11

I'm always baffled that the preamble in introductions in scientific papers is pretty much always the same for papers dealing with the same topic. And yet, no two papers have the same introduction, since doing so would be plagiarism. Even worse, one cannot even copy this preamble from papers one has already written, as paper reviews are anonymous, so reviewers cannot know whether the author is plagiarizing or copying his/her own work.

At the same time, this feels like a huge waste of time, akin to writing essays in high school, where you have to paraphrase and write X number of words just to fill in the page.

Talking with other academics, this is pretty much a pain point for everyone, which not only annoys the writers, but also the readers, who must skip useless text every time they begin a new paper.

I guess a simple reference to a specific introduction is not enough, as a paper needs to stand to its own (if it even makes sense in this context), but why is it so ingrained that such text must be written and rewritten, ad infinitum, in a Sisyphean effort?

EDIT: Please note that I'm talking about just the preamble of the introduction. It makes sense that overall the introduction needs to be tailored on your specific contribution. But often papers start with a brief description of the field/topic it contributes to, the field's practical applicability, and possibly some related work that makes the field look good. The preamble is just the hook needed to place one's own contribution in an overall context (also to explain the topic to somebody who may have stumbled upon the paper), but at the same time there is no real requirement that it be rewritten new every time. So why?

As an example, consider, as posted in a comment, this preamble:

Hedgehog hunting is an important problem in ecology. While the typical procedure consists of a) tracking, b) sniffing, c) aiming, d) shooting, e) desugaring, f) acquisition, the role of the spikes in sniffing did not come into the spotlight before the seminal work of Whippet et al. (2007). In this work we propose a radically different approach to hedgehog spike treatment by invoking desugaring before sniffling.

But if I wanted to write about using metal spikes, you see that the first sentence wouldn't really need to change. And such preambles can usually take a whole paragraph or two, which makes the rewriting annoyance pretty big.

  • 8
    Just to note: not all reviewers are double-blind. In my field, in fact, the reviewers are nearly always aware of the authors' identity. – corey979 Mar 30 '18 at 10:15
  • 7
    If an introduction is really as interchangeable as you suggest, it is best to omit it altogether, as it adds nothing to the paper. – henning Mar 30 '18 at 12:45
  • 2
    Even if reviews are anonymous, reviewers can tell if text is plagiarized, because they read other papers. – JeffE Mar 30 '18 at 13:08
  • 2
    @MichaelGreinecker I'd like to point out that most answers there never specifically say the why, just "don't do it" or "it's bad". The ones that do (like 'you can still improve it') are definitely not convincing. – Svalorzen Mar 30 '18 at 14:18
  • 4
    @Svalorzen: I do not see how there can be an answer to this question that doesn’t also answer yours, and vice versa, which would make it a duplicate. If you feel there is a difference, please edit your question to focus on it. If you are unhappy with the existing answers, consider offering a bounty. – Wrzlprmft Mar 30 '18 at 15:46
12

At a fundamental level, every new paper is (or should be) presenting something new, whether it be new results, methods, experiments or even summaries or reviews. The paper would be redundant if it didn't present something new.

The 'introduction' or 'motivation' section follows the title and abstract as the next link in the chain to motivate people to read your paper in its entirety. Since it's your paper that you want to motivate people to read, it doesn't make sense to copy the words intended to motivate people to read some other paper.

There may be parts that overlap with prior work (and other answers on the site suggest methods to deal with that), but if you want your motivation section to relate to the novel elements of your paper, it needs to be recast for each new paper.

Your question (especially per your update) is why this boilerplate text can't be either copied or left out altogether.

When I'm presented with a paper, I am not always motivated to read it at first, so it doesn't help for the author to jump straight to the equations or experimental results, etc. What does help is to start with common ground. This is the job of the preamble. You can't leave it out altogether for the same reason libraries include the first part of each book's Dewey Decimal Number on every book - it's needed when the work is separated from the collection.

As for copying, it's a matter of skill in the craft to keep it concise, yet useful:

No one prevents you from copying a few sentences from your previous papers. Except that perhaps page/word limits will encourage you to jump as quickly as possible to your actual contribution. – Alexey B

  • 2
    "Since it's your paper that you want to motivate people to read, it doesn't make sense to copy the words intended to motivate people to read some other paper." - I think this assumption is wrong. We may not be talking about the entire introduction section, but the first one or two paragraphs (the ones that introduce and motivate the authors' specific subfield to researchers from other edges of the general field of the expected target audience) do often boil down to the same content across papers. – O. R. Mapper Mar 30 '18 at 20:56
  • @O.R.Mapper This is indeed correct, I'm talking about the preamble. I'm updating my question now. – Svalorzen Mar 30 '18 at 21:02
  • 1
    @Svalorzen No one prevents you from copying a few sentences from your previous papers. Except that perhaps page/word limits will encourage you to jump as quickly as possible to your actual contribution. – Alexey B. Mar 30 '18 at 22:27
  • @O.R.Mapper The original question was about why motivations can't be copied. The issue of handling overlap - particularly substantial overlap - is addressed elsewhere (cf third paragraph above). If the overlap isn't substantial, it isn't an issue. – Lawrence Mar 30 '18 at 23:52
  • @Svalorzen I've updated my answer in response to the comments and the addition to your question. – Lawrence Mar 30 '18 at 23:53
1

I think copying a few sentences or a paragraph from your own work constitutes self-plagiarism, which is discouraged/prohibited, depending on the field/journal. So it shouldn't matter whether the review is single- or double-blind.

Now, take a moment to consider the positives in this. The OP mentions inconvenience to the writer, which is often valid. However, writing the preamble in a different way, adding a new update or turn of phrase can make the paper more engaging for readers and increase recall value. If there already exist a lot of similar papers in the field, this helps your work to stand out, and additionally, can hook new readers from related-but-not-identical fields. I think the preamble adds to the character of the paper, so in best case, it is time/effort well invested. In the worst case, well, there is no choice, so lemonade from lemons.

  • Of course if somebody feels like writing a fancy preamble they shouldn't be stopped. However this hardly feels like a compelling argument to force everyone to rewrite it pointlessly. In fact, since by definition most people are not incredibly good writers, the result of such senseless rewriting often result in poorer papers, rather than the opposite. So once again, I don't see the why. – Svalorzen Apr 1 '18 at 12:55
  • @Svalorzen- I wouldn't call it pointless/senseless if there is a chance that it increases readership/recall value. Certainly, it can be a pain, but since writing is our primary mode of communicating research, I guess it is a skill worth honing (Note: I'm not a native English speaker, nor do I consider myself a good writer, so I certainly share the annoyance) – user153812 Apr 1 '18 at 13:58
  • There is also a chance that it decreases it rather than using an already well written one. The thing is, nothing in this explains why most people expect the preamble to be rewritten, rather than it being just an option. – Svalorzen Apr 1 '18 at 15:05
  • From the journal office POV, I suppose it makes automated plagiarism checks easy. That aside, somebody did put in considerable effort into making a good preamble, so reproducing it verbatim would be some sort of IP infringement. In case you are the original author, it still is infringement because on submission you'd typically sign a copyright form transferring rights to reuse any material from there. – user153812 Apr 1 '18 at 16:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.