Scientific writing is the basis of going to institutions, libraries, and universities to gain information and present it in a concise manner abiding to the generally accepted template of most scientific papers. The scientific format used to acknowledge bibliography resources is CSE. The following advice may be of help to students writing an essay or a scientific paper.
Three aspects of style seem to cause problems
A good style is helped by logical planning. Decide what you want to write, then write it simply and in a sensible order. Put the first draft away for a few days and then rewrite it.
Write in past tense unless you are describing present or future situations. Use the active voice rather than the passive voice. For example, instead of writing "The food was eaten by the pig", write "The pig ate the food". The active voice is easier to read and reduces the sentence length; this is particularly important, since most scientific journals have a word-count limit. Indiscriminate changes in tense are confusing and can give meaning to a statement which does not accord with the facts. However it can be acceptable to write in more than one tense in the literature review e.g. "Brown (1995) showed that the brain is more fully developed at birth than other organs". In this case the present tense can be used for the second half of the sentence because its gives knowledge that is universally accepted. Materials and methods should be written in the past tense. "The experiment was designed in the form of a 6 x 6 Latin square." Remarks about Results should mainly be in the past tense. "When a high protein diet was fed to rabbits they grew rapidly." Any conclusions drawn should be in the past tense, e.g. Pigs in this experiment grew most rapidly when fish meal was added to their diets. When referring to the conclusions of a particular experiment, it is incorrect to state pigs grow most rapidly when fish meal is added to the diet.
The purpose of any paper is to convey information and ideas. This cannot be done with long involved sentences. Keep sentences short, not more than 30 words in length. A sentence should contain one idea or two related ideas. A paragraph should contain a series of related ideas.
Words have precise meanings and to use them correctly adds clarity and precision to prose. Look at the following pairs of words that are often used in scientific texts. Learn how to use them correctly: Fewer, less; infer, imply; as, because; disinterested, uninterested ; alibi, excuse ; data, datum; later, latter; causal, casual; loose, lose; mute, moot; discrete, discreet. Example to show difference between less and fewer by using the two words in the same sentence. Less active blood cells Fewer active blood cells
Use a standard dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases to find the correct meaning of words.
When you write ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘which’ or ‘they’ are you sure that the meaning is plain? A pronoun usually deputizes for the nearest previous noun of the same number (singular or plural) - The cows ate the food; they were white. The cows ate the food; it was white.
Some words have alternative spelling e.g. tyre, tire, grey, gray; draft, draught; connexion, connection, plow, plough, often the difference is between the American and British spelling. In other cases an apparent misspelling is a misuse of a word e.g., principle and principal; practice, practise (The former is a noun, the latter is a verb) The plural of many words in the English language is achieved by adding an s (or es) to the single. For example car becomes cars and potato becomes potatoes. However some words have the same form in both the singular and plural. For example sheep - there is no such word as sheeps. Other words are already plural such as people and equipment, so don't use peoples (unless you are referring to different groups of people or different ethnic groups) and equipments. Adopted words sometimes take on the plural of the original language, for example datum becomes data and fungus become fungi.
Use the concrete and not the abstract to achieve clarity and precision. "Cessation of plant growth operated in some of the plots." Obviously a cessation cannot operate (Some plots of plants did not grow during the trial) The abstract noun basis is commonly overworked. "Measurement of storm intensity involves recording staff to be available both day and night on a 24 hour basis." "To measure storm intensity recording staff have to be on duty throughout the day and night."
Having said that the cow stood up. After standing in boiling water for an hour, examine the flask.
The gerund always ends in 'ing.' If the sentence is left without a subject (a hanging participle) then the action of the verb is transferred to the object of the sentence (first sentence) or to the person taking the action (second sentence).
One cannot develop a logical argument using emotional words: e.g. progressive, reckless, crank, sound, good, correct, terrorist, freedom fighter, insurgent, sexist, imperialist, improved, superior, deviationist, fascist.
Very, more, much, have a place when used economically. As superlatives they are out of place in scientific writing. Superlatives such as gigantic, earth shattering or fantastic should never be used.
Some adjectives are absolute and cannot be modified such as: sterile or unique. Other adjectives, such as "pregnant", have to be qualified with care. A petri dish is either sterile or not sterile. It cannot be very sterile, quite sterile or fairly sterile; An object is unique, and although a woman can be recently pregnant, she can not be slightly pregnant.
Avoid the use of scientific jargon. The aim in scientific writing is to inform using simple language not to confuse by the use grandiose sounding words and phrases.
"I" is not immodest in a research worker and therefore use it (although not to excess) NOT "The present writer" or "The author of this communication".
Avoid Overuse of the Word "the" Only use when it applies to a particular item that has been referred to before, e.g. 'the various patients' may have been mentioned before. All others could be omitted.
Avoid excessive use of the indefinite pronoun "it".
Always say what you mean NOT for example: Some phrases show sloppy thinking. For example, the phrase 'It has long been known that' usually means that the writer has not bothered to look up the reference. Correct to an order of magnitude probably means that the answer was wrong. Almost reached significance at the 5% level usually means a selective interpretation of results. Text is easier to understand if simple words and phrases can be used to replace more complex or foreign ones. For example ameliorate can be replaced by improve; analogous by similar ; anthropogenic by human; Ceteris paribus by other things being equal; component by part; ingenuous by innocent; ingenious by clever; inter alia by amongst other things; utilise by use; Prima facie by at first glance; remunerate by pay; terminate by end; pari passu by at the same rate, pace or time and peruse by read.
A colon, is used when a list or explanation follows, a semi colon is used to separate two or more related clauses provided each clause forms a full sentence. Note its use in the sentence below and in the section above on choice of words.
These are used either to indicate the absence of a letter e.g. isn’t it (for is not it) doesn’t (for does not). Note the difference between (it is) it’s a boy and its, which is the possessive adjective of it (everything in its place)or To denote possession (the boy’s bike). If a word ends in s, the apostrophe may be placed after the s and the final s omitted (the calves’ eyes).
Examples of the most important uses of commas in scientific writing are given below. A comma is put in a sentence to denote a brief pause between groups of words:
Or to separate subclauses:
Finally to separate all items in a list except for the last two;
Observe the importance of the comma paced between fruit and trees in this particular list.
One mistake commonly made, particularly by students whose first language is not English, is to not match the verb with the noun. A singular verb must always be associated with a singular noun, and similarly a plural verb with a plural noun, although a number of exceptions exist where a singular noun is used in a plural sense (for example, ‘number’ in this sentence) or, less commonly, a plural noun is used in a singular sense (for example, ‘headquarters’), and the verb then can, and usually should, agree with the sense of the noun's usage. Difficulties arise especially with nouns which do not end in ‘s’ in the plural form. For example livestock and data are plural.
Quantities should be given only as many significant figures as can be justified. For example the metabolic rate of an animal should not be quoted as 326.18W if it can be measured to only within about 5%. It should be written as 330W.
The figures within a number should be grouped in threes (with a small space between each group) so that they are easier to read. Commas should be avoided. For example: 21 306.1 not 21,306.1
Some require units, and the Systeme International (SI) should be used where possible. Some common units and their abbreviations are given below. The full stop is not used in the SI system.
When incorporating statistical data into the text, the test used (eg chi squared) should be included, along with the degrees of freedom, the calculated value and the P value.
Many people find it difficult to write a scientific paper. The aim of this article is to help even the most uncertain writers to produce a clear and well presented piece of writing. The layout for a scientific paper is normally:
Specialized scientific reviews and books may provide a good introduction to the subject. They will also contain additional references, some of which may be published in journals that are available in the local libraries. A good knowledge of existing information is essential for anyone in scientific research. Sir Isaac Newton said:
Scientists have saved some of the labour of observation and experiment by accepting information already in the literature as a starting point. However statements in published articles are not necessarily true, and are seldom the whole truth because:
A scientist should critically review the available literature, and determine any modifications that might be necessary. The relative usefulness of various types of paper and publication is given below. The low numbered references are useful as background reading and to provide an overview of the subject. The higher numbered sources, particularly 8, 9, 10 and 11, provide accurate and up-to-date information.
There are a large number of sources of information that can be used to find the relevant information, can be used to write an essay or to write a scientific paper. Some of the information sources are less reliable than other sources. Information from popular sources tends to be less reliable than information direct from scientific papers because it is second or third hand. The list below indicates the usefulness of the various sources available: From 1 the most popular to 11 most scientific, up to date and reliable:
The title should indicate what the essay contains and be as concise as possible. Sacrifice brevity for clarity. The title should be a concise summary of the paper. Include important nouns or key words and then join together within the title. Examples 'The limitations of maize(corn) as an energy source in diets for children' 'The feeding of rice straw and sorghum tops with molasses and urea to cattle' Key words: Maize, corn, humans, diets, rice straw, sorghum, molasses, urea, and cattle When an essay or a paper is being written, an author should constantly refer back to the title to ensure that what is being written is encompassed by the title. J. Oliver, in his book on scientific writing (written in the 1960s), quotes an example where he was looking for paper on 'Acknowledgements'. He could not find it in the indexes because the paper was entitled Independence in Publication. In other words the keyword 'acknowledgements' was missing from the title. This type of problem is less likely to arise today because most searches today are made electronically on databases. These searches include searches of keywords words included in the abstract as well as those in the title. It is highly probable that the word acknowledgments would have occurred in the abstract and he would have found the paper for which he was looking. Unconscious humour or inaccuracies should also be avoided in titles, e.g.one quoted by J.Oliver : Freezing and storage of human semen in 50 healthy medical students. (It is to be hoped that the medical students remained healthy and fertile after such an experiment). Various types of title can be used for a paper:
Indicative titles indicate the subject matter of a paper but give no indication of any results obtained or conclusions drawn e.g. The effectiveness of bed nets in controlling mosquitoes at different seasons of the year.
Informative titles give an indication of results achieved and conclusions drawn as well as the subject matter of the paper e.g. Bed nets control mosquitoes most effectively when used in the rainy season.
This type of title obviously asks a question. e.g. When are bed nets most effective when used to control mosquitoes?
This type of title indicates that the is a series of papers on one subject. This approach is not liked by editors of scientific journals because if they accept the first paper they will be duty bound to accept sequels. e.g. The effect of bed nets on mosquitoes: 1.Their effectiveness when used only in the rainy season.
Called a hanging title because it appears to be the first in a series without actually saying so .e.g. The effect of bed nets on mosquitoes: Their effectiveness when used only in the rainy season.
Ensure that the title:
The title should not:
In most cases when writing a title of a scientific paper the title should be followed by the author's name and full address of the institution where the work was carried out. If an author has moved, his/her new address should be added as a footnote.
The abstract should be used to bridge the gap between the title with a few words and a paper of several pages. Remember that the abstract will be read by more people than the paper itself.
An informative abstract contains a summary of all the main points that are in the essay or paper. To prepare an informative abstract an author should read the essay or paper, making notes as he or she progresses.
An abstract for a book is normally written as an indicative one. In other words it tells you what subject matter the book covers and is not a summary of all its contents. Abstracts should not contain: References to tables or figures, because these appear only in the paper; abbreviations or acronyms unless they are standard or explained; References to literature cited; any conclusions that are not in the paper itself.
An introduction to a scientific paper should normally not exceed 400 words (check the requirements of the Journal to which you intend to submit your paper) and it should cover the following subjects:
This section should deal with four main topics:
This section should contain:
NB. The data presented in tables, and graphs should be understandable without reference to the text and the text should be clear without reference to the tables and graphs
This section should summarise the main findings of the experiments undertaken
These should be clear and any help of academic, scientific or technical nature should be acknowledged. But if the acknowledgement is overdone there is a danger that the reader will wonder what contribution the author made to the paper. For example: 'I wish to thank Dr. Lester, who not only suggested most of the experimental design but also greatly helped with the interpretation of the results, Dr Brown who contributed greatly to the writing of the paper and Mr A.S.Brown who carried out most of the experimental work'.
Tables should be numbered in a continuous sequence through the essay. Each table must be referred to in the text, but it may also have a heading clearly showing its content. The units of any numbers in the table must be clearly stated. If the table was synthesized from data published in previous publications these references must be cited. The inclusion of a large number of tables makes the text difficult to read and should be avoided. Sometimes data can be more clearly presented as graphs rather than tables. If it is necessary to include tables which are relevant but not essential for an understanding of the text they should be put in an appendix. Tables should be clearly understandable without reference to the text and vice versa. The text should be used to explain the main parts of a table. Graphs and other figures should also be numbered sequentially. Each must have a self-explanatory heading, and must be referred to in the text. The axes of graphs should be clearly labelled and must give the units.
Reference may be cited in two ways. Either "Brown, Smith and
Jones (2006) and Abdulahi (1998) confirmed these results..."
or "These results were confirmed by similar experiments (Brown,
Smith and Jones,2005; Abdulahi , 2006)".
The names of all the authors (but not their initials) should be given the first time the reference is cited in the text. For subsequent citations, if there are four or more authors an abbreviation of the forms "Brown et al. (2001)..." should be used. Where more than one reference is used for the same author in one year, lower case letters should be used to distinguish between them, for example, "McLean (2002b)".
The reference section contains a list of all the references cited in the text. References should be arranged in alphabetical order (according to the name of the first author). Each reference to an article should contain the following:
Each reference to a book should contain:
Each reference to an article which is published in a book or
Conference Proceedings should also contain the title of the book
and its editor. For example:
Attention should be paid to uniformity of punctuation. Please check the list of references, since it is very frustrating for the reader to find that references in the text are not included, or that they are wrongly quoted. Make sure that references in the text are in the reference list - Programs such as Word, Papyrus, and Endnote can assist with this chore and that of putting references in order.
GLISC Guidelines for the production of scientific reports
This workshop is an introduction to the very basics of science writing for those with little or no experience. Work through the tasks below and do add to the tips and list of resources.
TASK 1: Gather a list of the research papers that interest you most. Extract a list of the journals these authors have published in. Remember that journals have impact factor ratings and you get more points for higher quality journals. Check ISI Web of Knowledge (Sussex Web of Knowledge) and the 'additional resources' link on that page to find out which journals (Sussex electronic journals link) rank the highest - aim realistically high.
Each of these journals will have different slots for original research papers, reviews and other types of paper. For example, the journal Biomedical Imaging and Intervention describes the different kinds of papers as:
Follow the link to get a description of each of these. Which ones do you think are the most time-dependent (This will also depend on the journal)? Compare these descriptions to those used by the journal Nature.
Task 2: Look up your list of journals online.
If you are affiliated with a university, the library will have an 'electronic journals' page (e.g. (Sussex electronic journals). If not, you may find that the electronic journals offer early views of Online First articles for free. Download a few papers from different parts of the journal and compare them.
Take a look at this image. It is a description of a research paper by Jorge Cham, the creator of PhD Comics. For incremental science, it is certainly a case of 'many a true word spoken in jest', as you can see from this handout from MIT, which emphasises the importance of establishing a research territory, a niche, and showing the importance of the research area. Whether this is to be described in scientific or socio-economic terms has been a political hot potato for a long time. (See George Monbiot's article in the Guardian this week).
TASK 3: Write two or three sentences describing why scientists think your research field matters. If you can, add another few sentences relating this to important social concern. How might you use this to explain to a policymaker what your research is about, and why it is relevant to policy and society?
The title of your paper will strongly hint at the major research question or hypothesis in your work. If you pick the title well, it will also refer to other work and show how your work relates to what has gone before, or what is new or distinctive about your approach.
TASK 4: Look at your list of journals and think about the research questions/hypotheses explored in your work. Which topic looks most appropriate for which journal? You will know this by being familiar with the papers from the journals - read, read, read! If a good match jumps out at you, you have a place to start.
TASK 5: Write down a working title and specify the journal, and article type.
The best overall web resource for writing a research paper is this one from Columbia University.
It goes without saying that you should do a thorough review of literature. Dont just rely on PubMed, go for a research database with a wider disciplinary reach, such as Web of Knowledge. If you are locked out of academia, try searching Google scholar, or doing an advanced Google search limited to academic domains. Similarly, if you want to look beyond the academic literature, don't be afraid to gain insight from trade press, other grey literature and news media (just be aware of the advantages and limitations of each source type). Work your networks to get access to data sources as well as literature. Write it up as you go along, so you can capitalise on the energy of discovery.
NOTE: It is well worth getting in touch with some of the best authors in the field, perhaps asking them for a copy of a specific paper if you cannot get it, or asking them if they are about to publish anything new tackling a specific issue. Researchers are surprisingly willing to send copies of papers 'in Press' to those who demonstrate a real engagement with the topic.
TASK 6: Create a structure for your research paper. Who are the key authors that you will need to cite in the introduction? Acknowledge the historical basis of your work. This is especially important because some of these people may well be your peer reviewers.
TASK 7: Check out the 'Guide for authors' for the journal you wish to write for. What system of referencing does it use? How many words should your paper be? Which section are you going to write for? Who is the editor of that particular section? Do you know anyone who has written for this journal, or who knows the editor of this journal? Ask around, or do a search for your department or institution to find out.
You can also see the parallels between Jorge's illustration of the importance of the graph, and this presentation, 'How to Write a Research Paper' about the importance of graphics, from MIT. The MIT presentation will give you lots of tips about how to improve your graphs and illustrations.
TASK 8: Create a list (just one or two to start with - maybe that is all you need) of potential figures, tables and graphs.
TASK 9: After getting advice from those who have published in the journal before, begin writing (if you havent already - it is easier to write as you are going along). Start with the section you find easiest to get over writing inertia. This can be the research questions or methods section. Dont start with the abstract! This is the last thing you should write.
TASK 10: Finish the paper! You end by writing the abstract and maybe tweak the title.
The content of a research paper is the product of a long effort and communications process. Frank Stockdale of Stanford explains the purpose and process of scientific writing in this video is available from ITunesU. A companion lecture on writing grant proposals is also available.
Why not join the Nature Network? Here there is a group called 'Ask the Nature editor' for scientists who want to learn more from the journal editors about writing papers and other aspects of getting their work published in the Nature journals. You can post questions in the forum. Another Nature Network group is the Good Paper Journal Club, in which members post and discuss examples of well-written papers.
STEMPRA is the organisation for PR in Science in the UK. You can find examples of Press Releases at AlphaGalileo and other sources such as Science Daily.
See an Introduction to Science Journalism, and the activities of the Association of British Science Writers.
To find more opportunities for communicating science, look at the Introduction to Science Communication in the UK and the British Council's Talking Science.