What Is Scientific Writing?

1. THE SCOPE OF SCIENTIFIC WRITING

The term scientific writing commonly denotes the reporting of original research in journals, through scientific papers in standard format. In its broader sense, scientific writing also includes communication about science through other types of journal articles, such as review papers summarizing and integrating previously published research. And in a still broader sense, it includes other types of professional communication by scientists—for example, grant propos­als, oral presentations, and poster presentations. Related endeavors include writing about science for the public, sometimes called science writing.

2. THE NEED FOR CLARITY

The key characteristic of scientific writing is clarity. Successful scientific exper­imentation is the result of a clear mind attacking a clearly stated problem and producing clearly stated conclusions. Ideally, clarity should be a characteristic of any type of communication; however, when something is being said for the first time, clarity is essential. Most scientific papers, those published in our pri­mary research journals, are accepted for publication precisely because they do contribute new knowledge. Hence, we should demand absolute clarity in scien­tific writing.

3. RECEIVING THE SIGNALS

Most people have no doubt heard this question: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it fall, does it make a sound? The correct answer is no. Sound is more than pressure waves, and indeed there can be no sound without a hearer.

And similarly, scientific communication is a two-way process. Just as a sig­nal of any kind is useless unless it is perceived, a published scientific paper (signal) is useless unless it is both received and understood by its intended audience. Thus we can restate the axiom of science as follows: A scientific exper­iment is not complete until the results have been published and understood. Publication is no more than pressure waves unless the published paper is understood. Too many scientific papers fall silently in the woods.

4. UNDERSTANDING THE SIGNALS

Scientific writing is the transmission of a clear signal to a recipient. The words of the signal should be as clear, simple, and well-ordered as possible. In scientific writing, there is little need for ornamentation. Flowery literary embellishments—metaphors, similes, idiomatic expressions—are very likely to cause confusion and should seldom be used in research papers.

Science is simply too important to be communicated in anything other than words of certain meaning. And the meaning should be clear and certain not just to peers of the author, but also to students just embarking on their careers, to scientists reading outside their own narrow disciplines, and especially to those readers (most readers today) whose native language is other than English.

Many kinds of writing are designed for entertainment. Scientific writing has a different purpose: to communicate new scientific findings. Scientific writ­ing should be as clear and simple as possible.

5. UNDERSTANDING THE CONTEXT

What is clear to a recipient depends both on what is transmitted and how the recipient interprets it. Therefore, communicating clearly requires awareness of what the recipient brings. What is the recipient’s background? What is the recipient seeking? How does the recipient expect the writing to be organized?

Clarity in scientific writing requires attentiveness to such questions. As communication professionals advise, know your audience. Also know the conventions, and thus the expectations, for structuring the type of writing that you are doing.

6. ORGANIZATION AND LANGUAGE IN SCIENTIFIC WRITING

Effective organization is a key to communicating clearly and efficiently in sci­ence. Such organization includes following the standard format for a scientific paper. It also includes organizing ideas logically within that format.

In addition to organization, the second principal ingredient of a scientific paper should be appropriate language. This book keeps emphasizing proper use of English because many scientists have trouble in this area. All scien­tists must learn to use the English language with precision. A book (Day and Sakaduski 2011) wholly concerned with English for scientists is available.

If scientifically determined knowledge is at least as important as any other knowledge, it must be communicated effectively, clearly, in words of certain meaning. The scientist, to succeed in this endeavor, must therefore be literate. David B. Truman, when he was dean of Columbia University, said it well: “In the complexities of contemporary existence the specialist who is trained but uneducated, technically skilled but culturally incompetent, is a menace.”

Given that the ultimate result of scientific research is publication, it is sur­prising that many scientists neglect the responsibilities involved. A scientist will spend months or years of hard work to secure data, and then unconcern­edly let much of their value be lost because of a lack of interest in the commu­nication process. The same scientist who will overcome tremendous obstacles to carry out a measurement to the fourth decimal place will be in deep slum­ber while a typographical error changes micrograms per milliliter to milligrams per milliliter.

English need not be difficult. In scientific writing, we say, “The best English is that which gives the sense in the fewest short words” (a dictum printed for some years in the Journal of Bacteriology’s instructions to authors). Literary devices, metaphors and the like, divert attention from substance to style. They should be used rarely in scientific writing.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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