Writing a Science Paper
Stephen Devoto, Wesleyan University
- The Wesleyan Writing Workshop
- The Elements of Style. This handbook has been the bible for the appropriate style to use in any formal writing for 40 years or more. It is not as useful for science writing as for writing in the social sciences and humanities, but still provides excellent guidelines.
- Scientific Communication. This is a commercial site from Nature. It features excellent discussion of the general principles of writing, and provides examples of most different formats.
- Purdue University On-line Writing Lab
A few of my thoughts on "Science Writing"
Science writing has the same requirements as all other writing
- Appearance. Use a font that is easy to read (I like Times, Palatino, and Helvetica, all at 12 points), don't crowd the margins, use clean white paper.
- Spelling. Be perfect. Nothing makes writing look worse than spelling mistakes. If there was ever a time when spelling mistakes could be tolerated (and I don't think there ever was), it certainly is not now. Use your spell checker. AND THEN USE YOUR HEAD--the spill chukhar can't no if you half miss tipped an udder world instead off the won you thought ewe deed, are if words inverted or.
- Grammar 1. Be correct. But see Grammar 2.
- Avoid run-on sentences, and paragraphs that are too long.
- Check the tense of your sentences, and remain consistent throughout the essay (see below for some science writing guidelines).
- Avoid the passive voice, it sounds weak and pathetic. There is no reason for being passive, and it can frequently (but not always) be avoided.
- Muscle cells are poisoned by snake venom. BAD
- Snake venom poisons muscle cells. BETTER
- Research in the lab of Odetta Nobel found that some head muscle comes from the anterior neural crest. VERY BAD
- Odetta Nobel and her coworkers demonstrated that anterior neural crest generates ocular muscle. BETTER
- All other grammatical rules you follow in Humanities classes apply.
- Grammar 2. Don't be a mindless slave. In my opinion, the only purpose of grammatical rules is to make our language convey precise information while sounding harmonious. Sometimes a rigid adherence to grammatical "rules" leaves both goals unmet. I challenge any strict grammarian to analyze the prose of our greatest writers and tell me that the grammar therein is wrong. If you have any questions about the grammar, read it out loud to yourself and to a friend. If it is clear and pleasant to both sets of ears, then it is probably OK
- Audience. Write in a manner appropriate to your audience. Pitch the level of writing to your fellow students, someone who probably knows a fair bit about cell and developmental biology, but may not know anything about your specific topic.
- Logic and flow. Be easy on the reader. They really want to read your essay, but they don't want to have to work extra hard to figure out where you are going, or where you have come from. Build your story in a way that is easy to follow. Don't scatter related information around, keep it together.
- Pontificating. EVERY UNNECESSARY WORD TAKES AWAY FROM THE ESSAY. Unnecessary words come into many peoples' writing at two levels. First, you undoubtedly know a lot of material related to your paper, but it may well be better without information not central to your thesis. Second, many sentences become cluttered with extra words, if the word isn't necessary for the sentence, drop it. Hint: if the meaning of the sentence would not change with a word left out, then that word should be left out.
- Abbreviations. Avoid unless they are commonly used in papers you have read and you use them more than 3 times.
- Style. Don't be shy, have one.
Science writing has some features that set it apart.
- There is frequently a rigid outline of how a paper should flow. Your essay should follow the outline I have given you in the class description.
- Tense: it is customary to refer to known things in the present tense and to refer to experimental work in the past tense. For example, "Myosin and actin form a quasi-crystalline array in insect flight muscle. Thus, when Huxley examined these muscles in the electron microscope, he saw that each actin filament contacts several myosin heads."
- It is generally not customary to quote much in scientific writing, but if there is a particularly apt way of expressing an idea, put that in quotation marks and provide a citation.
- Citations: when in doubt, cite. There are two equally important reasons for citation. First, as a matter of intellectual honesty, you must provide credit to the person who is responsible for a discovery, for an idea, or for composing a phrase. You are responsible for reading the section on plagiarism in the blue book (pp71 - 81). Second, as a matter of service to your readers, you must provide a substantiation to your statements so that they can verify them or learn more about them. Be appropriate in your citations. If it is a general and long-accepted concept ("muscles generate force by contraction"), no citation is necessary. If it is a less-general but still long-accepted concept ("force generation is a result of the sliding of myosin across actin filaments"), an appropriate citation would be a review or even a book. More recent or specialized statements must be supported by the citation of a paper you have read and know to be appropriate. Do not copy somebody else's citation, go read the original and decide for yourself if it is appropriate; if you do not read it yourself, you will be plagiarizing AND you may be repeating an incorrect or inappropriate citation.
- Please use the following citation format: Within the text, give the name of the author, followed by the year. Place the citation within the sentence in such a way that it is obvious what idea is being cited (usually the end of the sentence is fine). For two authors, list both; for three or more authors, us "et al." (abbreviation for et alii, meaning "and others"). At the end of the
For example: During early development, cells in most tissues develop an anterior posterior (AP) identity that results in specific, regionalized patterns of cellular behavior and differentiation. Within the vertebrate trunk, prospective sclerotome and dermatome cells in the paraxial mesoderm, and spinal motoneurones in the neuroectoderm, are committed in their AP identity prior to segmentation (Mauger, 1972; Kieny, et al., 1972). Muscle cells also develop a stable AP identity (Wigston and Sanes, 1982). The establishment of AP identity is reflected in the regionalized expression of hox genes beginning during gastrulation, and continuing through the segmentation period, in both the neuroectoderm and the paraxial mesoderm in mouse, chick, and zebrafish (van der Hoeven, et al., 1996).
Mauger, A. (1972). The role of somitic mesoderm in the development of dorsal plumage in chick embryos. II. Regionalization of the plumage-forming mesoderm. J Exp Embryo Morphol 28, 343-66
Kieny, M., Mauger, A., Sengel, P. (1972). Early regionalization of somitic mesoderm as studied by the development of axial skeleton of the chick embryo. Dev Biol 28, 142-61.
Wigston, D. J., Sanes, J. R. (1982). Selective reinnervation of adult mammalian muscle by axons from different segmental levels. Nature 299, 464-7.
van der Hoeven, F., Z'Ak'any, J., Duboule, D. (1996). Gene transpositions in the HoxD complex reveal a hierarchy of regulatory controls. Cell 85, 1025-1035.
- It is absolutely imperative that you use your own words in your writing. I sometimes find that in trying to summarize someone else's work, I lose my voice. I begin to feel that there is no conceivable way of describing the work that is better than the way that the original authors did. This may happen to you. However, you MUST find your own voice for essays, you MUST use your own language. I want to see your writing style. One simple trick that I have used is to read the published paper(s) and jot down my own shorthand notes summarizing the key points. Then I put away the paper, go to another room where the original paper can't tempt me, and write the summary in my own language. Refine your language in subsequent drafts to improve it, but do not ever compare your language to theirs in a side-by-side manner.