Lab Advice on Writing Research Papers
Writing research papers is difficult, but extremely valuable and
rewarding. It will really help you structure your ideas and identify
gaps and new directions. Below is some advice on structure and below,
Start by drafting an outline and discuss with your co-authors
before you dive into writing details:
- 1. Title and co-authors.
Think carefully about co-authors. Usually
the most senior co-author is listed last.
- 2. Abstract.
Summarize motivation, what's new, primary
results/conclusions. Give the punchline, this is not a movie
review! Summarize your contributions with quantitative results.
- 3. Introduction/Motivation.
Take 3 steps back and explain why your
audience should be interested in this paper. Know who your
audience is! Your paper will be very different if you are
writing for a general robotics conference vs an automation
conference vs an algorithms conference. Give a concrete example
where your problem arises and a few interesting applications.
Summarize your contributions and why they are significant.
- 4. Related Work.
Demonstrate that you have a scholarly grasp of the
published literature on your topic. organize papers by area and
then chronologically within an area and summarize with emphasis
on how your approach differs (** this is very important). One or
two sentences for each ref. More for the ones that are very
close to your own work. Typically 12-20 references for a conf
paper, up to 40 for a journal paper.
- 5. Problem Statement
notation (use figures)
assumptions: (collect and justify all assumptions here)
parameters: (list values/ranges you'll use and justify)
metrics: (what you will compare and how you will quantify/evaluate the results)
- 6. Implementation.
Details on how your system works, sources of data, etc.
Enough info on hardware and software so others can repeat your
experiments. See tips below.
- 7. Results and Analysis.
The most important section. Think carefully
about how to present your results graphically. Be careful about
using colors as they don't print in B&W: use dotted and dashed
lines to distinguish curves. Also, indicate confidence
intervals based on std. dev wherever possible.
- 8. Discussion and Future Work.
Summarize again Acknowledge
limitations of your paper, suggest open problems for future
research. Don't be afraid to admit the limits: It is much
better if you do this than others expose them later!
- 9. Acknowledgements.
Thank those who contributed ideas, references,
proofreaders (see below), also thank sponsors
with grant numbers.
- 10. References.
Be sure to list authors, title, source, and date of
- Define before use.
Always make sure you define terms/notation before
you use them. Since you are so familiar with your topic and notation,
be on guard for this and your ask your proofreaders to help with this.
- Don't understate.
Avoid words like "simple", "just", "easy", etc, it's
nice to be modest but those words make your contributions sound
weak and what is simple to you is not to your reader. better
to describe as "efficient, well-known", take the time in your
text to explain your decisions and derivations.
- Quantify and be specific whenever possible.
Avoid vagueness: watch
out for words like "usually, mostly, often, some, many...".
Give crisp, refutable hypotheses.
- Provide intuition.
At the start of each section, step back and
explain your ideas and insights in plain language before you
give the technical deatails. use analogies to explain things.
To test your approach, do experiments to compare it with the best
existing method in terms of output, computation time, etc.. No
method is perfect. Explain where yours is better and where it
- Experiments are used to evaluate, never to validate.
You must be objective and do your best to evaluate your method without
bias. When reporting results, give enough data to evaluate the
statistical significance of each experiment.
- Try to construct cases where your method will fail.
counterexamples often lead to insights, or to a proof that your
method will work in all cases.
- Illustrate whenever possible.
Good figures really help clarify a paper.
spend time on your illustrations and ask friends for input.
Ideally, the caption for each figure should be
self-contained and self-explanatory: describe the variables and
the intuition behind what is being illustrated. many readers
will ONLY look at the figures and captions to get an initial
impression of the paper and to decide whether or not to commit
time to reading it.
Clearly acknowledge limitations of your approach, and suggest future
directions for improvement.
Always use spellcheckers and grammar checkers.
When writing a paper with other co-authors, agree on a schedule as
early as possible working backward from the deadline so that everyone
gets turns taking the edit token and budgets time accordingly so that
there is not a huge rush at the deadline.
- Cultivate good proofreaders!
Cultivate 3 or 4 students/friends you respect who will exchange
papers with you from proofreading. You'll learn about writing
papers from reading their papers, and your papers will really
benefit from their input. Make sure you thank them for
criticizing your paper because they are saving you from being
criticized by less friendly readers later!
Ken Goldberg, Oct 2004
goldberg [at] berkeley [dot] edu