Topical Editor Catalin Florea shares how to focus the abstract and introduction of a manuscript to convey significance.

© 2021 Optical Society of America

Applied Optics’s reputation is built on publishing high-quality, in-depth, peer-reviewed content about applications-centered research in optics. Whether by introducing new science and technology or by enhancing the understanding of current and new applications, the authors strive to provide sufficient background, details, and analysis such that the results are clear and reproducible.

The high standards of Applied Optics are upheld by the editorial team, which receives the original manuscripts and manages not only the peer review process, but also the communications with the corresponding author(s). For any given manuscript, among the very first items that an editor is looking at are whether the authors present a concise, clear abstract account of the (original) research performed, and an objective discussion of the work’s significance. In our editorial work, we quite often come across instances of manuscripts that are failing to clearly state the significance of the work presented–which is the subject of this editorial.

It is important to note that the “significance” of the work presented in any given manuscript is achieved primarily either through significant novelty or through significant improvement. There are a few ways in which authors miss the mark on making a proper case for the significance of their work.

One common way is to present too extensive of a review of the current status in a given research area, yet not explain how the current work relates to the progress in the field. To use a made-up scenario, a manuscript claiming a new white LED might devote the entire introduction to present an overview of the white LEDs demonstrated to date, yet not explain how the novel LED compares with any of the previous demonstrations. Burying such explanation in later sections of the manuscript is not sufficient as it would not be readily available to the peers researching the field, especially if the abstract is also missing such clarity.

The opposite also happens, where the current general status of the field is not presented but instead the results in the submitted manuscript are summarily presented in the introduction. Without clarity as to where and what the impact is in the given area of research, it is difficult for a peer to review and assess the value brought by the manuscript. The work has to be put in the proper context to enable not only a quality peer review process, but also to provide the potential future reader with a quick assessment of the work’s utility to their interests.

Another way the significance is not brought forth is by not making any particular claims to either novelty or improvement–despite an otherwise sound review of the field and an appropriate summary presentation of the new results in the abstract and/or introduction. Referring to the white LED manuscript example, it might not be clear in what way the new LED is “new” or “improved.” A mere enumeration of the manufacturing process steps or of the LED’s performance factors, for example, is not demonstrating significance.

Finally, there are situations where the authors do properly attempt to address the significance of their work. The salient novelty or improvements are, however, mixed in the introduction with other, less relevant results. While the peer-review process will provide for corrective guidance, it would indeed be preferred to keep only the essential results in the abstract and introduction, which will ultimately improve the manuscript’s readability.

It has been our intent in the present editorial to help the manuscript authors understand the expectations around presenting an objective evaluation of the significance of their work. We find in practice that reworking the introductory section allows the authors to address the significance concern satisfactorily. In the cases where a suitable revision of the manuscript is not initially successful, the authors’ effort is nevertheless rewarded with a new manuscript that has an enhanced focus and overall a better content presentation. Ultimately, it is this very type of attention to the scientific integrity of the published work, given by all involved parties, that makes Applied Optics an outstanding resource that we all rely on in our common quest to the advancement of optics and its applications.

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