Scientists on scientific writing

May 29, 2009 at 11:23 am Leave a comment

I thought you might be interested to hear the thoughts of scientists, especially those who’ve served as journal editors, on ways to improve scientific writing. So, I’ve combed through a number of published articles on the subject and pulled out some common suggestions. Note that this advice comes from people who’ve struggled through hundreds of badly written papers during their careers, so it’s all aimed at reducing the burden on readers.

Minimize the use of acronyms. “Readers can generally handle 2 or 3 abbreviations in a paper, but reading becomes exponentially more difficult with each additional abbreviation,” wrote Loyola University professor, Martin Tobin, in an article he penned as editor of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

The problem is, although you’ve committed to memory the abbreviations you commonly use (FNR, SVM, and CPD, to name just a few from recent BACTER papers), your readers generally have not. This means that every acronym you throw in requires them to expend some precious energy memorizing the new term.

Avoid noun clusters. Using one noun to modify another (e.g., liver cell) is allowed in English. It even works to add yet another (e.g., mouse liver cell). But problems begin when these clusters grow beyond three words, especially when there’s a lot of jargon involved. Consider these clusters from recently published papers: “robust spindle microtubule plus-end attachment” (what’s robust here, the spindle, the microtubule or the attachment?) and “ERRalpha LBD/PGC-1alpha coactivator homogenous time-resolved fluorescence interaction assay.” Again, trying to interpret these clusters requires energy that could be better applied toward understanding the larger points the authors are trying to make.

Limit passive voice. Use of passive voice is definitely appropriate at times; for example, when you want to take the emphasis off the doer (We harvested the cells at the mid-exponential growth phase) and put it on the thing that’s being acted upon (The cells were harvested at the mid-exponential growth phase). But too much passive voice leads to ambiguity, weak-sounding statements and long sentences.

“This is a heartfelt plea from those of us who read a lot of papers,” wrote Charles Van Wray as outgoing editor-in-chief of the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. “Use the active voice rather than the passive voice whenever it is possible to do so.”

To be continued…

References

Compliance (COMmunicate PLease wIth Less Abbreviations, Noun Clusters, and Exclusiveness. MJ Tobin (2002) American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 166:1534-1535.

On scientific writing. CW Van Wray (2007) Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. 31(3): 259-260.

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Entry filed under: Words and sentences.

Know your readers, part 2 Scientists on scientific writing, part 2

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Science of Scientific Writing

This article describes what readers expect when they read - and how scientific writing often violates those expectations.

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