August 8, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Writing scientific findings

Posted in writing scientific findings at 7:59 am by dlseltzer

Tip: Writing your scientific findings

A reader writes:

I’m enjoying your weekly blog and find it helps me to concentrate and think through some language editing problems, which must be a good thing! I asked you a while ago about use of the active/passive voice and as a result of your comments and the comments of an anonymous referee, I’m now using the active voice more regularly (only a couple of customers have asked why and seemed happy enough with the reply).

Could you now say something about the best way to report results in scientific papers. I’m thinking about the use of phrases like “significant differences,” “differences between groups,” “groups differed significantly in….” I find that many of my writers (non-native English speakers) tend to write very long, confusing sentences when reporting results. Can you suggest some succinct ways of expressing results.

 The first thing I would say is to be very careful using the words, ‘significant’ or ‘significantly’ in scientific writing. In this field, the words have a very specific meaning, and they refer to statistical significance. So, when writing a scientific paper, only use ‘significant’ if you are talking about statistical significance.

Next, I would recommend this book to writers: Goodman, NW, Edwards. MB. (2006) Medical Writing; A prescription for clarity, third edition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. It’s a great reference aimed at removing the bloat from scientific writing.

Next, I would say to keep your finding section short and sweet. Short and to the point. Only use those results that answer the question that is the focus of the article. Often, we find out lots of thing in our research—things that go far beyond our original research question—and we get so excited about finding these fantastically interesting things that we want to include all the results right away. Remember, last week I said the publications were the currency of the realm in academia. We don’t want to spend all  of our money in one shot! A common rookie mistake is to put everything in one paper. Why do that when we can develop three or four papers based on what we have learned. I was guilty of that eons ago before some kind mentors taught me this important lesson. Just the facts, ma’am, and stick to the relevant ones.

Other lessons I have learned: write clearly and precisely and simply. You won’t impress anyone by obfuscating the findings by using words that are difficult to understand (like obfuscating). Don’t write with your colleagues in mind; write with your grandmother in mind.

And this:

Use the active voice and the past tense.

Keep your sentences short–one idea or finding per sentence. Try to keep sentences to less than a dozen words—the shorter the better.

Don’t try to interpret the results in this section—that is for the discussion.

Use figures and tables to report results.

Don’t repeat results in both tables and figures—avoid redundancy.

Don’t repeat results in both tables and text—avoid redundancy (although all the tables and figures should be referenced in the text).

Did I say avoid redundancy?

Make sure tables and figures are simple to read and understand—we don’t want to obscure the results.

There’s more, but this is a start. If you want to send me your tips on writing scientific findings, I will put them together for a future wlut. In the mean time, this is a place to start.

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