How Important Is It to Highlight the Importance of the Paper?

A conventional wisdom in writing papers tells us to always identify a knowledge gap and highlight the novelty of your own paper. You need to clearly introduce why your study is new and relevant. You want to convince the readers why they should care about this study. However, when I think about how I read papers myself, I start to doubt the importance of it in writing papers.

To discuss my doubt in the usefulness of highlighting the novelty of a paper, let’s start with how we decide whether we read a paper or not. There are often two ways I find papers to read. First, I may browse certain journals that focus on things I am generally interested in. I glance the title and sometimes the abstract to decide whether I will read a particular paper in detail. Second, I am working on something and need to find relevant studies. In this case, I usually search papers with related keywords. As you can see, whether I decide to read a paper is largely determined by the topic of the paper. I am going to read it if it suits my interests. I am not going to read the paper just because the authors claimed how important and novel the paper is. In fact, I usually decide to read a paper or not even before I come to where the authors highlight the importance of the paper. The focus of the paper is what attract me. I have never found myself reading a paper just because the authors says it is so important and novel. That makes me doubt how important it is practically to convince your reader the importance of your paper. The very reason readers actually look at the paper is because they think it is relevant or useful for them. They recognize the novelty and importance of the paper even before they read how the authors sell the paper.

While I think it does not make much sense to emphasize the importance of the paper from a reader’s perspective, this is not to say this section of the paper is totally useless. It might be important for the journal editors to decide whether it is something the journal wants to consider. You have to be able to convince the journal editor before it even reaches the readers. However, nowadays, there are quite a few journals that emphasize the technical soundness of the paper. There are debates about this publishing philosophy but at least it shows that not all journals care about how you sell the paper.

Selling a study could be very useful in other settings. For example, if you write a grant application, highlighting the relevance and novelty is quite necessary. If you write a prospectus, you want to convince your committee that your proposed study is valuable. It almost seems like that selling a study serves of the purpose to get support or approval. Is the goal of a published paper getting support or approval? I doubt it.

I am inclined to think that the contents of the paper speaks for itself. Putting that much emphasis on how important a paper is seems to be pointless to me, at least in publications. What are your thoughts?


About Chao Song

I am a postdoctoral research associate at the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University.
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