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From my experience in biology (by experience I mean reading other papers), it seems that there is an unspoken rule that itemized lists do not belong in the body text of a paper.

I have almost never seen a paper have a bullet point list or a numbered list which is formatted as a separate entity in the body text (although I have seen them in eg. the sidebar, or figures which essentially are a numbered list). The closest I've seen is an "in-line" numbered list:

Our paper raises three points: (1) yada yada, (2) blah blah and (3) bip bap boop. Point (2) is particularly important, because yakkity yakkity...

Are bullet point or numbered lists, formatted similar to how StackOverflow formats them for example, discouraged in scientific publication? If so is there a reason why?

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I have used itemized lists, especially in the methods section, in several published papers (field:biomechanics). –  Jigg Apr 24 at 23:17
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Do articles in your field have strict length constraints? This would explain why bullet lists are underused --- they take up space. –  Federico Poloni Apr 24 at 23:29
    
As a first guess, I'd say its due to length restrictions, perhaps a holdover from when journals were primarily printed on dead trees –  darthbith Apr 24 at 23:41
    
@Jigg Actually I would very much like to take a look if you could provide a link to the paper. –  Superbest Apr 24 at 23:57
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Whenever you need to refer the reader to something, it is necessary to itemize and number it. It is very commonplace in mathematical papers. –  Vahid Shirbisheh Apr 25 at 16:51
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3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I agree that itemized list are not very common in the biology literature. However, I do not think it is a requirement of the publisher (I check in PLoS Biology, Cell and Plant Physiology), but more a choice of the authors. I personally tend to include itemized list when it is necessary and I never had any comment from the publishers.

One possible reason to choose inline list over an itemized one is that is take less space. Since some journal have a pay-per-page policy, it might be an incentive. The same goes for grant application in which the number of pages is usually limited.

An other reason, but I am speculating here, is that itemized list might be seen as an ugly (the term is not mine, but from a reviewer of one of my paper) or cheap writing style. I personally disagree with this view, since the importance is the message, not the writing style, but I think it is out there anyway.

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You seem to contradict yourself. "I never had any comment from the publishers." and "itemized list might be seen as an ugly (the term is not mine, but from a reviewer of one of my paper)". –  scaaahu Apr 25 at 6:32
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@scaahu I had a comment from a reviewer not from the publisher. So more an informative remark, not a writing requirement :) –  Wiliam Apr 25 at 7:09
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Okay, my misunderstanding. –  scaaahu Apr 25 at 7:21
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+1 for the space requirement. In CS, as Suresh says, bullet/numbered lists are common and I find them more readable. Hence I tend to use them unless I need the space to meet a page-limit. –  badroit Apr 25 at 16:14
    
The message is key but if it is lost due to poor writing style, writing style becomes important as well. So you cannot set one against the other –  Peter Jansson Apr 27 at 8:18
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It is extremely common in my areas of computer science (TCS and machine learning) to see a paper itemize a list of contributions as a bulleted or numbered list. I use it regularly as a technique to highlight and emphasize contributions and key ideas in a way that stands out.

So while any such answer is area specific, I'd say that in the areas of CS that I'm familiar with it is definitely not discouraged.

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We see them probably less than we should simply because they take up oh-so precious space (damn page limits). There are often inline lists that would have benefitted from itemisation. –  Raphael Apr 25 at 8:34
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There are no rules for or against lists, and as has been indicated by other answers, their use may vary between disciplines. That said, there are some points you need to consider. Lists can be useful if used correctly and detrimental if used too often. Lists disrupt the reading or flow of the text. One should thus consider if a list is useful or really necessary before making one. Does it help the reader to understand the text? Lists have a tendency to express issues in brief statements. This can be good but can also mean the text loses important logical steps. Having too many lists may actually make things confusing, because you lose track of them all.

So, use lists as a tool in your writing toolbox but be aware of overusing them in a text.

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