March 23, 2009

"in media res" & "methods at the end"

"In media res," to start at the middle, is a venerable dramatic tool. Don't start the story at the beginning! Instead, capture your audience's attention by starting in the midst of battle; later, go back in time and establish the events leading up to that dramatic opening battle-scene.

Scientific communication, in contrast, usually uses the four-part form sometimes called the "structured abstract": Background, methods, results, discussion. First tell us why, then what, you did; then what you found; then what it means.

Recently, some journals have adopted an alternate form of scientific communication, called the "methods at the end" ("MATE") form. A brief background comes first, then the results, then discussion; at the end come the methods,
often in small print. The idea being that most readers are less interested in methods than in findings.

I used to dislike the MATE format. Perhaps because, since we need to use methods to get results, it seems only natural to communicate the methods before the results. And perhaps because so much of my own work has been on developing new methods, I don't like to see methods relegated to the ghetto of an almost-appendix.

But lately, I have become more tolerant of the MATE format. Perhaps because once we think of a scientific paper as telling a story, we are forced to admit that "in media res" can be a great way to do that.

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