, I find it amazing that science is still held as credible after all these years because of crap like this that goes on "behind the scenes".
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