“Interesting and Unpublished” Is Equivalent to “Non-existent”

As you may know, this quotation is taken from ‘Whitesides’ Group: Writing a Paper’. As such, I would like to introduce a short essay by Prof. George M. Whitesides, who is one of the most famous chemists in the world.

Indeed, Whitesides has written more than 1,300 papers and owned over 160 issued patents. His research interests cover a broad range of topics, including electrochemistry, biophysics, soft robotics, and the chemical origin of life (these examples are just a small sample of his interests). He is still working hard at Harvard University and publishes many publications every year. He contributed the short essay about how to write a paper to communicate our research to Advanced Materials in 2004. This short essay is quite important and useful for early-stage researchers because Whitesides not only explains how to write a paper, but also implies how to proceed with the research.

In the first section, he describes what the science paper is and also briefly summarizes the importance of the outline method. Basically, writing a paper and collecting data should be performed in parallel.

Do not, under any circumstances, wait until the collection of data is “complete” before starting to write an outline.

In the second section of the essay, the details of how to construct an outline are explained. As a starting point, we can write down all the important ideas which may concern our work. Then, organize those ideas roughly, and refine them. For this step, we can concentrate on organizing the data, preparing figures, tables, and schemes to show the data clearly. After this process, organize these items in order of importance, not in chronological order. Often, the objectives of the paper at the end of writing are different than they were at the beginning.

Much of good science is opportunistic and revisionist.

According to Whitesides’ essay, early-stage researchers tend to suffer their cherished initial failures in the beginning and lead up to a climactic successful conclusion. This approach is completely wrong. We can start with the most important results.

In the final section, he makes some points about style. Basically, we can follow Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to get a sense of stylistic approach.

Two years have already passed since I started my PhD study in France. Fortunately, I have had several chances to write a scientific paper. Through writing a paper, I understood that we only have a short amount of time on this planet. As a result of this limited time, it is very important to perform your work efficiently. In particular, writing a paper is quite tough work at the beginning.

Indeed, it took me almost six months to write a paper before it was ready for the first submission. I did not follow the outline method at the beginning, therefore additional experiments were often needed in order to complete the paper. However, when I wrote the second paper using the outline method, I found it was much easier and more efficient than the first time through the real experience. In particular, I was able to discover possible additional experiments myself, and my discussion with my supervisors became smoother. From a practical viewpoint, even those sentences are clumsy, and it is very helpful to write results and experimental chapters little by little each day. It is much easier for me to redraft what I have already produced than it is for me to write something completely new.

To enrich our scientific productivity, I propose that we read Whitesides’ essay before starting any new topic of research.


Works Cited:

Whitesides, G. M. Adv. Mater. 2004, 16, 1375. (DOI: 10.1002/adma.200400767)

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