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Writing Research Papers: Challenges And Traps

Writing research papers is challenging, and time consuming. At the same time it could be a highly rewarding activity. All of us know that knowledge dissemination through high-caliber journals is important to the progression of the research area. Highly influential papers are those, which trigger stimulating and creative discussions and sometimes spark controversies.

With regard to an efficient way on how to write a high-quality manuscript, there are no well-defined, highly scrutinized and mandatory rules, which are cast in stone. Instead, there are some general guidelines capturing commonsense judgment, which, in essence, are quite well accepted by the community and journal editors as well as members of editorial boards.

The comments offered below may serve as some helpful hints on how to navigate through the reefs of poor communication, ineffective structuring of the material, inadequate usage of graphs, and incompleteness of experimentation.

Preparation of the manuscript. There are several key questions one has to address at this preliminary stage:

Identify key objectives of the paper. Elaborate on the main aims of the study. Discuss why they are important and to whom. This aspect of importance could have different facets depending on the nature of the completed research. Motivate the reader.

Stress the originality of the submission: how does it compare with respect to the state of the art in the area? No matter what the nature of the study could be, say a highly conceptual developments, theoretical investigations, simulations, real-world experiment or a detailed case study, the foremost criterion one should have in mind is originality. Textbook material regardless how exciting it could be, is not publishable in journals.

Position your submission vis-à-vis a scope of the journal. Is the journal most suitable to publish your research results? This is a critical question one has to consider very thoroughly. If there is no good fit, no matter how original the submission is, it is very likely it might not be easily accessible by the community. It is also quite possible that the review process could take more time than expected. In our Society, we have three flagship Transactions: IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics- part A , IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics-part B, and IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics -part C. Each of these journals has a clearly defined scope. For instance, in case of IEEE Trans on SMC-A, the focus is on human factors, systems and system aspects as well as human-centric systems. Pay attention to this to assure the highest level of dissemination of your research findings.

Structure While there is a great deal of diversity as to the structure of the manuscript, the general flow of presentation includes several main modules such as introduction, literature review, main results (usually structured into several sections), experimental section, discussion, conclusions, and references. References are crucial to any publication so their list need to be selected in a prudent way. Some auxiliary material is usually structured in the form of appendices. More often some electronic material (demo, data sets, code, animations) are considered and become always a useful addition to the manuscript.

Style Be concise, get to the point. Do not beat around bush. Be clear as much as possible. One has to remember that the reader could be far less familiar with the topic and what becomes apparent to the author might not be that obvious to the reader. Avoid verbosity – this will kill or significantly distort the message. Do not include basic textbook material. Do not use abbreviations or at least reduce their number. Avoid repetition. Do not keep re-phrasing the same idea. Rather than having it reinforced (which is your intention), the reader (and reviewers) will get annoyed.

Abstract Be precise and honest. Abstract should be a standalone entity. Do not use technical jargon. Be brief and specific. Do not cite references here.

Keywords They are important for indexing by enabling the manuscript to be easily identified and referenced. Keywords should be fully reflective of the content of the work. When building a list of keywords, avoid general terms and abbreviations.

Mathematics While it is absolutely important in many cases, do not “dignify” your writing by throwing a lot of “dry” formulas. It is rather unlikely that by doing this the study will gain importance. In contrast, the reader might be confused and disappointed. The clarity coming hand in hand with mathematics is a genuine asset but this does not necessarily mean that there has to be an overload of formalism. Consider collecting some essential yet not a mainstream formal material and derivations (if deemed essential) in an appendix.

Explain all symbols before using them. Avoid misuse of symbols. What is very irritating and confusing is the use of the same symbol in different ways (having different meaning) in different places of the manuscript. Use standard notation that is commonly accepted (say, use boldface fonts for vectors), avoid using fancy symbols (and this is a genuine temptations as we have a plethora of all those nice symbols and fonts available in any text editor).

Experiments Experiments need to be reproducible (well-documented data and all pertinent details about the experimental setup are to be reported). Comparative analysis is helpful. Compare “like with like”. Statistical analysis is a must. In particular, consider 10 fold cross-validation, include ROC (receiver operating curves) if pertinent in the context of the study.

Graphics Figures are important to the effectiveness of the presentation of your main findings however they can easily act as a two-edge sword. Captions should be able to stand alone, such that the figures and tables are understandable without the need to read the entire manuscript. The data represented should be easy to interpret. Colors should only be included when necessary; not to be overused. Summarize results in the text when possible. For instance, there is no reason to build a graph for 4-5 data points; it could well be that these data could be easily included and described in the text of the manuscript.

Discussion Discuss how the results relate to the study’s aims and hypotheses. Tell how the findings relate to those in other studies reported in the literature. Offer possible interpretations of your findings. Highlight the limitations of the study and elaborate on the possible extensions and the most promising pursuits, which might be considered in the future (this message could be reinforced in the conclusion section). Avoid making “grand statements” that are not supported by the data, say “This novel optimization method will enormously reduce the learning time” Do not introduce new results or terms.

Conclusions Put you study in a general context. Describe how the work presented in the paper represents an advance in the field. Suggest future experiments but avoid repetition of what has been presented in some other sections. Avoid being overly speculative. Do not over-emphasize the impact of your study. Let the reader himself/herself appreciate the importance and relevance of the research presented in the paper.

References Follow the guidelines of the journal. Stay away from including personal communications, unpublished observations and submitted manuscripts not yet accepted. Do not include outdated papers and do not consider citing articles published only in the local language. Excessive self-citation and journal self-citation should be avoided.

Writing Adhere to the C3 principle, that is clarity, conciseness, and correctness. Be brief and specific as possible without omitting essential details. Stay away from the common main traps: repetition, redundancy, ambiguity, and exaggeration. Those are common annoyances for editors.

We have not discussed ethical issues, which are crucial; the reader might refer here to a very detailed and highly illuminating material published on the IEEE website. Being cognizant of plagiarism and its various aspects becomes a responsibility of the author. Each editor treats cases of dishonesty very seriously. For instance, IEEE can impose sanctions including a notice of violation in Xplore, prohibition from publishing in IEEE periodicals, rejection and return of papers in reviews and queues, and referral to the IEEE Ethics and Member Conduct Committee.

The process of writing and revising a journal paper is lengthy, painful, yet rewarding. At the end, we hopefully arrive at the pleasant and highly gratifying moment: “it is my pleasure to inform you that the paper has been accepted for publication in our IEEE Transactions…” Good Luck!


About the Author

Witold Pedrycz is a Professor and Canada Research Chair (CRC - Computational Intelligence) in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. He main research directions involve Computational Intelligence, fuzzy modeling, knowledge discovery and data mining, fuzzy control including fuzzy controllers, pattern recognition, knowledge-based neural networks, relational computation, and Software Engineering. He has published numerous papers in this area. He is also an author of 14 research monographs covering various aspects of Computational Intelligence and Software Engineering. Witold Pedrycz has been a member of numerous program committees of IEEE conferences in the area of fuzzy sets and neurocomputing.

Dr. Pedrycz is intensively involved in editorial activities. He is an Editor-in-Chief of Information Sciences and Editor-in-Chief of IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics - part A. He currently serves as an Associate Editor of IEEE Transactions on Fuzzy Systems, and a number of other international journals. He has edited a number of volumes; the most recent entitled “Handbook of Granular Computing” (J. Wiley, 2008). In 2007 he received a prestigious Norbert Wiener award from the IEEE Systems, Man, and Cybernetics Council. He is a recipient of the IEEE Canada Computer Engineering Medal 2008.