Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Scientific Writing

Adam Ruben has a written a rather tongue-in-cheek essay on How to Write Like a Scientist. He asks why can't we scientists write the way other people write? Why are scientific papers written the way they are?

Scientific papers are written the way the are because of their purpose. The whole point of a paper is to describe what the authors did and what they found, and to communicate this as widely as possible, to readers who may not have English as a first language, or who may be approaching the paper from a different field. If papers are going to do this effectively, they have to be unambiguous. The problem with being unambiguous in English is that there are so many words that have the same, or nearly the same, meaning - only, lone, sole, and so on.

Papers use the past tense because you are describing what you have done, not what you are doing or what you will do. Papers have used the passive voice for a long time, but I've noticed a change to active voice recently, and I'm trying to move to active voice in my own writing (my current supervisor once admonished me with "No-one in my lab uses the passive voice!"). The same thing applies to using "we" or "the author" instead of "I" - it's been the fashion to not use "I", but that's changing. If the work was done by more than one person, then it's entirely appropriate to use "we".

I especially liked his comments about the use of "obviously" and I'll admit I've used it a few times myself. Not to demonstrate my intellectual superiority, but to forestall comments from reviewers: the times when I've not inserted a phrase like "obviously, ovens can be hot"*, at least one reviewer has pointed it out.

The use of idioms should be avoided. Idioms can be highly specific to a certain culture. For example, Australians and New Zealanders both speak English. Also, the New Zealand accent is close enough to the Australian accent that most of the time, when I speak, I can pass for a local. The one thing that gives me away as a New Zealander in Australia is the idioms I use: I use New Zealand idioms that just aren't used in Australia. Now, imagine I used those idioms in a paper read by people all over the world: how many people would understand it?**

I've touched on this issues in a previous post, as well as common grammatical errors to avoid and ten rules for good writing. I think papers can be made more accessible without losing clarity, but it's going to take time, and a lot more work from authors.

*This refers to a sign on the oven in the tea room shared by the IT staff at Lincoln University: "Warning: Oven may be hot". Other signs in the area read "Warning: fridge may be cold" and "Warning: floor".

**That said, I have recently used the term "munted" in a paper - look it up if you want to know what it means!