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Most papers (at least in maths, but I believe this applies to other subjects as well) don't have a table of contents (TOC), but dedicate the last paragraph of the introduction to essentially the same purpose. What's the rationale behind this?

I think TOCs are a much better solution. They minimise the burden on the author (no need to come up with creative ways of structuring a TOC in plain text) and are easier to skim as a reader (I know precisely what information to expect in a TOC, as compared to plain text where the author might hide additional information among the TOC stuff).

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    I can't tell why this is that way, but my solution has so far been to remove this "signposting" at the end of the introduction without replacement. I personally don't think papers, especially shorter ones as common in Computer Science, need a TOC. – xLeitix Feb 27 '17 at 11:45
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    It's mainly about the length. Long papers can have a table of contents. From the top of my head, Gowers's "A new proof of Szemerédi's theorem" at around 100 pages does have a table of content. – quid Feb 27 '17 at 12:37
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    In my field, 99% of the papers are Introduction, Method, Result, Discussion, Conclusion. They don't need a table of contents – Ander Biguri Feb 27 '17 at 13:01
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    @AnderBiguri and References. – Roland Feb 27 '17 at 14:26
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The purpose of an overview paragraph and a table of contents are different:

  • The table of contents serves to quickly find a specific section of a document so you can start reading there or extract a specific information. This is something that rarely makes sense with most papers, except if you start at the conclusion/discussion, which is however easy to find anyway. Even if you want to do this, finding the table of contents would cost you more time than it saves you, given the shortness of most papers. So my answer to your titular question would be: Because there is no need for it.

    The main exception to this are long review papers, which however usually have a table of contents.

  • The overview paragraph serves to briefly summarise the paper and explain its semantic structure to the reader, usually somebody who is reading the paper from back to front. This serves to address certain expectations the reader may have had after the introduction (“don’t worry, we didn’t forget this important aspect”) and draw connections between sections (“our work in Section 3 provides us with a framework to evaluate our method in Section 4”). All of this is not possible in a table of contents.

    Now, some papers just have a straightforward structure, and there is nothing about it that needs to be elaborated to the reader. In this case an overview paragraph would indeed be nothing but a written-out, tedious-to-read table of contents and should be skipped in my opinion.

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In fact, the idea that a math paper that is not short would be well served by having a table of contents (TOC) is one that I "discovered" at some point relatively recently. Based on a perusal of my own recent papers and preprints here, it seems that the threshold for a TOC being useful in a math paper is somewhere between 13 and 17 pages. (I believe that I put a TOC in a six page paper a couple of years ago and took it out in response to editorial comments that it was not necessary.)

Let me make some further comments:

1) Some structural redundancy in a paper is a very good idea. Often the introduction repeats things that were just said in the abstract and these same things occur later in the paper as well. Although there is a lot of room for good writing in making this repetition most useful for the reader, certainly such repetition is highly useful if done properly. I don't think having a TOC obviates having a part of the introduction in which you say what you will do in your paper. Rather, having a TOC frees you up from saying what will be in your paper in almost exactly the same comprehensive way as a TOC in paragraph form. Instead, in the introduction you can talk about why you are including the material you're including in each section. See e.g. here for a paper with a TOC in which the introduction nevertheless ends roughly as you say is not necessary. Here I think both are helpful because they serve separate functions: if you want to know why we are including the Schwartz-Zippel Lemma in our paper, the introduction explains it. If you want to know exactly where each of several versions of this result occurs, you should see the TOC.

2) I have found that a TOC is perhaps even more helpful for the authors than for the readers, especially when there is more than one author. In a medium to long math paper, sometimes you get the idea of (e.g.!) taking subsection 2 of section 5 and inserting it in between subsections 3 and 4 of section 2 because you see something to be gained by such an adjustment of the logical sequence. But then you also have to worry about what else might be disturbed by such a change. It is then really helpful to have a detailed TOC, because rather than having to keep a mental picture of the intermediate pages of your paper, you can flip to the TOC and allow your eye to do some of the work. If you just wrote all the material yourself, maybe it is not so bad to keep it all in mind. But if some of it was written by your coauthors, this gets hard. Moreover, if you do this kind of thing more than once, then your encyclopedic mental picture of the paper does not update so easily.

3) A TOC is also more or less useful according to the titles of the various subsections of your paper. If you have no titles at all (which is not unheard of), a TOC would be ridiculous. If the title of Section N is "the proof of Theorem N," then a TOC does not seem necessary (and good for you for implementing such a simple, transparent format for your paper).

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Of my limited experience with older papers I am inclined to conclude that papers used to be much shorter (most papers before 1980 I read were about 2 to 5 pages). At that length an additional table of contents was not necessary (in addition to the one of the journal issue - at that times an issue was an actual booklet and also would have needed additional paper to print and ship). So I suspect that there is a historic reason.

Note that some journals which usually publish long papers have a toc nowadays (e.g. Acta Numerica).

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    Really? This must be very dependent on what field you're working in... I just checked a dozen papers older than 1980 at random in my papers collection, none of them were under 10 pages, and on average they were 30 pages long... – user9646 Feb 27 '17 at 12:36
  • I see - I was reading mostly math papers many from Russian journals - they tended to be very short… – Dirk Feb 27 '17 at 12:40
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    @Dirk, and how long would they have been if they had included complete proofs? :) – Carsten S Feb 27 '17 at 13:25
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There are a lot of papers out there, and they compete for eyeballs. One common practice in mathematics (I do it periodically) is to skim the arXiv and look at the first page or two of each of a bunch of papers, to see if there are any I want to read more closely.

If you want to promote your work, it is arguably in your best interest that the first page be "interesting", and many authors judge that jumping straight into the introduction serves this purpose better than a table of contents.

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    If you skim the arxiv, then (probably) before you even click on the paper, you read the abstract. If you like the abstract, you're willing to click through to the paper and perhaps wait a few seconds to get it. I don't find it very plausible that if the first page you get is a TOC then you say "I guess I'm not interested after all." – Pete L. Clark Feb 27 '17 at 16:50
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    I second @Pete, the theory in this answer is simply incorrect. Several of my papers have tables of contents and it never once occurred to me that a TOC would interfere with the paper's ability to pull in a casual reader's attention, either on arXiv or elsewhere. The decision of whether to include a TOC or not is based purely on whether the paper is long enough to make the inclusion of a TOC a genuine convenience for the (more than casual) reader. – Dan Romik Feb 27 '17 at 20:00
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A submitted Paper should not have a TOC, and even if it has one, it will be discarded by the publisher.

A Scientific Paper, is not a Book.

Scientific Journals which publish a collection of submitted, and previously peer reviewed Papers create their "ToC" by extracting Paper approved Abstracts.

Serious Journals will also publish Separats. Which are standalone articles of the current volume being published. Alongside they may publish a leaflet of abstracts which you can receive and make a decision if you're going to get the whole Journal or just a Saparat: a single Paper you are interested in, on the field of your research.

Because a Paper deals with one theme; one subject; or one particular problem alone. Two of them, make two separate papers. And will be reviewed separately. And therefore will require a separate entry on ToC of the journal being published.

Why on earth should or would a Paper of a given scientific article have a ToC of its own?!

A typical structure of a scientific paper will or should contain:

TITLE;
Author(s);
Institution(s);
[keywords];
Abstract.

Intro (to the subject);
sampling, material(s), method(s), and other technicalities.

Procedure;
 Explication;
Discussion; 
 Result(s) (+graphs, tables, figures... ).

Conclusion(s) / Summary.

Bibliography.

of which, few are mandatory and an optional 2nd, or 3rd language abstract. And that's all.

  • I've rarely seen a math paper discuss the materials or the sampling used during the research. On a more serious note, I've also very rarely seen math papers with a "conclusion/summary" part. – user9646 Feb 28 '17 at 8:39
  • Oh yes you did, A 'cone' is as good as any physical or chemical 'material'; a section of it, is a 'sample'; a method is a formula; a technique is a manor; say a calculus, or even a calculation machine etc. – Bekim Bacaj Feb 28 '17 at 8:47
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    'A submitted Paper should not have a TOC, and even if it has one, it will be discarded by the publisher.' This is probably news to Dan Romik and Pete Clark and, for that matter, the editors of the Annals of Mathematics: a concrete counterexample to your statement is 'The Tits alternative for Out(F_n) I' by Bestvina, Feighn and Handel published in the Annals in 2000 with a table of contents. – Shane O Rourke Feb 28 '17 at 12:27
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    While it is very often true that a TOC is not needed this kind of dogmatic insistence One True Way (tm) is not helpful. – dmckee Feb 28 '17 at 22:41
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    Seriously, I do not think there is any imperative either to have or not have Tables of Contents in papers, nor that it is true that abstracts supercede TOCs, nor that "people here" are not "scientists" and so on. – paul garrett Mar 1 '17 at 22:51

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