Empower your writing process


Authors. Caroline Salamin, Noémi Cobolet, Pascale Bouton, Raphaël Grolimund (Bibliothèque de l’EPFL)

Document type. This document is not a scientific paper, but the course notes of a seminar for PhD students provided by the EPFL Library. This seminar is module 2.

Version. This is v1.0.5 of the document, updated on May 10, 2017. The latest version of this document is available at http://go.epfl.ch/phd-module2.

Copyright. CC BY-NC-SA Bibliothèque de l’EPFL | This document is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Additional material. Two appendices are handed out at the end of the session: a general appendix (https://www.authorea.com/users/26260/articles/61573/) containing examples and answers; and an appendix specific to the session, created by the participants. The session-specific appendices are not published online.

Acknowledgments. The authors would like to thank Anna Auría Rasclosa, who accepted to take part in the seminar as guest speaker and enrich it with his experience as a former PhD student at EPFL. Her presentation is available on http://go.epfl.ch/FR2P2.
The authors also want to thank Vijay Kartik, a former participant, who contributed by fixing some minor errors.

Abstract. This document is tailored for PhD Students interested in facilitating their writing process. We look at the strategies to improve the findability of your papers by taking advantage of the mechanisms provided by major scientific databases. We then show how to avoid pitfalls of collaborative writing (authorship, versioning and collaborative tools). We finally explain how to properly reuse other works in your publications. The in-class session also includes practical exercises in Authorea.

Boost your paper findability

Introduction: what are we talking about?

This section will focus on the findability of scientific articles that are meant to be published in peer-reviewed journals.

To be visible, your paper must be disseminated widely, easy to find and access, and frequently cited by other scholars. Concerning findability, there are 2 essential steps to take care of. First of all, it is of vital importance to understand the mechanisms of the main search engines and to keep them in mind to prepare your papers accordingly! Take time to explore the resources where your paper might be listed. To do so, you may check the articles published by journals in your domain and observe where and how they are indexed. When this is clear to you, build your title and abstract, and keywords with great care, following essential rules that we will look over.

Search engines and relevance

Authors need to be conscious of the indexing mechanisms of scientific search engines and bibliographic databases: then they will be able to use them in drawing up the paper.

Relevance sort is usually based on algorithms that take into account :

  • the number of occurrences (times that the searched words appear in the records)

  • whether the words are found as an exact phrase or separately

  • when words are found separately, closer proximity ranks higher

  • whether the words are found within metadata fields designated as particularly relevant (title field...)

  • the words’ location within the field or within the full text document.

Beside these basic elements, search engines and databases add their specific criteria.

see details about Google Scholar and Web of Science in appendix:


Make the most of your title, abstract and keywords

The title, abstract and keywords should be chosen with great care, since they will facilitate computer-based search and retrieval (Hartley 2008)

For every person who reads the whole of a scientific paper, about 500 read only the title (Kerkut 1983, in (Gustavii 2008)). This sentence points out how choosing the right words for your title is crucial. It will help the reader decide if he wants to read the full article or not in just a few seconds. It should therefore clearly indicate precise information on the content of the article. An article with a badly chosen title may virtually disappear and never be found. Below are a few tips to keep in mind when you build your title:

  • Opt for a title that suggests you are committed, rather than a neutral one.

  • Hanging titles imply the use of punctuation, more words, so more risk of including waste words... not a good idea.

  • Use a verb to make a sentence, which will have stronger impact than just a phrase. Moreover, verbs bring dynamism to the title.

  • Avoid titles formulated as questions. The answer will be more accurate to choose an article when scanning a list of titles.

  • Include specific rather than general terms. Imagine the keywords a researcher would use to find your article.Think of the significant content of the article and extract the keywords you will use for your title. Place these keywords at the beginning of the title to make it immediately clear what you are talking about.

  • Use the fewest words, keep only the descriptive ones, and avoid the waste words (Day 2006) like “an observation on”, “investigations on”, “a”, “the”, “is”... which do not give any information on the content. Short titles are more comprehensible than long ones.

  • Be careful of syntax! Grammatical errors in titles are a common pitfall easy to avoid.

  • Avoid abbreviations unless the abbreviation is better known than the full name (e.g. DNA).

  • Avoid jargon

Writing a well-structured and striking abstract is also essential since it will help the reader decide quickly if reading the full content is useful for his research. Not to forget that the abstract is the first part reviewers read and that it can thus determine if your paper will be accepted by a journal. What’s more, an abstract is requested to be a speaker in conferences. So, we can say that it is an art to master!

The abstract can be seen as the table of contents of an article. Most of the time, an abstract consists of 4 basic sections: background/introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion/conclusion. Journals usually give instructions on the use or not of explicit headlines. To ensure your abstract is well-structured, keep these 4 sections in mind while building it even if the subtitles are not required.

Below are a few tips to keep in mind when you build your abstract:

  • Abstracts are often published alone (in Web of Science, for example), so do not make any reference to the full text like “as shown on figure 2”. It should therefore be understandable by itself.

  • Like in the title, do not use abbreviations, unless they are better known than the full name.

  • Eliminate verbiage. If you can use up to 200 words, and consider that 150 are enough, just keep it shorter.

Last but not least, choose author keywords carefully, using specific terms if you plan to publish in a specialized journal.