By Jocelyn Aquilino ’26
Intended Major: Biology, Pre-veterinary track; Intended Minors: Chemistry and Business
Brief Description: This paper discusses some prevalent myths about scientific writing and its conventions. The unique style of scientific writing and how scientists feel about it are explored through interviews and readings done by the writer. The complex relationship that scientists hold with scientific writing is brought to light.
Contributor Biography: I am a freshman planning on majoring in Biology on the pre-veterinary track to become a large animal veterinarian. I am also a chemistry and business double minor. In the fall of 2023, I will officially become a writing tutor in the WAC writing center as well.
The following was written for FYS 101: Language is Limitless
Scientific writing is a practice that most people do not understand, and for a good reason, considering it discusses content that people outside a certain field would not understand. Due to the complex language and terminology used, scientific writing is deemed as inaccessible to many. But why has scientific writing become the way it has, and is it really as strict as it is portrayed to be? I am researching scientific writing to find out its role in the English language and to discover its roots, because I want to understand why it is used and how scientists relate to it.
Believe it or not, there are many misconceptions and myths surrounding scientific writing. Some of these myths include: scientists know what they are doing, that there is only one way to write a scientific paper, and that scientific writing is a solo process. All of these could not be further from the truth. The most prevalent myth is: Scientists know what they are doing as they write their scientific papers. David Lindsay, a university biology professor and author of the book Scientific Writing = Thinking in Words, reveals what many people may not know that the writing process is daunting to even the most seasoned scientist (2020). Feelings of confusion around where to start are common but no one wants to admit this because they do not want to be seen as lesser by their community. Instead, there is a dependence on other people’s work to guide the writer along and “a big proportion of the literature on which developing scientists base their ideas of writing style and structure has been written and reviewed by people who knew little about style” (Lindsay, 2020, p. 4). A large problem occurs because of this pattern. There is no understanding of what a researcher is writing or why they are writing it, leading to an overreliance on mimicry. This overreliance has no benefit because there is no base or conceptual understanding present. By copying someone else’s work, the writer is not learning how to write. Completing the process and working through their struggles helps a writer to understand why they are writing; it also aids in developing a personal style and a way of writing that the writer will enjoy. Having an understanding of why the writing is being done is crucial to the writing process, especially in science, but there is a lack of writing education in this subject.
When starting out, new scientists are expected to know how to publish their work and write a scientific paper without receiving any training (Balaram, 2005). Indian biochemist and researcher, Padmanabhan Balaram, discusses the many struggles that novice scientists deal with when first entering the scientific field of their choosing. After reading many different sources, it was revealed that most of the time, the extent of a “lesson” on scientific writing was students viewing an example of a scientific paper but not actually doing anything with it or understanding its structure and genre conventions. In a book written by David Lindsay (2020), he explains that, in general, “fewer than 5% [of scientists] have ever had any formal instruction in scientific writing as part of their scientific training” (p. 3). Ecologist Laura Martin, in an essay published in Scientific American, touches upon the idea that English courses certainly do not teach about scientific writing because it is seen as a “science problem” not an English one (2012). During undergraduate studies, many science-based courses focus on the collection and basic analysis of data, not having to write about and explain the data that has been collected in a meaningful way (Balaram, 2005). Based on personal observation, science as a discipline does emphasize the importance of knowledge over the importance of writing and clear communication. To scientists, the aspect of research is an important part of their work, and while publishing is necessary for grants and recognition, the actual research remains the central focus.
The lack of training and scientists’ dependence on others’ pieces to write their own[NM1] is an example of the second myth: there is only one way to write a scientific paper. Technically, this is true as there is a general flow to the piece, a certain layout with sections, but beyond the skeleton of the piece how researchers write is up to them. The general layout that many scientific writers use is called IMRaD: Introduction, Materials & Methods, Results, Discussion. The introduction explains why the research conducted is necessary and states the hypothesis. In the materials and methods section, how the experiment is done and what tools are used to conduct it are outlined in a way that other scientists will be able to replicate the experiment (Knisely, 2021). The findings are presented using tables and graphs in the results section but why the results occurred are not discussed (Knisely, 2021). Finally, in the discussion section, scientists summarize and explain their findings, connect their work to other research, and talk about the limitations while suggesting future research (Thuecks, S., personal communication, October 31, 2022). General practice is to write the sections of a scientific paper in past tense and a passive voice because the experiment has already been done (Knisely, 2021). Passive voice is preferred by scientists because it makes the paper more objective; pulling the focus of the paper away from the scientist and moving it towards the actual research that is being done (Knisely, 2021). When going through the editing process of a scientific paper, the paper is sent to a journal that the scientist intends to publish or is sent to a peer.
Like stated in a previous paragraph, editing is a very important process to writing a great paper. Before any of this can be done , research has to be conducted in a lab and data needs to be collected. Beyond the scope of this basic layout, a lot can be done if the writer chooses to bring their personal writing style to the report. There is freedom in sentence structure and the language used while writing; writing can be personalized based on the writer themselves or the specific field they are in.
Suzanne Thuecks, a biology lab professor and published researcher, believes strongly that the style of a scientific paper depends on the person writing it, the incorporation of voice is encouraged if done correctly, an analogy in the right place could boost a paper (personal communication, October 31, 2022). When asked, Thuecks said that there isn’t just one way to write scientifically, it all depends on the field a person is in and the research they are doing. In addition to this, the style of writing varies from person to person depending on their training and personal preferences (personal communication, October 31, 2022). The best way to write a scientific paper is to keep it clear and concise, making sure others can understand it (Lindsay, 2020). That last part, making sure others can understand the scientific writing, is hard to do without a second pair of eyes reading the piece. Its likely that scientists come to learn that having someone else read their work, even if it is just their lab partner, strengthens the overall paper being written.
The third and final myth is a crucial piece of any writing process: scientific writing is a single person process (Balaram, 2005). There is not a category of writing in the world that is a single person process; all good writers depend on their peers for guidance and ideas regarding their own papers. Asking others to read over a piece is one of the best things a scientist can do because if the reader is confused about the writing or does not understand a concept, more likely than not the target audience will also be confused. It may be hard for some scientists to take criticism, but in the end, it is for the good of their piece, and the good of their research.
Clear and concise. Two words mentioned previously in this paper that are the cornerstones of scientific writing. At its core, scientific writing is about being clear, getting the main point across quickly and in a way, others can understand (Plaxco, 2010). Extra “fluff” like imagery or the excessive overuse of metaphors gets in the way of the true information the scientist is trying to publish; but, as Thuecks pointed out, sometimes they can aid in the clarity of the piece (personal communication, October 31, 2022). But not all scientists believe this. There is disagreement over the style of scientific writing within the scientific community, it all depends on the person writing the report and what they decide is right for their writing. The point of a scientific paper is not to entertain, it is to share information with others in a clear manner. Scientists are not publishing to prove they are correct, they are publishing to share what they have learned (Lindsay, 2020). Presenting information and stating only what is important minimizes the chance of confusion and reduces the time it takes to read the paper (Plaxco, 2010). Conciseness goes hand in hand with the clarity of a scientific paper. When a scientific paper is read, it is because the paper contains ideas or information that someone else needs.
A scientist can keep to this standard while not changing the piece into something that is hard to read.(Lindsay, 2020)
Many believe that one of the values of scientific writing is that it is rigid, sterile, and hard to read by anyone who is not a scientist. David Lindsay disagrees with this idea for many different reasons. He believes that outside of the IMRaD format, the paragraphs within each section do not need a specific format but they should be clear and concise. A scientist can keep to this standard while not changing the piece into something that is hard to read (Lindsay, 2020). Other writers in science, like Kevin W. Plaxco, hold similar beliefs to Lindsay but believe scientific writing is stricter. Plaxco is both a professor and the director of the Center for Bioengineering at the University of California Santa Barbara, and a published researcher. He agrees that there is not one specific way to write a scientific paper, but there is a general format and order that should be followed when writing (Plaxco, 2010).
At the base of their beliefs, both authors agree on one thing: “The goal of good writing is straightforward: to make the reader’s job as easy as possible. Realizing this goal, though, is not so simple” (Plaxco, 2010). Writing is meant to be accessible; the goal is to have as many people as possible read and understand what the researcher is writing, not just other scientists (Lindsay, 2020). This may be hard for many scientific writers, especially ones who are new to the game. Taking complex topics and making them understandable is a skill that takes time to master, and in the beginning, writers may not be as confident in their abilities to do this (Thuecks, S., personal communication, October 31, 2022). Lack of confidence leads to young writers using lots of scientific jargon and complex words to make it seem like they know what they are talking about, which in turn makes their pieces less accessible to others (Thuecks, S., personal communication, October 31, 2022). On the other hand, scientific writers who already have a reputation and have learned that they do not need to sound smart or prove themselves use more “simple” English that can be understood by all. These seasoned writers have learned how to simplify their writing over the course of their career. An easy fix to avoid this delayed learning curve could be to expose students sooner to this process so they make errors in a classroom setting and not when they have to publish a professional piece.
As mentioned before, there is little to no exposure to scientific writing in school settings;this is one of the reasons many see scientific writing as inaccessible or hard to read unless one is a scholar. Researcher Cathy Tower conducted research in 2005 on two different 4th grade classrooms. The goal of this research was to understand what students thought the purpose of writing in science was while learning about it. She collected this data to improve the way writing is taught in schools (Tower, 2005). Learning scientific writing, even at an early age, can give many an upper hand later in life (Tower, 2005). By putting students in a position where they must conduct research, plan a piece, then write and present it, they are being taught a different way to think about the world (Tower, 2005). These students have started to think in a more critical way, taking what they learn and being able to put into clear words. Calling out to fellow educators, Tower says that “we must help our students to learn the particular ways of conveying ideas, supporting hypotheses, presenting arguments, asking questions, and so on that will help them to be successful in contexts both in and out of school” (2005, pp. 474-475). The skills that students learn from the process of scientific or academic writing are used in all styles of writing, not just this specific one. As summarized from Towers research, scientific writing has a noticeable positive impact on the children that have learned it; it allows them to communicate efficiently in different communities, and it has allowed them to understand why they are writing and what orwho they are writing for (Tower, 2005). This is a skill that many current scientific writers do not possess. Although Tower’s research involved a 4th grade classroom, it shows how important the exposure to scientific writing can be. Undergraduate programs need to work on lessons like these or offer courses specifically about the process of scientific writing because through this, students will enter their careers with more confidence and in turn become more successful and comfortable with writing.
Between the pressure from the outside world, and from their own labs, writers frequently feelsomewhat forced to publish papers even if they do not like doing it or feel they are poor writers, causing a negative relationship with writing to begin. In the world of science, an idea is held by many of its members: if a researcher does not publish their findings, they didn’t happen (Lindsay, 2020).This forces scientists into a corner because they feel they must prove themselves to the scientific community through their writing. there are positives, publishing brings researchers external validation in addition to the internal validation from their colleagues. Publishing a scientific paper is the main way scientists share what they have learned with their community. Also, through writing, researchers can gain tenure and important grants that allow them to gain the resources needed to continue their research. But from my perspective, this practice pushes researchers into a vicious cycle: writing because they feel they need to, not being confident in that writing, not trying because they don’t want to do it, and finally: finishing then sending off a poorly written piece.
Laura Martin is a graduate fellow at Cornell University studying ecology, in an essay published in Scientific American, she discusses how different science is from scientific writing. Science is beautiful, but the writing is not because less effort is put into it than the research itself (2012). She believes “…all scientists, whether they like it or not, attend to and represent the natural world” (Martin 2012). People view the world of science through how scientists write about it. If there is a disconnect between the researcher and their writing, there will be a disconnect between the reader and what they understand about the piece (Martin, 2012). The problem with this poorly written piece is that others will read it and use the information to strengthen their own ideas and research (Lindsay, 2020). But what if the information in the scientific paper wasn’t clear? Or not fully explained? This could lead to the possibility of another scientist looking to strengthen their ideas to misinterpret the presented information in a scientific paper they read; causing this scientist to now have a false or misunderstood idea about their research topic. Scientific writing is one of the most important parts of research, it is how others learn about what is happening in the world (Martin, 2012).
Science began to shift its language towards English in the 1970’s, leading to disconnects fueled by language barriers around the world. Researcher Padmanabhan Balaram discusses his beliefs about scientific writing specifically regarding international scientists and their struggles. Countries all over the world, even China and Russia, began to publish their papers in English because this was how their research would be recognized globally (2005). English became the language of science under the influence of worldwide political events, and common understanding among well-known scientists (Balaram, 2005). Now that publishing in English was nearly inevitable despite a researcher’s country of origin, the language had to be taught to students everywhere. These students were learning how to conduct science and write scientifically in their own language at the same time they were learning a second language as part of their standard education, similar to how American students study Spanish or French as a required class. Now on top of this, they had to learn to understand and write scientifically in a third language, English, which is not an easy thing to do. Many international students dislike publishing in English because the language itself was never focused on in schools, it was taught just like any other second language they were learning (Balaram, 2005). When it came time to publish their work and send it to an American or British editor, most of the paper made little to no sense and couldn’t be understood (Balaram, 2005). The barrier led to publishers disliking international writers because many publishers thought it was too much effort to try and fix the papers (Balaram, 2005). “A lack of discipline in writing, coupled with linguistic disabilities, makes most manuscripts, both these and papers, hard to read and sometimes impossible to correct” (Balaram, 2005, p. 206). These young writers know exactly what they are doing; but because they were not raised using English as a first language, they dislike the process of scientific writing and feel they are not “good enough” at it to be successful. Many of these students find the writing process next to impossible because they were never fully taught English or have not been given the guidance or even the time of day by those who are experienced (Balaram, 2005).
Though rare to find, some researchers do actually love writing in science. An interview from a Washington College biology professor proved this. Suzanne Thuecks agrees that many writers do dislike writing due to the lack of education and formal training, but personally she loves it, and that love may be attributed to the training and practice she received in undergraduate school. “I enjoy the process of writing. I enjoy the process of editing actually, or suggesting ways that other people can improve their writing. But I think a lot of scientists have a negative relationship with writing, they don’t like it, they find it very challenging, and you know that may be based on their training” (Thuecks, S., personal communication, October 31, 2022). The process of scientific writing deserves more credit, it is a long journey and takes more creativity and problem solving than many think (Thuecks, S., personal communication, October 31, 2022). This creativity may not be shown through the writing, like it is in many traditional writing styles, but it is shown through the design of the experiment. In order to have a strong paper, a strong experiment is necessary and Thuecks is a firm believer in this. The experiment has to be designed in a way where it has minimal confounding variables and can be replicated by many (Thuecks, S., personal communication, October 31, 2022). This is the part of science that researchers love, but having to put all of this into writing causes the researchers to love experimenting a little less and begin to dislike writing.
The relationship between scientists and writing, both general and scientific, is a messy area. From information presented before, it is obvious that many writers in science do not have a positive relationship with writing. Many scientific writers do not know what they are doing, and because of this they feel discouraged (Lindsay, 2020). These same people, many of whom have published papers, do not see themselves as writers because there is a social construct that someone can only be good at math or English, not both (Martin, 2012). This social construct is more harmful than people realize; seeing as the pressure to be good at one subject or the other starts from the time children enter school, they are conditioned into thinking that if they are good at math, they cannot be good at English or vice versa. It can be inferred that many scientists grew up enjoying math and science-based courses more than English. Students choose to excel in these and veer only towards science and math courses in higher education because as a child society deemed them a ‘math person’. The lack of interest or experience in English classes where learning to understand writing may lead to issues in students being able to become well rounded in their future careers. Failing to grasp the purpose and truly understanding that scientific writing is so much more open than it is thought to be is the reason that the idea of this type of writing being too confusing or too strict is still being pushed. Perhaps, if scientists were to sit down and think about scientific writing and understand its concepts instead of just mimicking other pieces, their relationship with writing as a whole would improve. Scientific writing plays an important role in everyone’s lives even though many may not realize it; because of this, scientific writing and hopefully writing in general, should be something that scientists enjoy doing without feeling like they are pressured. It’s simple, enjoying writing and understanding the concepts and roots of writing scientifically leads to better, more accessible pieces, something the scientific community needs to learn.
Balaram, P. (2005). Scientific writing and English. Current Science, 88(2), 205-206. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24109794
Knisely, K. (2021). A student handbook for writing in biology (6th ed.). Macmillan Learning.
Lindsay, D. (2020). Scientific writing = Thinking in words (2nd ed., pp.3-17). CSIRO Publishing. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=2461001&site=eds-live&authtype=sso&custid=s8476871&ebv=EB&ppid=pp_1
Martin, L.J. (2012, August 15). Scientists as writers. Scientific American. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/scientists-as-writers/#
Plaxco, K.W. (2010). The art of writing science. Protein Science: A publication of the Protein Society, 19(12), 2261-2266. https://doi.org/10.1002/pro.514
Tower, C. (2005). What’s the purpose? Students talk about writing in science. Language Arts, 82(6), 472-483. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41483516