Reading well-written research papers is not only enjoyable — it’s also (passive) learning that helps you write better papers yourself. But in most fields it’s quite rare to encounter a research article that is clear and easy to follow and truly a pleasure to read. So I am curating a list of handpicked papers from different disciplines, for when you want to read something nice as an inspiration for your own writing. This is an ongoing project: your suggestions of great papers are always welcome!
Reading and writing are tightly coupled processes that support each other.
Reading creates a basis for writing: it helps you passively build up your (scientific) vocabulary and “assimilate” the writing style and conventions. It’s a source that you can tap into as you write — it’s the input.
Writing, then, is the output. When you write you are combining words and phrases you know from reading into a new and unique mixture.
As my favorite quote by Pam Allyn says:
Reading is like breathing in; writing is like breathing out.
You write like what you read
After reading the book Writing Without Bullshit, my writing became direct, concise and to the point. When I was reading Writing With Power, my writing was clear and persuasive even though I was using more complex sentences just like the author was doing. And ever since I am regularly reading the (evidence-based) self-help blog of Mark Manson, my writing became lighter and more conversational. (I hope you appreciate it 😉 )
So if you want to write great research articles, the only thing you need to do is to read great research articles. That’s easy, right?
Well — theoretically. As you have surely noticed, truly well-written research papers are not so common. I think that’s partly because writing clearly about complex matters is inherently difficult — but partly also because the standards and expectations of scientific writing are set fairly low.
That’s why I decided to create this list of well-written scientific articles.
So far I have mostly included papers that I know from my own research work, papers labeled by students in my courses as being easy to read and papers suggested in the Facebook group Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped and on the Writing Scientist Facebook page.
I have combed through over 100 suggested papers, yet only around 10% made it to the final selection. Apparently, what is easy to read for a specialist doesn’t necessarily reflect overall great writing quality…
The list below includes selected research articles and other formats (reviews, opinion pieces) that are easy to read and understand also for non-specialists. Here is an overview of the selection criteria:
1. Text is easy to read and follow. This is achieved by:
- good paragraph structure;
- good sentence structure;
- reader’s guidance: motivating each next step, explaining relevant concepts, introducing abbreviations, creating connections between sentences and paragraphs;
- clear and precise language;
- using jargon reasonably and simple language whenever possible.
2. Paper is well structured. Namely:
- Abstract provides a good overview of the article.
- Introduction motivates the research project and describes its context/background.
- Results section presents the results clearly and in a logical order.
- Discussion explains the importance of the results and places them in the context of previous research.
Articles that fail to satisfy several of these points are not included in this list.
For each included article, aspects that are particularly well done () and those that are suboptimal () are highlighted.
Warren L et al. (2010). Highly efficient reprogramming to pluripotency and directed differentiation of human cells with synthetic modified mRNA. Cell Stem Cell, 7(5), 618-630.
Great paragraph and sentence structure, and reader’s guidance.
The first sentence of the Abstract is already very specific. A more general introductory sentence providing a broader motivation for the topic would be better.
The first sentence of the Introduction is too long and contains too much information. Also here a broader entry to the topic is missing.
Laventie BJ et al. (2019). A surface-induced asymmetric program promotes tissue colonization by Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Cell Host & Microbe, 25(1), 140-152.
Each step is well explained and motivated. Sentences are well structured.
Paragraph structure is not so great. Paragraphs often discuss more than one topic and some of the topic sentences make a reference to the previous text. As a result, one can’t easily skim the text and begin to read at any paragraph.
Golding NL & Spruston N (1998). Dendritic sodium spikes are variable triggers of axonal action potentials in hippocampal CA1 pyramidal neurons. Neuron, 21(5), 1189-1200.
Everything is clearly explained and motivated, the paper is easy to follow.
Some paragraphs discuss more than one topic. Some sentences are too long and complex.
Reviews & other formats
Watnick P & Kolter R (2000). Biofilm, city of microbes. Journal of Bacteriology, 182(10), 2675-2679.
Mini-review; a good example how to explain scientific research in an entertaining way to wide audiences.
Lazebnik Y (2002). Can a biologist fix a radio?—Or, what I learned while studying apoptosis. Cancer Cell, 2(3), 179-182.
Clear and intriguing commentary/opinion piece.
Zimmerer J et al. (2019). Integrated extraction and catalytic upgrading of microalgae lipids in supercritical carbon dioxide. Green Chemistry, 21(9), 2428-2435.
Best practice example for paragraph structure: just read the topic sentence of each paragraph and you get the whole main story with all the important points.
Introduction is not well structured. The approach of the present paper is not described at the end of the section as usually but somewhere in the middle and only briefly with one sentence. Moreover, the Introduction does not provide much background information needed to follow the Results section.
Computer science & engineering
Brunton SL et al. (2016) Discovering governing equations from data by sparse identification of nonlinear dynamical systems. PNAS, 113(15), 3932-3937.
Clearly written and well structured. Every step is well explained, so the article is easy to follow even for non-specialists.
Gebauer NWA et al. (2019). Symmetry-adapted generation of 3d point sets for the targeted discovery of molecules. arXiv preprint arXiv:1906.00957.
Well motivated and clearly described. Even the mathematical parts are easy to follow.
The Abstract is a bit dense, the main text is much easier to understand.
Pal A et al. (2020). Optimal turbine blade design enabled by auxetic honeycomb. Smart Materials and Structures, 29(12), 125004.
Every step is motivated and well-explained. Easy to read and follow also for “outsiders”.
Sometimes the readability is not optimal due to missing commas or hyphens, or suboptimal sentence structure.
The last sections “4.2 Optimized design” and “5. Conclusion” are not as easy to read as the rest of the article. Maybe this part was written by another co-author?!
Banko M & Bril E (2001). Scaling to very very large corpora for natural language disambiguation. In Proceedings of the 39th annual meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (pp. 26-33).
Clear explanations, good text flow.
Abstract doesn’t reveal any results.
Figure legends and annotations could be more detailed: It’s not possible to understand the figures without reading the main text.
Rivest RL et al (1978). A method for obtaining digital signatures and public-key cryptosystems. Communications of the ACM, 21(2), 120-126.
Everything is well explained and easy to follow.
The Introduction is very short and general while important information that motivates the current project is found later in the text (e.g., in section 3, paragraphs 2+3).
Boyd R & Richerson PJ (1996). Why culture is common, but cultural evolution is rare. In Proceedings-British Academy Vol. 88, pp. 77-94. Oxford University Press Inc.
Well argued and clearly written. Best-practice example for paragraph structure.
The technical details might be hard to follow for those not used to evolutionary models. For example, the abbreviation ESS (evolutionary stable strategy) is not introduced and a table giving an overview of the parameters could be handy as well.
Kildal N (2003). Perspectives on Policy Transfer. The Case of the OECD. [working paper 13-2003]
Pretty smooth reading experience.
Some sentences contain too many nominalizations, which makes them less reader-friendly.
Some explanations could be more elaborated, e.g., the distinction between “ideational agent” and “ideational agency”.
Iyengar SS & Lepper MR (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995.
Easy to follow and understand. Each step is well motivated and well explained.
The Introduction is not as nice to read as the rest of the article: the sentences are complex, often poorly structured, and contain too much jargon. As if it was written by a different co-author…
Some paragraphs are not well structured.
Reviews & other formats
Healy K (2017). Fuck nuance. Sociological Theory, 35(2), 118-127.
Excellent read. Well written and well argued. Might be interesting to researchers from other disciplines as well.
The author doesn’t always uses simple and common words. But it doesn’t impede the readability (much).
Exercise: The 3rd paragraph could be divided in two. Where would you make the split?
Do you know a well-written research article?
Are you disappointed because none of these articles is from your discipline? Or would you simply like to have more well-written research articles to pick from for your reading?
Then please, help grow this list by suggesting a freely accessible article that you found easy to read. You can post your suggestions in the comments or send them via email: papers@WritingScientist.com.
I hope to continuously extend this list and provide you with always new great articles to read. To enjoy and learn from.
Would you like to be notified about new additions? Then join our (bi-)weekly newsletter with tips and resources for your scientific writing.