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In academic writing, several articles on the topic of writing papers denounce the practice of "announcing" the topic.

As an example, if a paper were to read...

The goal of this study is to not be a study at all but to be a fictional paper of only one paragraph included as an example on stack exchange to demonstrate how a paper announcing its topic reads. This goal of this sentence is to fit some more content in with the previous paragraph on how sentences announcing their topic come across to the audience. In conclusion, this third sentence reinforces the point of the first sentence.

Why exactly is "announcing the topic" best avoided? What is a good way to explain it to others what "announcing the topic" does to a paper?

Examples of articles denouncing the practice include:

  • 1
    What point in the paper are you asking about? Starting a paper with "The goal of this study..." seems poor, but it can make a lot of sense to say something like that after a few paragraphs about the general field and previous work. "Widgets are important because of reasons. This pile of papers establishes the correct size of widgets. Other authors have also considered widget rigidity. In this paper, we study the surface texture of widgets." – David Richerby Nov 26 '19 at 10:31
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    @DavidRicherby I am an engineer copyediting a paper written by a non-native scientist. "this paper proposes... ", "the aim of this study is to...", "this paper builds.." are phrases I marked for removal. If this were a peer review I would not hold the paper for this, but simply make a comment to avoid announcing the topic. Since I am copyediting I do not want the work of this scientist to miss out on getting the attention it deserves simply because it reads like the example. I am looking to better understand the reasoning behind this guideline. – Agriculturist Nov 26 '19 at 20:37
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    @DavidRicherby Quite frankly, I rather like it when a paper just says e.g. "The contribution of this paper is to ..." – Azor Ahai -- he him Nov 27 '19 at 14:38
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    @AzorAhai Exactly. You’re searching through tens of papers that might be relevant. You don’t want to have to read paragraphs and paragraphs just to see what a paper actually does. – David Richerby Nov 27 '19 at 15:42
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    This guidance is not uniformly applicable in all areas of academic writing. I was explicitly taught by my PhD thesis advisor, a highly published pure mathematician, to include sentences with phrases like, "This paper concerns..." The guidance linked from Arkansas State University illustrates with an example from a humanities field. In general, I think that scientific writing is much more likely to include such phrases. – benblumsmith Nov 27 '19 at 17:26
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In this answer, I am going to explain to you why you shouldn't announce what you are about to write anyway.

It is boring and redundant and a waste of real estate on the page.

Start with a claim, or a key observation. Those can be interesting. Don't talk about your paper in your paper, get to your paper! A sentence saying "The goal of this work is XYZ." can be eliminated without any loss of information. It has to be followed by an explanation of what the heck XYZ is, so beginning with that explanation is better. Fewer words, same quantity of information.

Although such papers are not sales tools, the psychology of writing advertisements does still apply, to academic papers or novels: Readers want to be hooked by the first sentence, interested by the first sentence, and that is going to serve you well, if they are interested in the opening they will be happy to read some less interesting sentences to gain some context and lead them into the discussion or story or article or advertisement.

In advertising, we say that on every sentence the reader is looking for a reason to stop reading and throw it away. The only reason they don't is because you have created a question in their mind, and they are reading to get an answer, or you are saying interesting things that they want to know. Don't give them a reason to give up.

That is less true for academic articles, but the advice is sound. Don't bore them from the first sentence. They probably know what the article is about from your article title and the rest of the context; the journal it was in, the keywords you selected, etc.

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    +1 for the opening sentence :) – Agriculturist Nov 25 '19 at 22:17
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    On the other hand, there is also this principle of 3-step content delivery: (1) Tell the audience what you're going to say, (2) say it; (3) then tell them what you've said. In academic writing this is accomplished by (1) Abstract, (2) Content, (3) Conclusion. – justhalf Nov 26 '19 at 6:03
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    This answer hits the nail on the head: “announcing the topic” is usually redundant. It’s worth noting a corollary, though: sometimes it’s not redundant, and in those cases it’s often not so bad. If there’s no way to get into the topic itself without some technical background, then a short orienting sentence before that technical stuff is very helpful. – PLL Nov 26 '19 at 9:40
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    I’ve had too many professors who jump right into formulas and solutions instead of stating what the question or problem is in the first place. – Michael Nov 26 '19 at 10:22
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    You write quite well, but honestly, in academic papers my first goal when reading a paper is just sorting out if the paper is relevant or not. And in my experience, papers are more likely to be irrelevant than otherwise. Creating mystery might be tolerable when the writing is good and easy to understand, but in more complex matters it makes the content more obscure than needed. Furthermore, I'll get really pissed if you hook me up reading something I never should have read in the first place. – Mefitico Nov 26 '19 at 13:11
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There are reasons to repeat yourself, but they differ to what you imply.

  1. Academic readers are usually skimming through hundreds of papers to find the results relevant to their current work, so

    1. Try to tell them everything they need to know in the title

    2. If that fails, try to tell them everything they need to know in the abstract, including results and conclusions. (Some journals discourage this, IMO wrongly).

    3. If that fails, still be careful not to withhold information early on. i.e. in the introduction don't say "We test to see whether X predicts Y", say "We demonstrate that X predicts Y (R2=0.8, p=0.001 - or indeed better stats if your audience will understand them).

  2. In a large paper on a complex topic it's easy to get lost, so do include signposting to help the reader remember their context. E.g. "The link between X and Z is a relevant consideration for our study of X and Y, therefore in the following section we discuss existing literature discussing links between X and Z."

But don't use the rhetorical device of "tell someone what you're going to tell them, tell them the thing, tell them what you told them" for the sake of driving a point home, as you would in rhetoric, or delivering spoken material as a teacher, etc. (Excepting the first sentence of the discussion/conclusions section where it is usual to summarize what you already told them, in shorter form). You repeat to make it easy for readers to find the appropriate part and remember context.

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  • Comment 1/2 : This is the exact argument I am up against. Go to this article: americanscientist.org/blog/the-long-view/… scroll to reader expectation for the structure of prose. If most text reads like the gibberish in the first example then I would agree that repeating is helpful. If the text reads like the second where everything is where the reader expects it then it seems like more reader energy is consumed than necessary. – Agriculturist Nov 27 '19 at 19:49
  • Comment 2/2: The whole point of the methods section is to avoid repeating the experimental details necessary for replication when discussing results. If done correctly the results section should be less complex. .. The same is true of every other section using a standard scientific format. – Agriculturist Nov 27 '19 at 20:10
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If you think of yourself as reading a novel, rather than a scientific paper, it becomes very clear. If a novel started with 'In this novel, you will read..' you might find it awkward, or at least old-fashioned - I think there are Victorian novels which take this approach, but it is not the way of modern fiction. It removes the reader from being an active participant 'in the moment' to being a third-party observer, and it injects the voice of the author very load and clear.

In a scientific paper, you want the science to speak for itself, and as a reader, you don't want to be concerned with the authors in particular.

Another key message from novel-writing is to show people something, rather than telling them. This can also apply to scientific writing, and is relevant here I think.

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    I really like the point about "the science should speak for itself." The whole point of experimentation is to get science to tell us its story. That story is what we are trying to tell the world when writing a scientific paper. If that story is muddied with the story of the author "announcing" the topic, or if it is already so muddy that the author feels compelled to "annouce" the topic then the reader may question if the story of the science is worth reading. – Agriculturist Nov 26 '19 at 19:41
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    Personally, when I pick up a novel, I like to look at the back of the book and read "In this novel, you will read..." It helps me decide if I really want to read it. Books that have only testimonials in the back: "This book is awesome, you must read!" really demotivate me and I tend to not read them, since I couldn't get more information that would help me make the final decision of reading it. But of course, once I decided to read it, I don't want the novel itself to start that way... :) – msb Nov 27 '19 at 4:22
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    @Agriculturist You can't always rely on the science to speak for itself. A key part of scientific publishing is novelty, and explicitly pointing out how your paper differs from what's already in the literature is one way to demonstrate novelty. As I mentioned in my comment to the question, "In this paper we..." is a perfectly reasonable way of contrasting your work with a description of what has gone before. Sure, you can argue that the words "In this paper" are redundant but, jeez, it's only three little words in ten plus pages of text. – David Richerby Nov 27 '19 at 10:06
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    Scientific papers are not novels, and they are fundamentally different from novels. For example, a key element in many novels is suspense, which is exactly what you don't want in a scientific paper. In a whodunnit, the last sentence is "Col. Mustard killed him with the lead pipe in the conservatory"; in a scientific paper, that would be the title! A scientific paper is exactly there to tell. The reader doesn't have time to do all your data analysis again: you need to tell them what the conclusions of your research are. You need to tell them why they should read your paper. – David Richerby Nov 27 '19 at 10:10
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    @JonathanMoore What?!? I’m sorry but I can’t even remotely imagine somebody taking so much offence at the words “In this paper” that they refuse to read a paper that is relevant to their own work. We all have to read so many papers in broken English (or, from the other side of the coin, read so many papers in English when that is not our native language) that, honestly, a paper whose only sin is to say “in this paper” is an unimaginable luxury. Where can I find such a gem? – David Richerby Nov 27 '19 at 15:41

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