How to Write an Opening Sentence for a Scientific Paper

How to Write an Opening Sentence for a Scientific Paper


Hi. This is Karen McKee, retired scientist and
author with another video about scientific writing. Everyone recognizes the opening sentence of
“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. That beginning makes an indelible first impression
and announces that the author is about to unfurl a fascinating story. There are many other great examples of memorable
first sentences in the literary world, but the point I want to make is that first sentences,
whether in a novel or a scientific paper, are important because they capture the reader’s
attention and set the stage for what comes after. How many times have you sat down to read a
journal article and found the opening statement to be uninteresting, uninspiring, or trite? How often do such papers go on to surprise
you with their insights? Given the competition for space in journals,
authors cannot ignore the fact that they not only need outstanding data, they must write
memorable papers. And if they are smart, they will start off
with a compelling sentence or two. Scientific authors are taught to use expository
writing and passive voice when preparing scholarly articles for publication. Information is presented objectively as a
series of facts, often without any hint of human involvement, such as “the samples were
analyzed” rather than “we analyzed the samples”. The ostensible purpose of such writing is
to convey a sense of objectivity, unencumbered by human biases. In contrast, narrative writing uses descriptive
elements to create a vivid image in the reader’s mind. The two types of writing are not mutually
exclusive, however. A scientific paper can include narrative elements
designed to enhance the reader’s comprehension and subsequent recall of the material. One place to use narrative is at the beginning
of a paper. A narrative opening passage sets the stage
for the reader by using a vivid description, active (versus passive) voice, sensory language,
or an appeal to the reader’s curiosity, to name a few techniques. Recent research assessed narrative structure
in 732 abstracts of journal articles about climate change by looking for the following
features. A vivid description of when and where the
research took place. A first-person narrative perspective. Sensory language. Use of conjunctions, which reveal a logical
order. Repetition or reference to prior statements,
which enhances connectivity. Appeal to the reader, such as explaining how
society might benefit from the research. Let’s look at an example from a paper published
in Frontiers in Earth Science (Blanchon et al. 2017), which describes a new model to
explain how coral reefs build vertically. Here are the first two lines of the introduction: Swimming over the surface of a coral reef,
it’s not difficult to imagine that successive generations of coral would produce an interlocking
framework and, over time, lead to simple vertical reef accretion. This assumption of what you see on the surface
is what you get in the interior, underlies all major explanations of how reefs develop. This narrative opening is effective for three
reasons. First, by conjuring an indelible image in
the reader’s mind of what they might see swimming over a coral reef, the authors draw the reader
into their narrative, right at the beginning of the paper. Second, these first sentences articulate a
conflict to be resolved, which is a key move in crafting a scientific story and is a great
way to pique the reader’s curiosity and keep them reading. Third, the initial sentences in this paper
effectively prepare the reader for an alternative explanation for vertical reef development,
which is that hurricanes play a role through non-biogenic depositional processes. Another way a narrative beginning may be achieved
is by providing historical context for the research. Here is an example from the journal Nature,
entitled “Tail-assisted pitch control in lizards, robots and dinosaurs”: This is the first sentence of the abstract. In 1969, a palaeontologist proposed that theropod
dinosaurs used their tails as dynamic stabilizers during rapid or irregular movements, contributing
to their depiction as active and agile predators. In addition to the mention of a historical
figure in the field of palaeontology, this sentence uses active voice and expressive
diction. The sensory language used throughout the abstract
is a hallmark of narrative writing. A final approach that I’ll mention is to begin
a paper with a sentence that makes a startling or counterintuitive statement or points out
a controversy in the field. Here are a few examples from the journal Nature: The tropical forests of Borneo and Amazonia
may each contain more tree species diversity in half a square kilometre than do all the
temperate forests of Europe, North America, and Asia combined. There were several surprises that came out
of the first perijove (PJ1) encounter (on 27 August 2016) of NASA’s Juno spacecraft
with the low-altitude regions of Jupiter’s polar auroral regions. During 2015-2016, record temperatures triggered
a pan-tropical episode of coral bleaching, the third global-scale event since mass bleaching
was first documented in the 1980s. These examples all effectively grab the reader’s
attention and explain in clear and vivid language what topic the paper addresses and why it’s
important. Such sentences are not always easy to write
and require some thought, but raise the reader’s comprehension by putting the research into
a broader context. In conclusion, with some thoughtful changes
in language, the scientific author can craft articles that are more enjoyable to read,
more memorable, and easier to comprehend. Just as the first sentence in A Tale of Two
Cities foretells an intriguing literary tale, the beginning of a scientific paper should
draw the reader in and prepare them for an equally engrossing experience. Thanks for watching and If you found this
information helpful, don’t forget to like my video.

One thought on “How to Write an Opening Sentence for a Scientific Paper”

  1. You may have already done this, but a video on dealing with reviews would be helpful. Including advice on addressing overly negative reviewers (assuming that they are correct or that they are way off).

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