How to choose a framing narrative for scientific papers

Have you read a research paper where you experience this sequence of thoughts?: Title/Abstract/Introduction (wow! This is a real problem, someone’s finally answered this question), Methods (um, hang on, this sample size/study system/analysis approach doesn’t quite answer this problem…), Results (okay, these results are interesting, but…), Discussion (whoa, rein it in! I can’t find the link between these assumptions or recommendations and the results…).

The paper may be scientifically sound, as far as the methods & results go. The problem is that the authors have chosen a very broad frame narrative, and then confounded that frame with the interpretation of their results.

A frame narrative is one of the most important tools in writing. It’s the bigger picture that your individual story is set within, and it enables the author to reach a broader audience. Think of One Thousand and One Nights, Homer’s Odyssey, Heart of Darkness, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. They all use this proven tool to engage readers and link individual stories with the broader ‘why you should care’ narrative. Movies often use flashbacks or narrators as a framing device, e.g. The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump.

Framing devices have been used in scientific papers for centuries. The tool has become more popular in recent decades, but there is very little advice on how to choose the most appropriate narrative frame for a scientific paper. A lot of modern science writing advice appears to confuse ‘framing’ with ‘narrative structure’.

frame vs structureAn individual study can have multiple potential frame narratives, depending on the relevant community and the scale at which this problem is investigated. The table below shows some examples, but is not globally-relevant (pun intended).



Community Global Intermediate Local
Scholarly disciplines All academics; all scientists Biologists; Ecologists; etc. Pollination ecologists; network theoreticians
Taxa All species Kingdom; phylum; class… Order; family; species group…
Human society Everyone on earth Country; political or management region Town; local community
Natural environment Earth Country/biogeographic region Ecosystems; ecological communities

Framing a study too narrowly can reduce relevance to broader audiences, and reduce chances of getting published in many journals. But framing too broadly runs the risk of overcommitting the study, which can lead down a path of flawed logic when discussing results.

A bigger issue with over-framing is that it may lead to an increase in overuse of misleading causal language. If this happens in titles and abstracts, it can have a damaging effect on science communication via media representation. For example, if my study shows that ‘bees sometimes drank liquid kryptonite in my simulated Mars environment’, this is by no means evidence that ‘bees need kryptonite to survive’.

I’ve noticed a lot of over-framing in papers I peer review or handle as editor, and in published papers. Some very generic examples: ‘Pollinators are in decline across the whole world, and my study of a few species in one location shows how to stop the decline’, or ‘Understanding complex ecosystem services relationships is a global challenge, and my analysis of proxy data from one unique region has the all answers’.

I think there are potentially a few reasons that this trend is increasing:

  • The push for research to be politically/economically ‘relevant’. This could be pushing some authors toward the ‘global’ extreme of their study’s relevance scale.
  • Misguided calls for less disciplinary detail in science writing as an attempt to engage with non-specialist audiences. For example, many arguments for active voice, fewer ‘jargon’ words, or short sexy titles overlook the fact that successful communication and engagement depend on complex interactions between author and audience, and should never be at the expense of accuracy or context.
  • More journals that specifically require papers to conclude with conservation/management recommendations. I’ve reviewed a few papers that have presented a scientifically-sound study, and then ended with a paragraph along the lines of: ‘Therefore, our results [from this one crop in this one location] show that all farms across the entire globe should do X to support biodiversity’.

So how do you pick the most appropriate framing narrative? It depends on the study. But here are a few tips:

  • Pick the most appropriate framing scale that represents your study aims and is relevant to the community you aim to engage with.
  • Consider news media coverage of your study: how ambiguous could the gap between your chosen frame narrative and your results be?
  • Don’t overestimate the communicative power of a title, i.e. don’t confound the paper’s title with its frame narrative. A study showing that a few endemic species of bee in one unique location prefer kryptonite compared to roses is not enough justification to title the paper ‘Bees prefer kryptonite over flowers’.
  • Global frames are great, often necessary, for the first 1-2 sentences of an introduction. But whatever scale the frame narrative starts at in the first sentence of the Introduction, each level needs to be linked through until we get to the scale of the study, i.e. don’t jump straight from global to local without explaining how the relevant intermediate levels link together.
  • Conclusions/recommendations should be based on the results only, but potential applications of your results should be presented within the context of your frame narrative. Outlining limitations of the study, and how these might influence the results and applications, is important too.

© Manu Saunders 2018

4 thoughts on “How to choose a framing narrative for scientific papers

  1. standingoutinmyfield October 5, 2018 / 12:25 AM

    I think the framing issue can also come from inexperienced graduate students trying to emulate manuscripts that they’ve read, perhaps with a bias toward papers with a broader scope than their own study. I feel like I did this a lot when I was writing my first few papers because I was modeling them off something bigger!

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