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Do’s and Don’ts of Scientific Writing
Originally prepared by Dr. Johan Groeneveld
Revised by Anton McLachlan
“Write with precision, clarity and economy. Every sentence should convey the exact truth as simply as possible.”
Instructions to Authors from Ecology 1964
Where does writing style fit in?
Key questions posed
Paper outline drafted
Tables and Figures compiled
First submission to journal
Write with the Reader in Mind
Who is the reader?
Scientists and professionals
They are all busy, with little spare time
They prefer to read clear and concise articles
Try to Avoid:
Long complicated sentences
Cluttering a paragraph
Citing too many references
Long Complicated Sentences
A long and complicated example:
Various management strategies, such as the development of sanctuaries, closed seasons, minimum size-limit for harvesting of 75mm carapace length (CL) lobsters, enforcing a no-take status on ovigerous females and issuing quotas according to a total allowable catch (TAC) have been introduced over the years but catch-rates have steadily declined since the 1950s to the present catch of around 2500 tons - an effect attributed not only to over-exploitation but to decreased lobster growth-rates and large-scale environmental changes in the BCLME.
Long Complicated Sentences
Can be broken down to three parts:
Various management strategies, such as the development of sanctuaries, closed seasons, minimum size-limit of harvesting of 75 mm carapace length (CL), enforcing a no-take status on ovigerous females and issuing quotas according to a total allowable catch (TAC), have been introduced over the years but catch-rates have steadily declined since the 1950s to the present catch of around 2500 tons - an effect attributed not only to over-exploitation but to decreased lobster growth-rates and large-scale environmental changes in the BCLME.
Much better is:
Management strategies introduced since the 1950s include: lobster sanctuaries, closed fishing seasons, minimum size-limits, no take-of ovigerous females, and a quota system.
Catches have continued to decline, reaching 2500 tons by 2006.
The decline is attributed to over-exploitation and decreased lobster growth rates resulting from large scale environmental changes in the BCLME.
From 80 words down to 50!
Using pretentious language will not make you sound more intelligent – it will simply make you unintelligible
Commonly used words instead of obscure words
The study was conducted…
The study was done…
Hint: Use the Thesaurus on your word processor!
Examples: hint = suggestion (n), clue, intimation, mention, indication, tip, advice, insinuation, allusion, trace, telltale sign, pointer, help
Discussion in the Results section
Results in the Discussion section
Information can be in the Introduction OR Discussion – not in both!
Repetition of information in Tables and Figures in the Text
The results are given in Figure1, where it is shown that temperature was directly proportional to metabolic rate…
Temperature was directly proportional to metabolic rate (Fig.1)..
In order to determine... OR to determine…
Use parenthesis (brackets) for statistical results
Fruit size was significantly greater in trees growing alone (t=3.65, df=2, p<0.05).
Irrelevant material lengthens a paper without adding to its substance:
Focus, focus, focus
Stick to the facts; speculate sparingly
Don’t get side-tracked
You don’t need to include ALL your data or analyses!
Don’t have more than one main idea or theme in a paragraph? It is better in such cases to rather write two or more linked paragraphs.
Don’t overkill with too many citations. Just cite the most important, most recent or, where available, review papers?
(However, in a review paper it may be appropriate to have an extensive/complete list of references)
Read the “Instructions to Authors” – stick to it!
Maintain the focus of the paper – be clear and concise
Use the appropriate tense
Use passive instead of active voice
Maintain balance between text length and numbers of figures/tables
Be consistent in format (choice of words, font, numbering, punctuation, abbreviation, spacing, citation)
Use the Appropriate Tense(normally never the future)
Past tense when describing and giving results
Present tense for conclusions
Past or present tense
Methods & Results
Past tense (What you did and what you found)
Past and/or present tense
Use Passive not Active Voice
We used ANOVA to compare distances moved.
I sampled 50 sites.
But better is Passive
ANOVA was used to compare distances moved.
Fifty sites were sampled.
When you are done and think it is perfect.....it’s not!
Forget about the article for a week and then read it again!
Give it to an experienced colleague to read and ask him/her to be brutal!
Remember…there are as many different styles as there are researchers…but they all need to get past the journal editor and the reviewers!