Writing a Technical Paper in ISE: A Network Perspective


ISE Magazine April 2019 Volume: 51 Number: 4

By J. MacGregor Smith

Writing a technical paper in industrial and systems engineering for publication is a complex challenge. Not only must you have something creative to say, you should have a clear idea of your audience and how it will benefit from your ideas. From one perspective, it can be seen as a network optimization problem where the best flow of ideas is created. Viewing the problem from this perspective is challenging, informative and ultimately constructive.

For the outline of the paper, the sections below describe the background and some of the guiding principles for the challenge; the network optimization framework; the spiral feedback process; and the paper’s summary and conclusion.

Background, key principles

Writing is an act of communication. There are some simple basic principles for communication that have been developed by many authors of writing technical papers. These are: have something to say; know your audience; outline, outline, out-line; and write and rewrite in spirals.

The first principle is that you should have something to say. An idea is “an abstract thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The generation and flow of ideas throughout the paper are critical. In fact, the ideas are what flows. This may seem trite, but unless you have something to say, it may be best to be quiet. Your ideas should help solve a problem, present a new way to think about something or be principles themselves for solutions.

In industrial and systems engineering, the methodology of solving problems is often the key concept in improving a system. How to do something is essential in ISE and if you have new ideas to solve these problems, they are worth hearing about.

The second principle is know your audience. This again may seem obvious, but the language of the audience is critical to understanding the ideas you are trying to communicate. The audience receives and demands new ideas to gain an understanding of what you have done. That the ideas should be new to the audience is also critical, and the argumentative form or proof of the ideas is highly dependent upon the sophistication of the audience. If you are not on the same wave-length, there is no real value added to what you have to say, and the audience will dismiss your ideas.

The third principle is outline, outline, outline. Structure and logic are crucial to understanding your ideas. If your ideas appear disorganized and not sensible, their clarity and impact will be lost. Outlining the paper and refining the outline over and over helps decompose the communication problem into smaller modular units but leaves the organization whole and intact so the modular units of writing remain coherent and connected. If the outline structure is well-designed, the writing in even smaller modular units becomes fun, like filling in the blanks.

The fourth principle is to write and rewrite in spirals. This spiral feedback principle was originally formulated by Paul Halmos in “How to Write Mathematics” (1970) and has been one of the most useful to me in my compositions. Based upon the outline, one will have well-defined modular units, but the task of writing in these modular units can disconnect the flow of ideas so that one loses sight of their coherence. However, going back and forth in spirals and reconnecting the ideas as they are developed begins to ensure they are clear and coherent and still flow from one modular unit to another.

Guiding framework

Title and abstract. The title and abstract provide a mini-summary of the paper. There should be no jargon or acronyms. Usually 10 lines or sentences of text is a good upper limit (Victor Li, “Hints on Writing Technical Papers and Making Presentations, IEEE Transactions on Education,” May 1999).

The following are issues or key questions to help structure the title and abstract. Brevity and conciseness are important.

  • What is the main idea(s)?
  • Why is it innovative?
  • What was the methodology?
  • What are the main results and conclusions?

Introduction. The introduction is a key foundation for the paper. The following are issues or key questions one should use to help structure the introduction.

  • What is the problem addressed and what are the objectives of the paper?
  • Why is the problem important? What is the complexity of solving it?
  • What is a brief outline of the paper?

Problem background. The problem background section should clarify to the audience what has been done in the past, what literature is relevant and what new ideas you are presenting. The following are issues or key questions one should use to help structure the problem background section.

  • Who is the audience?
  • Where does the problem arise?
  • What have people done in the past?
  • How have they done it?
  • What is new here?

Mathematical models. This section should summarize the mathematical formulation of the problem and the proper-ties necessary for its solution. The following are issues or key questions one should use to help structure the mathematical model section.

  • What assumptions, definitions and symbolic notation are needed?
  • What is the problem formulation, performance and optimization?
  • What are the key theoretical properties and their convexity, reversibility and proofs?

Algorithms and heuristics. How the problem was solved and by what methodologies is often critical in an ISE paper. The following are issues or key questions one should use to help structure the algorithms and heuristics section of the paper.

  • What is the step-by-step process to solving the problem?
  • What methodologies or paradigms were critical?
  • Is this a methodological contribution? Proofs?
  • What are the worst-case theoretical complexity results? An average case? Storage?

Theoretical or experimental results. What are the key findings and what is the best way to present them? This also can be a very technical section and can be as important as the previous two subsections. The following are issues or key questions one should use to help structure the experimental results section.

  • How can you best show the results for the reader with proofs?
  • What are the data trends? Are there tables?
  • What are the key functional relationships? Are there graphs?
  • What are the worst-case computational run times? Are there 95 percent confidence intervals?

Summary and conclusions. What did you tell the audience? How did you tell them? What should or could you tell them but didn’t? These following issues should guide the final section of the paper.

  • What are the summary results?
  • What are open questions for future research? Are there ex-tensions?
  • What final conclusions can be drawn?

Figures, acknowledgements, bibliography, appendices.  End matter is important to wrap up the paper and include other miscellaneous items. Figures can be placed at the end although placing them where they are referenced in the text is often best. Appendices can sometimes be helpful for complex proofs, tables or graphics. The following are issues or key questions one should use to help structure the final coda section.

  • Where should figures be placed?
  • Whom should you acknowledge?
  • What number of references is appropriate? Are dates included?
  • What details can be put in an appendix? Proofs?

Feedback process

As mentioned earlier, the spiral feedback process is very important to keeping continuity and consistency in the thought process and streamlining the content. Starting with the abstract, then the introduction and continuing on with the other sections, continuous feedback helps streamline the ideas.

I utilize the PDFTexify process in Latex and the editing tool WinEDT to process my drafts. It is a time-saving product because I can include all the equations and figures and bibliographic citations and process the paper thoroughly and quickly in a large document such as a book with many chapters. I can easily gain feedback as to what the document looks like, its organization, graphics with pictures, tables and other figures and features, and any problems in compilation such as with spelling errors, equation numbering, orphan sentences, misplaced graphics, awkward table position and so forth.

Other questions to consider:

  • How should you systematically revise the paper?
  • How often should you do so?
  • What is the best word processing software?

Final disposition

To streamline the final product, it is always wise to have someone read over the paper to catch any typos, poor word choices and other syntax or grammatical problems or organizational issues. Presenting the paper at a seminar or conference meeting is always desirable before submitting for publication. For this paper, I created the presentation first. If one has considered the audience carefully, the publication outlet will probably already be decided, at least narrowed down to a few alternatives.

Questions to ask:

  • Should you have friends and colleagues review the paper?
  • Should you present it first at a seminar, conference or other meeting?
  • When should you send it out for publication and where?