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How to write good research paper titles

Your title is the first and most important step in engaging your reader. It should be concise, interesting and summarise the essential content of the document. Any title that is lengthy, overly complex, ambiguous or misleading can turn away prospective readers. This writing guide gives an overview of the different types of titles and explains the essential steps in designing your title.

Title structure

Titles can be sentence fragments, complete sentences or compound sentences with the second sentence typically following a colon.

To help the paper appear in search results, it is common practice to place keywords in the title. Keywords used in the title should be placed in the beginning in case only a fragment of the title appears in the search results. 

Terms used to describe types of titles

Common terms used to describe different types of research paper titles are Descriptive, declarative, interrogative, suggestive, humorous and combination titles.

Descriptive titles or indicative titles

Descriptive titles state the subject, topic, design, purpose or methods of the project. For example:

  • ‘Effects of natural forest and tree plantations on leaf-litter frog assemblages in Southern Brazil.’ (Cicheleiro et al. 2021).
  • ‘An efficient incremental learning mechanism for tracking concept drift in spam filtering.’ (Jyh-Jian et al. 2017).

Declarative or Informative titles

These titles give the main findings or result of the study. For example:

  • ‘Novel flight style and light wings boost flight performance of tiny beetles.’ (Farisenkov et al 2022).
  • ‘Cause of hypereosinophilia shows itself after 6 years: Loa loa.’ (Hicks et al. 2022).

There is some concern that presenting the results or conclusions in the title of a paper will appear presumptive: that titles containing a definitive statement or final conclusion of a study, might prove problematic if that finding is later disproved.

Some journals prefer informative titles. For example, the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology has “… an editorial policy of “more informative titles” (MITs) that crisply and concisely tell our readers what our authors found in their research. A MIT states the study type and summarizes its key findings, using the past tense for individual studies and the present tense for systematic reviews.” The idea is that titles for small individual studies should be written in past tense to allow future studies to overrule or disagree with their findings, while titles should be written in present tense for studies that are unlikely to be over-ruled by later studies: i.e. literature reviews. Some research has also demonstrated that “articles with short titles describing the results are cited more often.” (Paiva et al. 2012).

Interrogative titles

Interrogative titles or titles phrased as a question. The use of questions in titles can create interest by making the reader immediately wonder what the answer might be. It is also a concise way of presenting the research topic.

For example:  

  • ‘Does adding video and subtitles to an audio lesson facilitate its comprehension?’ (Zheng et al. 2022).
  • ‘Microbial defenses against mobile genetic elements and viruses: Who defends whom from what?’ (Eduardo et al. 2022).

Suggestive titles

These are titles that are slightly ambiguous or overly brief to hint or suggest what the findings might be, presumably to create suspense to entice the reader to find out what the answer is. For example:

  • ‘Drawing to improve metacomprehension accuracy’. (Thiede et al. 2022).
  • ‘The puzzle of high temperature superconductivity in layered iron pnictides and chalcogenides.’ (Johnston 2010).

Humorous or colloquial title

These are titles that hope to attract interest through humour or common-use sayings, colloquialism or metaphors. These types of titles can be used to good effect. However, be mindful that colloquialisms might not make sense to readers from different language or cultural backgrounds.

For example:

Combination titles

Combination titles are those that include a combination of different types listed above.

The following example uses a colloquialism in the key title with the findings mentioned in the sub-title:

  • ‘Standing out in a crowd: Intraspecific variability in dorsal patterning allows for photo-identification of a threatened anuran.’ (Gould et al. 2021).

The following example has the following structure: ‘Topic: results of study’

  • Plastic Pollution in the World's Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea (Eriksen et al. 2014).

Which type is better?

There are conflicting views which type of title is better. There are arguments for and against different types, with research findings presenting the pros and cons of different types of title. Before you decide which is best, first look at how titles are commonly structured in recently published journals within your discipline.

Essential steps in designing your title

The following steps will help you design your document title.

1. Read the Instructions to Authors

Once you have selected a journal, review the types of titles recently published and read the Instructions to Authors to learn what the journal requires for paper titles. Instructions regarding titles are often brief. For example:

- Elsevier’s Guide for Authors “Title - Concise and informative. Titles are often used in information-retrieval systems. Avoid abbreviations and formulae where possible.”

- Plos One Submission Guidelines state that titles should be “…Specific, descriptive, concise, and comprehensible to readers outside the field.” and “…written in sentence case (only the first word of the text, proper nouns, and genus names are capitalized). Avoid specialist abbreviations if possible. For clinical trials, systematic reviews, or meta-analyses, the subtitle should include the study design.”

2. Consider your audience

Although the expected audience is broadly set by the scope of the journal, you still need to identify who will be interested in your paper. Who is your target audience? Are they scientists who mostly work in your field or will they include researchers from other disciplines? Consider what aspects of your project would attract your target audience and whether or not you can include these in your title.

3. Decide what aspects of your study to include in your title

As outlined above (Types of titles) decide whether you want to describe the process (descriptive) the result (informative) the research question or problem (integrative) or a combination of these factors.

Description of methods and study design

Titles of research papers, reports and conference proceedings often contain standard research methods. For example:  

  • ‘Plant-based diets and incident cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality in African Americans: A cohort study.’ (Weston et al. 2022).
  • ‘Using scale modelling to assess the prehistoric acoustics of Stonehenge.’ (Cox et al. 2020).
  • ‘The use of chronosequences in studies of ecological succession and soil development.’ (Walker et al 2010).

Description of study subjects and location

Titles often just describe the key study subject, and also often including habitat or location. For example: 

How specific or general should your title be?

Your title should be unique to your project. Hopefully, no one else is writing a paper exactly the same as you, and your title should reflect this. If your title is too broad or general, then you may give the impression that the study is larger than it is or that it is a literature review.  This is when it is important to make a distinction between ‘topic’ (general) and ‘title’ (specific). Unless you are writing a literature review or presenting a large-scale study, don’t give your research topic as your title.

Including information on the scope of the study will also help the reader understand the magnitude of your study and from this, the importance and implications of the findings. In the following example, “in highway bridges” gives the scope of the study:

  • ‘Finite element based fatigue assessment of corrugated steel web beams in highway bridges.’ (Wang & Wang 2015).

Avoid making your title too long with too much specific detail. For example, perhaps this title is too long:

  • ‘Use of open-text responses to recode categorical survey data on postpartum contraception use among women in the United States: A mixed-methods inquiry of Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System data.’ (Richards et al, 2022).

4. Consider your reader’s behaviour

Assume your reader only has a short time to decide if your title is relevant and that they will only review the abstract if the title interests them. Titles that include standard procedures, common cause-effect scenarios or well-known research topics, might be overlooked in preference for titles describing unique approaches or interesting findings.

5. Check that your title is clear and easy to read 

Your main message must be clear. Your titles don’t have to be grammatically-complete sentences, but make sure they make sense, especially if you have tried to shorten them by cutting out words. Don’t sacrifice clarity for brevity by making your title obscure.

Beware of using adjectival-noun strings in your titles. This is when authors try and be more concise by placing too many adjectives in front a single noun making it difficult to decipher whether each adjective is actually modifying the root noun or another word in the adjectival-noun string. Take an example from a student report: ‘Australian insecticide control failure.’ (Anon.) This might be interpreted as:

  • The failure of insecticide to control something in Australia.
  • The failure of Australian insecticide to control something somewhere else.
  • The failure to control [the use of] Australian insecticide.

Another unclear example: ‘Post head emergence spring radiative frost damage of winter cereals.’ (Anon.) It could be made even longer: ‘Winter cereal post head emergence spring radiative frost damage.’ 

6. Check your title length  

Check that your title length is adequate for readability and comprehension. The longer the title, the harder it is to read and comprehend, especially if it includes complicated terminology and phrasing. Every time something has to be re-read, you increase your chance of losing the reader. There is no golden rule about how long a title should be, but a good tip is to ask a colleague to read it out loud. If they are unfamiliar with title and struggle to read it easily, it is probably too long or too complex. Also check to see if there is a word limit set by the Instructions to Authors in your chosen journal.

The shorter the title, the easier it will be to read but only to a certain point. Too short and you risk sacrificing your meaning. Also, If you leave out too much detail, the title may appear too general and mislead the reader. If the reader has to guess what the meaning, you increase the chance of losing them. Check that your title is not too ambiguous, cryptic or inadvertently misleading. An ambiguous media release example:

7. Check that your title is concise

Titles can be made more concise by removing unnecessary repetition and detail. Common research phrases can be removed without affecting the meaning or structure of the title. Examples of these research phrases include ‘The influence of...’, ‘The role of..’, ‘Effects of..’, ‘Observations of..,’ ‘Studies on...’

For example: ‘Annual variation in the distribution of summer snowdrifts in the Kosciuszko alpine area, Australia, and its effect on the composition and structure of alpine vegetation.’  (Edmonds et al. 2006) [25 words] could be reduced to: “Distribution of summer snowdrifts influences composition and structure of Kosciuszko alpine vegetation, Australia” [13 words].  

8. Ways to make your title more interesting

Ask a question

By writing a title in the form of a question you are immediately inviting the reader to think. For example:

  • ‘Whose shoulders is health research standing on? Determining the key actors and contents of the prevailing biomedical research agenda.’ (Testoni et al. 2021).

Be humorous or focus on the unusual or unexpected

Mildly humorous titles immediately engage the reader while unusual or unexpected tiles create curiosity.

  • ‘On human odour, malaria mosquitoes, and Limburger cheese.’ (Knols 1996).

Final considerations

My key advice is, ensure your title is concise, easy to read (for your target audience), not too long and adequately reflects your study’s design or purpose (not too general or too specific).


  • Is it hard to read?
  • If it is a question, does it make your reader wonder what the answer is?
  • If it is a summary of your methods, are these methods unique or reveal a fresh approach or are they just standard and well-known and therefore unlikely to stand-out?
  • If it is the answer or conclusion to your problem, are you risking letting the reader think they now don’t need to read the paper? Or might your conclusion-title be a way to hook your reader into finding out more about your study?
  • Does it create interest or curiosity?

© Dr Marina Hurley 2022 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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Bullet point lists versus paragraphs

This writing guide follows on from my previous writing guide, How to Structure Bullet Point Lists and focuses on when to use bullet points and when to use paragraphs. Although the difference between the two is obvious, some writers create unwieldy bullet points (see Figure 1) that would serve better as a paragraph or write dense paragraphs that could serve the reader better if presented as bullet point lists.

Before a comparison between the two can be made, the information must be in a form of a list or be easily converted into a list, and this is usually possible if a paragraph has the structure of a statement, followed by examples.

The following example could be written as either a paragraph or a bullet-point list.

“Technical communicators can create technical information for new products or update existing information. They might research or test a product to interpret and test technical information or specifications. Some tasks include working with or interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) to extract information and uncover the missing details that a user might need to know.”  (From https://www.astc.org.au/about-technical-communications)

In this example, the introductory element is: “Technical communicators can create technical information for new products or update existing information.” Everything else in the paragraph are examples of these tasks.

With minimal changes, this could be rewritten into a bullet-point list as follows:

Technical communicators can create technical information for new products or update existing information. Some tasks may include:

  • research or test a product to interpret 
  • test technical information or specifications
  • work with or interview subject matter experts (SMEs) to extract information and uncover the missing details that a user might need to know.

Figure 1: This is an example of a complicated bullet point list: some list items are very long

Some factors to consider when choosing to write paragraphs or bullet point lists

1. The length of your sentences 

If your sentences are:

-  long, bullet points might be easier to read.

-  short and there are a few of them, paragraphs may be just as easy to read as a bullet point list.

2. The number of list items

- If you have more than three list items within a sentence, consider turning them into bullet point lists.

- If you have many list items (i.e. more than 8-10), they may be difficult to read as either bullet point lists or paragraphs. If you do have very lengthy lists, consider using a table instead.

3. The number of bullet point lists in your document

The number and placement of bullet point lists affects the layout and presentation of your document. Too many successive bullet point lists may be difficult to read. If most of your document does consist of bullet point lists, try turning some into paragraphs to help break up the text. Be mindful that if you write bullet point lists within bullet point lists (also known as multilevel lists) make sure they are not difficult to read.

4. The size and number of your paragraphs

If you have many large paragraphs within a document, turning some into bullet point lists will help break up the text. Also consider breaking up large paragraphs into smaller paragraphs.

If you have many small paragraphs, then bullet point lists may not be necessary. Sometimes I find that if a document has lots of small (single sentence) paragraphs, then it ends up looking like a continuous bullet point list anyway.

Finally, don’t forget that the layout of your document influences its’ readability. So consider:

- What is the best way to effectively arrange your paragraphs and bullet point lists within your document?

- What is the best way to incorporate paragraphs and bullet point lists with other important features such as figures, tables, images and headings.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email admin@writingclearscience.com.au 

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How to structure bullet point lists

What are bullet point lists?

When lists are presented with one list item per line, following an indented marker or symbol. they are commonly referred to as ‘bullet points’ or ‘bulleted lists’. Bullet point lists are widely used in science report writing but are rarely used in peer-reviewed journal articles (primarily due to save space).

What is the purpose of bullet points lists?

Bullet point lists are generally used for unnumbered and unordered lists and allow information to stand out separately from paragraphs and other surrounding text. Well-designed bullet points help attract the reader's attention when skimming a document and help them to quickly absorb multiple subtopics.

Making sure that bullet points are structured correctly also helps writers to clarify their thinking. Bullet point lists avoid the need to force a sentence or paragraph to contain lengthy and unwieldy lists. They allow the writer to be more succinct as the repetition needed to link connected sentences within a paragraph can be removed. They can also help to reduce the word count if the list is composed of simple phrases or sentence fragments rather than complete sentences.

The problems with the use of bullet point lists

Many writers are unsure how to structure bullet point lists and use them incorrectly. Some writers use paragraphs when they could have used bullet points and some overuse bullet points instead of writing paragraphs. Some writers haphazardly throw all types of information into bullet points, making them difficult to read. Therefore, guidelines are necessary.

When and how should bullet point lists be used?

There are different ways to structure bullet points. However, ensuring consistency and clarity of meaning is crucial. Two common questions I’m asked are, “Should bullet points be capitalised?’ and “Should bullet points be followed with commas or semi-colons?” My answer to both is, that it depends on what you are writing and how your structure your introductory elements and list items. An introductory element is the use of a phrase, sentence fragment or complete sentence to introduce the bullet point list.

1. Bullet point lists are introduced with a phrase, a sentence fragment or a complete sentence (introductory element). 

The introductory element is usually followed by a colon (See Example 1).

Example 1

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- the current software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.

- what to keep in mind when searching for good software tools.

(from ‘FAQ: What software tools do I use for writing and teaching?’)

2. Each list member must logically complete the meaning conveyed in the introductory element.

As Example 1 is introduced with a sentence fragment (‘The following is a brief overview of:’) each list item must form a grammatically-correct complete sentence when combined with it. For example, the second list item would be read as: “The following is a brief overview of how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.” This is why the first word of each list item is not capitalised and why full stops are used at the end of each list item.

It is very common for writers to avoid this important guideline and not check to see if each list item logically follows on from the introductory element. An incorrect way to represent the information in Example 1 would be as follows:

Hypothetical (incorrect) Example 2

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- Includes a current list of software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.

- Also some tips to keep in mind when searching for the good software tools.

The last two list items, although still relating to the topic, do not follow on from the introductory element. For example, the 3rd list item would read, “The following is a brief overview of Include a current list of software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.This does not make sense.

3. If an introductory element stands alone as a heading, it doesn’t need any punctuation (see Example 3 below). 

Nevertheless, in this example you could still place a colon after the introductory element.

Example 3


- Plans are not meant to be perfect but act as a guide to your thinking and a framework to further develop the project you are working on.

- Keep all versions of your plans for future reference or to use as templates for future projects.

- Ask colleagues for feedback on your plans as well as your document drafts.

 (from ‘The essentials of science writing: plan before you write’ )

4. If the bullet points are composed of complete sentences, they should be each be treated as a normal sentence with capitalisation and terminal punctuation (e.g. full stop, question mark) (see Example 3 above).

5. Consistency is crucial:

- Use the same symbol or marker for your bullet points throughout your document.

- Although you may have different types (structures) of bullet point lists within the same document, all list items within a bullet point list should be the same format: all phrases, all sentence fragments or all complete sentences.

This is another reason why Example 3 is incorrect as the 3rd point is a complete sentence, while the 4th point is a sentence fragment and both are dissimilar in structure to the first two points.

6. Bullet point lists items that are phrases or sentence fragments need no punctuation (see Example 4 below).


Example 4

Common writing problems often reflect that a writer has not thoroughly considered who their audience is, or what they need. This can cause the following problems:

- providing too much (or not enough) detail or background information

- providing too much detail on unrelated sub-topics or on a well-known topic

- using the wrong language or unfamiliar terminology

- assuming the audience’s level of interest in, or understanding of, the topic

(from How to identify your target audience,)

7. Ensure that your list items are distinct from each other (compare examples 5 & 6).

Example 5

An example of distinct list items:

I agreed to the following decisions:

- the start date of the project.

- that the consultation committee have a maximum of five registered members.

- the due date of the first stage of the report.

Example 6

An example of indistinct list items:

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- how different pricing models influence the way I research software tools.

In this example, the 3rd list item is closely related to the 2nd list item, so I would either combine them all leave point 3 out.

8. The list items can be presented in any order. If they must be presented in a certain order, they should be numbered and considered a ‘numbered list’ and not a bullet point list (See example 7).

Example 7 

Example of a numbered list

Steps to complete your enrolment:

  1. Read the terms and conditions.
  2. Download and complete the application form
  3. Email the application form to emailus@address.com
  4. Follow instructions in enrolment notification email.

9. Use commas or semi-colons at the end of each list item if you are presenting a list as though it was part of an entire sentence (see Examples 8 and 9). 

Hypothetical Example 8 (with commas)

The site contained the following species:

- Eucalyptus saligna,

- Eucalyptus siderophloia,

- Eucalyptus oreades and

- Eucalyptus regens.

As a complete sentence this would be written as “The site contained the following species: Eucalyptus saligna, Eucalyptus siderophloia, Eucalyptus oreades and Eucalyptus regens.”

This type of bullet point list could also make a complicated list easier to read than if it was written in a sentence (see Example 8).

Hypothetical Example 9 (with semi-colons)

The site contained the following species:

- Acacia daviesioides (over 3 dozen seedlings);

- Acacia glaucoptera (3 shrubs);

- Acacia incurve (over 1000 small to medium shrubs);

- Eucalyptus saligna (over 200 seedlings);

- Eucalyptus siderophloia (one large tree and 3 saplings);

- Eucalyptus oreades (six saplings) and

- Eucalyptus regens (over 300 trees).

As a complete sentence this example would be written as “The site contained the following species: Acacia daviesioides (over 3 dozen seedlings); Acacia glaucoptera (3 shrubs); Acacia incurve (over 1000 small to medium shrubs); Eucalyptus saligna (over 200 seedlings); Eucalyptus siderophloia (one large tree and 3 saplings); Eucalyptus oreades (six saplings) and Eucalyptus regens (over 300 trees).

If you find you are writing these types of sentences or bullet point lists, depending on the type of document you are writing, it might be better to use tables instead.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email admin@writingclearscience.com.au 

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When to cite and when not to

What information should be cited? Where do I place the citation in a sentence? These two questions are commonly asked during my writing workshops and online courses. Other problems I regularly see are too many citations to support a piece of information or statements of fact that should be supported by a citation. This blogpost reviews the basic concepts of citation and discusses the importance of always citing your sources.

What is a citation?

Authors of scientific documents use citation to indicate when information comes from another source: who wrote (or produced) the information being discussed and when it was published.

The standard method of citation is to insert in-text citations directly before, or after, the information that is attributed to another source or author. These citations are then listed at the end of the document within either a bibliography or reference list. A reference list includes only the references that are cited, whereas a bibliography is both a list of the references cited and additional references used when researching and writing the document.

There are many different referencing styles, including the Harvard style which is commonly used in science publications. The Author – Date (Harvard) in-text citation is where the authors surnames and dates of publication are written within brackets at the end of a sentence or phrase. For example. “Aquatic air breathers periodically break the water surface to gulp air but never leave water (Gonzales et al. 2006).” (Magellan 2016, p 452)

If there is more than one citation for a particular statement, the citations are separated by semicolons. For example: “The conflicting requirements for aquatic and terrestrial life are perhaps most pronounced in air-breathing fishes (Sayer & Davenport 1991; Graham 1997; Sayer 2005).” (Magellan 2016, p 452). This example also demonstrates the convention of ordering citations from earliest year published (1991) to latest year published (2005). If two publications were cited from the same year, then the order of citation would be in alphabetical order.

Where should in-text citation be placed?

I am often asked whether to place the citation at the end of the sentence, in brackets, or at the beginning, forming part of the sentence.

Often the citation is made after a statement of fact. If there are three statements within a sentence, there will be three separate citations lists within that sentence; An example from Magellan (2016, p 452), “Amphibious animals are adapted for both aquatic and terrestrial habitats and divide their lives periodically (e.g. Yeomans 1995; Dall’Antonia & Sinsch 2001) or ontogenetically (e.g. Martin et al. 2004; Blob et al. 2007) between water and land (Sayer & Davenport 1991; Sayer 2005).”

Alternatively, the authors of a publication can appear in the beginning of a sentence when it is used as the subject of the sentence, while the date of publication is written in brackets. In this case, the previous citation example of Gonzales et al. 2006 by Magellan 2016 could be rewritten as ‘Gonzales et al. (2006) found that aquatic air breathers periodically break the water surface to gulp air but never leave water’. However, this type of citation increases the length of the sentence as the verb phrase ‘found that’ needs to be added.

As a general guide, if you use the findings of a study to develop your reasoning, it is easiest and more concise to place the citation at the end of the sentence. That way you can easily list more than one study as a list of citations in brackets, as in the example above. However, if you are discussing a particular study over more than one sentence, it is easier for the reader if you first introduce the authors as the subject of the sentence.
Irrespective of where the citation is placed, hyperlinking can used with electronic publications to link a quote or citation directly to the document being cited, as with the Fensham et. al (2017) paper cited below.

Ideas, quotes and paraphrasing should be cited

You must include a citation if you quote, paraphrase or summarise someone else’s information or ideas. Quoting is writing the exact words used by another author and enclosing the text in double quotation marks; for example: Fensham et. al (2017) concluded that “The findings of the current study support the importance of rainfall variability as the major influence on the demography of E. melanophloia, the dominant tree in a semi-arid savanna” (p. 780). The page number where the quotation appeared should always be included.

Paraphrasing is rewriting someone else’s writing using your own choice of words; for example, I would both summarise and paraphrase this previous quote as, ‘Fensham et. al (2017) concluded that rainfall variability is the major factor influencing the demography of E. Melanophloia.’ or ‘The demography of E. melanophloia is most strongly influenced by rainfall variability’.’ (Fensham et. al 2017).

 When using quotation marks, whether you use single or double quotation marks, be sure that you are consistent. Note that I used single quotes here to distinguish my wording and double quotes for the direct quotation.

Why do we cite?

The main reasons we cite is to clearly distinguish our work from others and so the source of information can be located and verified. Citation also honours the work or intellectual property of the author. Researchers most often cite other studies when developing their reasoning for their own studies, when comparing their work with other researchers and to indicate when authors reach similar or dissimilar conclusions. In this way, the citation process maintains and further develops the scientific discourse and shows how authors place their work within the published scientific literature.

What information can be cited?

It is a good idea to only cite information that has been published or made publicly available. Be cautious about referencing information from documents that are not publicly available or have not been peer-reviewed.

Unpublished research is referred to as grey literature. Grey literature is defined as “…research that has not been published commercially and is therefore not necessarily searchable via the standard databases and search engines. Much grey literature is of high quality and can be an excellent source of up to date research in certain subject areas. Examples of grey literature: government reports, conference proceedings, theses / dissertations, research reports, maps, policy statements, clinical trials, technical standards, interviews and newsletters” (UNSW 2018).

If it is necessary to cite unpublished information, the integrity of this information may come into question if no other sources are provided. Be cautious about generating conclusions or inferences solely on the basis of unpublished information.

How to cite different types of publications

Most Australian university library websites will list guides to different referencing styles; for example, Queensland University and Victoria University have in-depth guides on different referencing styles and how to cite and reference different types of publications. Also refer to Colin Neville’s book, The Complete Guide to Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism (2016) for an in-depth guide on how to reference and cite a wide range of published material including books, papers, newspaper articles and audio-visual material.

What doesn’t need to be cited     

Information that is commonly known to be true is not cited. Common knowledge is information that is widely accepted as being true and does not need to be cited. However, what is common knowledge depends upon the knowledge of the audience: what is commonly known to some groups of people would not necessarily be commonly known by another group of people.

As readers, we trust that the author’s knowledge of what is commonly known, is true. For example, the quote from Fensham (see above) included an unreferenced statement that E. melanophloia is a dominant tree in a semi-arid savanna (Fensham et al. 2017, p. 780). I assume that this statement is common knowledge as it was uncited. Another example is that it is common knowledge to entomologists that (most) beetles have only one pair of flying wings, with the second pair of wings evolved to form protective covers to the flying wings. This fact would not need to be cited in entomology publications, not only because it is commonly known, but because it is easy enough to find out.

Avoid inadvertent plagiarism

Remember that unreferenced statements might be considered plagiarism. If you continually make unreferenced statements, you can mislead the reader into thinking that your un-cited information is either common knowledge or that you generated this information yourself.

Publications cited
- Magellan, K. (2016) Amphibious adaptations in a newly recognized amphibious fish: Terrestrial locomotion and the influences of body size and temperature. Austral Ecology 41,452-460
- Fensham, R. J., Freeman, M. E., Laffineur, B., Macdermott, H., Prior, L. D., & Werner, P. A. (2017). Variable rainfall has a greater effect than fire on the demography of the dominant tree in a semi-arid Eucalyptus savanna. Austral Ecology, 42(7), 772– 782
- Gonzales T. T., Katoh M. & Ishimatsu A. (2006) Air breathing of aquatic burrow-dwelling eel goby, Odontamblyopus lacepedii (Gobiidae: Amblyopinae). J. Exp. Biol. 209, 1085–92.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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What is the difference between a good idea and a theory?

Some terms used to discuss and describe science are often used interchangeably which can cause confusion: for example, terms such as fact, hypothesis, theory, knowledge, information, results and findings. In this writing guide, I define some commonly-used terms used to describe science, while also explaining how science information is produced. 

I need to first acknowledge that numerous philosophers and have spent many years, even entire lifetimes, debating and discussing the precise meaning of some of these terms. So I encourage you to read some of the books by important science authors and philosophers including Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking to develop a solid understanding of science philosophy and the current developments in science. Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything is also an excellent coverage of science suitable for a wide audience.

Knowledge versus information

The term knowledge is often used instead of information. However, science knowledge is what people gain or learn through absorbing science information or through doing their own research. Science information is a collection of facts that is based upon evidence which is the result of peer-reviewed or peer-verified research.

The degree to which science information is considered true and correct will vary according to when the research was published, how large or lengthy the study was and the amount of published evidence that supports this information. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of information that may be considered true but is yet to be scientifically tested; for example, some home remedies for illnesses.

Facts, assumptions and opinions

A scientific statement of fact is an explanation of a phenomenon or something that is generally held to be true and can be proved by evidence. Facts can later be disproved, as can hypotheses and theories. Communicating information as a judgement or a statement of fact, but without providing proof that it is true, is expressing an assumption, while believing that something is true based upon little or incomplete evidence is forming an opinion.

Scientific opinions are generated from science knowledge, and may or may not be true, but they are important for developing new ideas, new hypotheses and new science. Scientific opinions and ideas need to be developed into hypotheses or problems that can be tested and supported (or rejected) by research.

What should be cited

Strictly speaking, all science information that is not common knowledge should be cited; that is, the source of the information should be presented so that the reader can verify that the information is supported by evidence. Where relevant, opinions should also be acknowledged, otherwise, it may be difficult for a reader to understand the difference between a scientific opinion and an uncited statement of fact (common knowledge).

Common knowledge is what would be generally be accepted as being true without question by a large proportion of a group of people familiar with a certain topic. What is accepted as common knowledge of a topic will depend upon the background, knowledge and experience of the reader.

Results versus findings

The science information produced by a study and published in a research paper is also known as the study’s findings. Collectively, both the Results and the Discussion parts of a research paper represent the authors findings. The Results present the data or observations of the study and the Discussion presents the author’s interpretations that explain what these results mean in relation to the scientific problem under investigation.

Traditionally, the format of the research paper is to distinctly separate the Results and Discussion sections so that the bare measurements of the results are not mixed in with, and made indistinguishable from, the author’s discussion or interpretations of their results. As different people may interpret the same data differently, it was (and still is) considered important to allow the reader to clearly see the results in isolation.  However, it may be difficult to separate results and discussion with some types of projects and within some disciplines.

Scientific interpretations are based upon the author’s knowledge, which is gained through their experience, through their reading and through their analytical (inductive and deductive) skills. If these scientific interpretations are accepted by peer-review and published, they may then be considered scientific facts. If other authors disagree with the interpretations in a published paper, they are expected to publish their own papers accordingly and a scientific debate may ensue. Individual interpretations will develop into a scientific consensus when similar studies produce similar results and different authors develop similar conclusions.

Similarly, a theory is supported by consensus. A theory describes the behaviour or activity of a phenomenon or phenomena. It is a statement supported by accepted hypotheses and empirical evidence. A hypothesis is a statement that describes the properties or behaviour of an object or phenomena. A hypothesis is either supported or rejected based upon the evidence developed from testing the hypothesis. A specific, simple hypothesis or null hypothesis is one designed to be easily tested; it can be either accepted or rejected or upheld or discarded. If repeated tests under different circumstances support the hypothesis, then the hypothesis can be developed into a theory. From this theory further hypotheses can be generated. A theory can be supported, validated, reframed, modified or rejected according to evidence. A theory that has been refuted must be discarded and is no longer referred to as a theory.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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