11

I'm about to publish a paper (in a STEM-related field) that is based on a simple (but effective) idea that can be described in a few sentences, so it sounds almost trivial upon reading the description. Yet no one else published it although it leads to significant improvements of the state-of-the-art. So, it is not trivial by definition.

I for myself (and most people I know) like those paper best that are based on simple but effective ideas in contrast to less effective ideas presented with much impressive-sounding content where the lack of originality is "obfuscated" by "coating" the exposition in mathematically advanced concepts.

So my question is: Do peer-reviewers and journal editors typically value simplicity even if it leads to shorter, maybe even "trivially sounding" exposition (I mean, many good ideas in science sound trivial in retrospect)? Or should I try to "coat" ideas in elaborate context and mathematically advanced concepts to impress reviewers?

1
  • 1
    Comments and Answers-in-Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion or containing answers will be removed.
    – cag51
    Commented Jun 17 at 21:47

5 Answers 5

8

Reviewers are not a uniform group of people. Those who can apply your new idea in their own work certainly appreciate explaining it in a way that is as simple and as direct as possible. They are more likely to give you a negative review if you present your idea in a way that is unnecessarily difficult to understand. So here, there is no conflict between the aims of getting your paper accepted and providing the most value to the reader.

Who you may be concerned about are the reviewers who are from adjacent domains, who may rely on their gut feeling to tell if the paper should be accepted or not, without making it explicit to the editor. They are more likely to recommend rejection when it looks like there is no deep insight in your contribution, and they may use the complexity of it as proxy for the amount of insight. Whether such reviewers are actually common depends on the field. For instance, in computer science with conferences and strict review deadlines, they are probably more common than in journals that take their time to find the optimal reviewers.

So what to do in such a case? Making the contribution hard to understand is a disservice to the posterior world, and you certainly don't want to become known for it. Luckily, there are a couple of alternative strategies:

  • Adding an adjacent result to give the paper more technical depth. So you found a method to solve A. Perhaps you can also show how to solve a related problem A' with it after some modifications? If the latter is technically challenging, and solving A is arguably very useful, then you may make all reviewers happy, and the core contribution is still there. And who knows, perhaps somebody actually needs a solution to A', and then finds your paper.
  • Formalize the key insight behind your new approach, and add this as theoretical analysis. If you keep the paper in a way that the paper is still readable without the theoretical analysis, it's still a helpful paper even for those who want to skip the theory.
  • Build a nice running example that shows why exactly your new approach circumvents problems of previous approaches and discuss in detail where exactly the previous approaches fail on it and what makes your new approach succeed on it. This highlights the insight that went into your rather simple approach.

The last one surely has its advantages over the others. But it may be unrealistic in your particular case.

3
  • 1
    Thanks. This is a very heplful answer, exactly to the point of my question. Especially this advice: "Formalize the key insight behind your new approach, and add this as theoretical analysis. If you keep the paper in a way that the paper is still readable without the theoretical analysis, it's still a helpful paper even for those who want to skip the theory"
    – zx-81
    Commented Jun 17 at 10:11
  • 1
    "likely to recommend rejection when it looks like there is no deep insight in your contribution, and they may use the complexity of it as proxy for the amount of insight." Yes, exactly my point. So I think many authors tend to publish more-than-neccessarily complex exposition of their ideas just to be on the safe side and avoid the risk of "sounding too trivial". This is why I really like the "previous work" sections where authors describe the substance of ideas of OTHER other authors often in very simple and understandable terms.
    – zx-81
    Commented Jun 17 at 10:22
  • 2
    @zx-81 I am not sure if really many authors present their results in a too-complicated way. But in some case, the temptation is definitely there. I once got three reviews for a paper that all said "Wow, these are strong results, funny that nobody did it before, but your proofs are too simple -- reject". The paper ended as a tech report because I didn't find a solution that I didn't hate. Still, I believe that the problem is best dealt with by side-stepping, for instance by one of the approaches in the answer. I've seen many papers in CS that look like approach A from my answer was used.
    – DCTLib
    Commented Jun 17 at 12:41
14

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler" (often attributed to A. Einstein).

What you suggest is obfuscating, as you say. I doubt that reviewers would reward you for that. They won't be impressed.

Of course, what you have discovered may be known and not published as it is deemed too simple to publish. Your statement that it leads to significant advancement over state of the art suggests that isn't the case, but if you can demonstrate that advancement, especially with a simple idea, that will be enough to "impress" reviewers.

You may also need the math to back up the idea, but don't use the math to make it harder to grasp. The principle is also stated as KISS (Keep it simple, stupid).

2
  • 1
    You are, of course, right in an ideal world. But in the real world, there is immense & ever increasing pressure to publish something while the supply of actual scientific substance and new ideas has always been rare and limited (if not even declinig in some mature fileds) So the tendency to "oversell" is quite understandable. But if, at the end of the day, simplicity is still recognized and appreciated (even if the exposition is short and may "sound "less impressive) then everyting is ok.
    – zx-81
    Commented Jun 16 at 11:23
  • 1
    The fast inverse square root is pretty simple, but would have been handy for a lot of people if t had been published earlier.
    – fectin
    Commented Jun 16 at 23:42
8

Results count. If your main contribution are the results are better than the state of the art, that's what you focus upon. The fact that your method is simple is merely a side aspect.

If - say - simplification of an existing complex method is the main point, then emphasize this. But the latter may or may not be appealing to the esthetic sense of the reviewers, while better results can not be argued with, as long as you have well-researched evidence that you are indeed better than the methods on the market (do your literature research!).

In short: to get it published, highlight especially the results. When you present the work in a seminar or talk, you can then also highlight the esthetic quality or simplicity of the approach.

3

You should care less about journals and reviewers. More important are other researchers and people out there applying the ideas of your paper. They will love what you describe. You might have an impact on the world. Go for it!

1
  • 1
    This is exactly right - write your paper for the intended reader, not the reviewer. The purpose of writing a paper is to communicate an idea to an audience, if the reviewer is competent their main job is to help you optimise your paper for that audience - recommending whether or not it should be published is a relatively minor part of reviewing (or at least it ought to be). Commented Jun 19 at 19:31
-3

If it’s not an original idea, it must be written in a way that avoids copyright infringement. If your idea is original, please write it as simply as possible. Every journal article and academic paper that references your research hereafter will state your ideas in an increasingly complex way.

Edit: For my Undergrad thesis, I wrote a literature review of a very specific topic. I read many, many abstracts and journal articles that all tried to say the same thing in different ways to avoid plagiarism. And after reading it all, I had to find new ways to state the basic underlying ideas myself. That led to my comment. If OP is the first to write about a topic, then it should be stated as clearly and simply as possible because the language will become more convoluted the more it’s written about.

2
  • 6
    If it's not your idea it must be cited, not "written in a way that avoids copyright infringement". The OP isn't trying to cheat a plagiarism detector. Commented Jun 17 at 8:12
  • @Marianne013 oh yes, of course. I’m sorry, I thought that was obvious. Even if it’s cited, you can’t take a large portion of another paper verbatim. Rewording for purposes such as abstracts can get really messy the more a topic is written about!
    – Cait
    Commented Jun 18 at 9:12

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .