Storytelling and research papers

I often read that good research papers should tell a story. There should be a continuous flow. We should care about the story, we should be eager to learn about what will happen in the next section.

I do not know about you, but I do not come across many such research papers. Mathemagenic points us to some references, going back to Plato, as to why storytelling is not taken seriously. It seems to me that our current approach to research papers assumes that knowledge is axiomatic: you can decompose your paper in facts that can be laid out in a formal language. Whether this is true or not, I do not care, the fact of the matter is… I do not write research papers to lay out facts. I wish it were that simple.

In any case, I decided to do some Googling on the topic to see if I could find new clever techniques to make my research papers more exciting (irrespective of the quality of the science), and I found this related piece of advice:

A good way [to describe your results] is to tell a story, an interesting one that puts everything into perspective re the existing literature and conveys how it is you succeeded where others failed. What was the key idea which nobody else spotted? It should not reflect the actual historical progress of your research (which may have been long and winding) but rather based on how your thinking should have gone with the benefit of hindsight. This is not quite the same as the shortest logical path (which would not be understood until after the paper is read), but rather involves an historical element with reference to works and ideas that the reader might already be familiar with.

What I could not find were good examples of storytelling in research papers. Anyone has a pointer?

Reference: Hints for New PhD students on How to Write Papers (Shahn Majid)

Daniel Lemire, "Storytelling and research papers," in Daniel Lemire's blog, November 29, 2007.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

One thought on “Storytelling and research papers”

  1. Stories generally rely on the power of surprise, withholding important information as long as possible, to maximize dramatic effect. I believe that a good scientific paper should do the exact opposite: the most important information should be given as soon as possible; for example, in the title or in the abstract. Very early in the paper, you should give the reader a general framework for understanding what will follow. You should seek to maximize clarity and understanding. Stories, on the other hand, thrive on mystery, ambiguity, and vague allusions.

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