My last paper evaluations in journals (rejects/major reviews decisions) emphasized I should make more clear the novelty and strengths of my work in comparison to the state of the art.

Which style is preferred?

  • After presenting each related work, make a brief comparison with my work when possible, or:
  • Make a summary of the strengths/novelties of my work as the last paragraph in the "Related Works" section, and point the differences and advantages over the cited works
  • 1
    This is likely field dependent. In the Intro/motivation one would cover the previous work, and point out that you are doing something different. You then discuss your work in detail. Then I'd have a section discussing how your work improves on (or not!) the other approaches, detailing when (and why) it would be best to take your approach. It isn't something you just bolt onto the paper, it has to become part of the paper throughout.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 13 '18 at 14:00

Here are some suggestions based on things I learnt from a seminar on academic writing I got back from just yesterday:

  • First, what follows assumes that the work you did is truly novel. However, unless you are doing a straight replication of some other work, then there must be some novelty in your work. Your first job is to clearly identify in your own mind what is truly novel, unique and valuable about your work. You need to be very clear about this before you can persuade anyone else.
  • For the literature review, rather than looking for what literature exists and then comparing your work to the literature, try to write your presentation of the literature to surround what you actually did. Think of presenting the literature like a doughnut. You want to arrange the literature to look like a doughnut with a conspicuous hole in the middle of it--the goal of your article is to fill in that hole.
  • In your literature review, it is extremely important to not mention research that is not part of the doughnut. I am certainly not asking you to hide any relevant research (if you try that, reviewers will skewer you); I am rather recommending that you not distract the reviewers with any work that is not directly related to the problem that your article is solving. (And to be clear, the problem you are solving should be what you consider novel and valuable, not more than that.) Your work in the literature review is absolutely not to review all the existing possibly related research; it is only to review the research that is directly related to the problem that you are trying to solve, that is, only research that is part of the doughnut with a hole in the middle of it. Less is more: that is, you do a much better job when you present the least amount of research necessary; too much research that is not directly related will lose the reviewers and make them lose sight of what you're really trying to do.
  • After framing the literature review section, then go back to the introduction. In the introduction, be sure to summarize in one paragraph maximum the top two points from the literature review that demonstrate that you are filling a real gap in the literature. Note that I recommend that you write this part of the introduction last--because the introduction is absolutely the most important part of the entire article, I recommend that you write it last. I do realize that some excellent writers prefer to write it first, but for less than excellent writers like myself, it is usually best to write the most important part of the article last.

I hope these general tips are helpful.

  • In some areas the discussion section is prominently present, in others you can use a part of the results to explicitly and practically compare yourself to other methods. So mentions and "dry exercise" separation from other's work goes the way you describe. The actual comparison does not go into the literature review. Jul 13 '18 at 18:33
  • @ Tripartio. Thank you! Very helpfull. In practice, reviewers often request to add (their) literature that does not fit the scope of the work resulting in unbalanced published papers. Did your seminar mentioned anything about handling such reviewers’ requests?
    – user93911
    Jul 14 '18 at 6:12
  • @OlegLobachev, one of the strong points of the seminar is that by the time they finish reading the introduction, reviewers in the top journals (in management) have pretty much already decided in their minds whether they want to reject the article or recommend revisions. So, if you wait until the discussion to present your strongest points, it's too late. Although the context was top management journals, I think the principle that the introduction sets the reviewers' emotional attitude towards evaluating the rest of the article is universally applicable.
    – Tripartio
    Jul 14 '18 at 8:25
  • @Alice I would simply add one or two sentences wherever in the article it fits best, just to make the reviewers happy. This minor concession to reviewers would not make the article unbalanced.
    – Tripartio
    Jul 14 '18 at 8:27

I think that your abstract should feature a statement about in which domain(s) your approach works better. When listing related work, emphasise on their weakness compared to your work (was that mentioned by someone before? cite their work!). Then, in your results/discussion, make clear that you indeed found an approach superior to existing work. If possible, show that through simulations/experimental results/surverys/data.

Also, when introducing your method in detail, focus on pointing out differences to prior work. Keep in mind that since papers are densely populated with complex information, it is easy for readers to skip a sentence or two. (it does not help that a lot of reviewers seem to be very busy).

My current advisor holds the opinion that writing a paper is like selling a used car: while you should not keep quiet about downsides, you should still be very convincing.

Clear and structured writing is also important: to keep the readers entertained, the paper should work like an essay where you argue that your approach is indeed novel.


I very much like the answer of Tripartio. My training said: (1) establish a niche and (2) occupy a niche. You present two suggestions in your question which should both work.

Practically, my approach is to summarise the literature that fits the scope of my work, preferably along the lines of a few criteria or observations that differentiate the literature and my research. I end my literature section with a conclusion where I summarize the novelty of my research in comparison to the literature. Here a table or figure which visualizes domains/criteria and literature is often helpfull.

In my field, I also explicitly need to state the added value for real-life purposes. For that I often use a case study.

My first paper was rejected for a similar reason you mention. Hereafter, I changed my approach. However, still then, my experience is that one of the reviewers will always make such critique, simply because there is a massive amount of literature and reviewers often like to see their specific domain reflected in your work (and preferably their papers). It is also a very easy critique. A constructive reviewer will give you guidance on the specific strengths and weaknesses of your work in relation to the literature.

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