Career development

How To Write a Technical Paper That Stands Out

The key element in the process is to write a good abstract. A good abstract that flows well will really make it or break it for your ultimate paper selection.


Having a technical paper accepted into an event can be a career booster for many people. In this discussion, technical paper expert Sunil Kokal shares some of the key components of a technical paper, basic methods of writing it, and just why writing one is important.

Kokal is a principal scientist at Saudi Aramco. He has written more than 150 technical and 60 journal papers. He's also authored chapters for the SPE Petroleum Engineering Handbook, and is currently on the JPT Review Board.

When did you write your first technical paper?

Oh, that reminds me going a long time back, in 1983. I still remember that it was an American Institute of Chemical Engineers conference in Vancouver, Canada. And I was in my first year into my master's thesis at the University of Calgary. The topic was two phase flow in pipes. I was scared, and I was anxious. However, people liked my story. And that started my journey into the realm of writing, and specifically writing technical papers.

For many of us, when we first dive into a new experience, there is anxiety and the stress. Would you advise people to just do it to get over that? It sounds like that worked for you.

You know, every time that we move into our non-comfort zone, there's always some degree of anxiety and anxiousness. And you're scared but I think the most important thing that I learned from my experience was just to get into it. Sometimes we think that it is very hard. But once you actually get down to it, actually write down the paper and actually go and present to an audience, you enjoy that experience. So the best thing to do is to understand that you are working out of your comfort zone, and it is good for you.

How does the SPE abstract selection process work? How can one improve the chances for selection of their paper for SPE conferences?

The key thing in the process is to write a good abstract. Because a good abstract that flows well will really make it or break it for your ultimate paper selection. The process differs between publishing organizations; our structure in SPE is that you first submit an abstract, and then there's a committee that selects the best abstracts, and then you're allowed to write the technical paper, and then go and present.

For the papers presented in conferences, you write an abstract and submit by a certain deadline. Now, this deadline is most likely going to be about 8 months before the actual conference is going to be held. The submitted abstracts then go through a committee which reviews and rates those abstracts. Let's say, we get 1000 abstracts. And out of that, let's say 200 are in reservoir engineering domain and let's say we have only 50 slots for reservoir engineering in the conference. From the 200, we have to select 50 papers that will be accepted for presentation. How do we do that?

Let's say there are 10 people in the committee. Each one will read all the 200 abstracts, and then we aggregate and consolidate from the 10 different members’ scores, and the committee will then rank them from the highest points to the lowest point and select the top 50. (Not exactly in that manner but you get an idea.) And then those are the people who will be told that their papers abstracts have been accepted. And they will be given a deadline of about 2-3 months to write the actual paper. This is the deadline for the actual technical paper to be submitted to the SPE. You will write the paper during that timeframe and come and present at the conference. So the most important thing is how do you write that abstract.

The title and the abstract are key elements that can help you in the selection process.

Title. The characteristic of a good title is that it should be short, informative, and with familiar terms. Try not to use any abbreviations and avoid words like “new” and “improved,” because not everything can be new, unless it's absolutely genuinely new, then you are entitled to use those words. Be direct and focus on what the reader's attention on the paper content will be. Also, remember that the words in the title will become searches in the database. When somebody is searching in OnePetro or other databases, if your title has the right kind of words, your paper will show up in those searches.

Some of the problems with titles include

  1. They are too short or too long
  2. They are misleading
  3. They do not reflect what you have in your actual paper
  4. They use unfamiliar jargon and abbreviations

Your title should be catchy, because that's the first thing that reviewers in that committee are looking for; they're looking for good catchy titles. Once you have done that, the second part is the abstract. What constitutes a good abstract? It should be

  1. Very clear and concise and provide a summary of the of the paper topic
  2. Short, generally less than about 400 words (make sure that you follow whatever the guidelines are for that conference)
  3. Must present your idea, what have you done, and why it is unique

These are important aspects for an abstract. And remember, your abstract has only one chance of making the program committee either reject or approve it. So make it good, because this will determine whether or not you will write the paper.

The success rate for SPE conferences is very competitive in terms of what they accept. This varies from conference to conference, but generally speaking, the acceptance rate is about 25%. It can be as low as 10%. Or it can be as high as 40%. So you can understand that your abstract has one in four chance of making it to the conference or getting accepted.

Can you share some best tips for writing the technical paper itself?

I think that every time you write a paper, there should be a story. And the best kind of abstracts and technical papers are those that describe a case study, for example, or your story, some of the lessons that you have learned, and they also sit well with the committee when they are doing their selection— the story is important. I compare the technical papers sometimes to movies. What are the good elements of movies? A bland, straight, smooth team is not going to entertain you much. We are not exactly in the same league as movies, but you must have some kind of ups and downs and a nice story that you're weaving, leading up to some conclusions that are special for your work and you.

While SPE does its best to make sure that direct commercialization within the papers is avoided, we sometimes see product titles, or product names in titles, and some commercial aspects here and there. Can you address how that happens? What’s your advicewhether or not to include a product name in the title?

Yes, commercialization within a technical paper is known. The technical paper review committee members are advised when they're doing the selection that they should give negative weightage for papers that are outright selling a product. This is not a forum for selling your product, that is somewhere else that is on the exhibition that is in the showroom, and you know, when you go and meet with those clients.

If we see a product or a company being highlighted, we tend to give it lower weight. There is also a common section that asks if the paper is commercial. If too many reviewers check that, the paper is automatically rejected. So, my advice would be, try not to include that. You may have the best product in the world, but this is not the right platform. And yes, sometimes it does pass through because some people are very sophisticated in how they present even their products in a technical paper.

The next question is more about mentality: Why should someone write a technical paper?

The first step is really about motivation: Why do you want to write in the first place? There are a number of reasons, and you increase the body of knowledge for the entire industry. Think about a project that you are working on and your boss tells you “Okay, do some legwork, do some literature review and do some background searching.” So, what do you do? You go to OnePetro or a knowledge database, and you extract all those papers from that database. Now, somebody must have written that paper for you to be able to read it. So, they are giving you a service by sharing what they have done in the past, and then it becomes our obligation also to share. This knowledge sharing is really, in my personal opinion, an obligation for each and every one of us to give back to the industry. And if more of us give back, the more stories we will have, the more knowledge the whole industry will have. And I think it will be wonderful.

Your work also then becomes part of the E&P literature so that others can reference. It gives you professional recognition. And I don't know any company that will give negative marks for writing a paper. In fact, in Saudi Aramco and many other companies, the more you write, the better your PMP, or your performance rating is going to be. It also adds prestige to your résumé. If you're job searching, many companies will look at your past technical paper publication record, and then base their decision. So it's a plus. It's also a recognition for your company. If I write a paper for Saudi Aramco, for example, my company also gets recognized that they're publishing in leading conferences and SPE. And last but not the least, it's gives you personal satisfaction that you're giving back. I look at writing a technical paper a win-win-win—win for you, win for your company, and win for the industry. So do it.

Anything else you’d like to add? Any stories you’d like to share about the technical paper process?

One story that really comes to my mind is the time that I was one of the review members for a conference on CO2 enhanced oil recovery. This was a conference in Paris some time back. What happened was, when we were evaluating, we started seeing many abstracts being submitted that were not related to the theme. We were wondering why these papers that have nothing to do with CO2 are being submitted. And then later on, when we discussed about it, we realized that people were submitting because of the location of the conference. And I think that's a very bad idea, because you should really focus your abstract on the theme of the conference. Otherwise, there's very little chance of that paper being accepted. That's one of the lessons that I learned and I highly encourage that you focus on the theme.

Any tips to avoid plagiarism?
SPE passes all the abstracts and the papers through a software related to a plagiarism. You know, sometimes we feel that copying and pasting into our paper is the right thing to do, because the “other guy said it so eloquently and that's exactly what I want to say.” But that is not a good idea because you will be caught just as students are caught by university professors. SPE is now filtering all your abstracts and your papers through the software and you will get an email from SPE that this is 80% plagiarized, or 50% or 20%, and you will have to take appropriate actions to correct it. My advice would be try to write in your own words, and I know that you will be able to do it.

[This interview is an excerpt of the SPE Live held in September 2021. The full video can be accessed here.]