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Benjamin Shapiro
Fischell Department of Bioengineering
Joint appointment with:
Institute for Systems Research
2246 Kim Building
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742
Tel: (301) 405-4191
Fax: (301) 405-9953

Writing Papers: Comments on Writing
Kris Pister, Berkeley


A research university exists to train students and to discover and disseminate. Traditionally dissemination has taken the form of publication (although the web is changing that somewhat, or at least changing the definition of publication).

Conference publication serves to expose a particular research community to your ideas and results. A few hundred people will see your paper within the first few months of its appearance. Very few copies of the conference proceedings will exist after a decade has passed.

MEMS conferences tend to have pretty fast turnaround. You submit an extended abstract (typically 1 page of text and 1 or 2 of figures) six months before the conference. A couple of months later you find out if you are accepted. If accepted, you have another month or two to write the full/final version of the paper.

Journal publication (sometimes known as archival publication) serves to preserve your ideas and results indefinitely. Hundreds or thousands of libraries will keep copies of your paper for decades.

  • It's OK to submit a conference paper to a journal (this is common and encouraged, if it's a good conference paper).
  • It's OK to submit the same ideas to two different conferences if they are in two different communities as long as you let both conferences know that that is what you are planning to do. If you're working on the border between two fields (say robotics and MEMS), this may be the only way to get people in both fields aware of your ideas.
  • It's NOT ok to submit the same ideas to two conferences in the same field, although lots of people do this (see LPI, below).
  • It's absolutely NOT ok to submit the same ideas to two journals, same field, different field, whatever. Your ideas should be archived once only.

LPI vs. innovation

Many people seem to like to pad their resumes with conference publications. This leads to phrases like "least publishable increment" (LPI) and "epsilon improvement". Don't do this.


Most academic communities are pretty small, and the people on top usually have pretty good memories. As a result, your reputation is extremely important to your success.

Things to avoid:

  • promising more in the abstract than you deliver in the paper
  • misleading or vague results, descriptions, etc. (Stealth Research)
  • LPI/epsilon publishing

Note that your reputation is intimately tied with the reputation of your advisor, your colleagues in your group, BSAC, and to some extent UC Berkeley as a whole. On the plus side, you get a huge dose of reputation (most of it good) just by being in BSAC. On the down side, if you screw up you put a little tarnish on the reputation of everyone you work with.

Highest goal

Publish something that other people find so useful that they start doing it themselves.

Writing conference abstracts

Be absolutely brutally honest. Describe carefully what you have done, what you haven't done, and what you expect to do by the conference date.

  • Give clear reasons why your work is important
  • best performance so far (cite specific examples)
  • completely new capability
  • completely new idea

The abstract will never be published, so you can afford to be a little more harsh and forward in your comparisons to other work. Sadly, this often makes a big difference in getting accepted. Don't forget that some of the people you compare to will be reading the abstract!

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