Write in English, not in “Science Speak”

Scientific research is hard; writing a scientific paper in good English style can be even harder.

Pick up almost any paper in a scientific journal, and you’ll encounter sentences like the following:

  1. The radially symmetric solution of the three-dimensional foundation-soil interaction is obtained.
  2. Further, it was also captured from the velocity-time history curves that there was a large negative wave crest after the first positive peak.
  3. Finally, the most relevant details of its construction process carried out to ensure the exact position of the timber laths are presented.
  4. A systematic literature review is performed to assess to what extent the current evidence addresses the effects of the sound environment on cognition and learned helplessness measured by motivation in children and young adults until the age of 21.

Each of these sentences reflects a tremendous amount of scientific research and effort but is equally incomprehensible to lay readers—and probably to many scientists as well.

In this article, we’re going to look at some of the pitfalls of scientific writing and how you can make your writing clearer and more effective without sacrificing any of its scientific quality.

The Passive Voice Isn’t More Formal

The first sentence above (The radially symmetric solution of the three-dimensional foundation-soil interaction is obtained) is a very frequently encountered type of sentence in scientific writing. The sentence uses a passive construction to describe the obtainment of a particular result: The solution … is obtained. Such sentences are a challenge to readers because one often has to wait until the very end of the sentence to find out what happened.

There are a couple of reasons why scientists write like this. The first is that doing so sounds more formal than the standard word order. Second, it sounds more formal because it leaves the scientist out of it; it doesn’t sound as personal as saying, “We obtained” or “I found.”

However, plenty of good scientific writing references the researcher directly. Some very fine papers use constructions like we have shown, we investigated, or we found that. Formality isn’t necessarily established by word order, and, in some cases, the word order can interfere with the comprehensibility of the writing.

As I have noted elsewhere, a simple method for improving the clarity and comprehensibility of writing is to ensure that each sentence of a given paragraph has the same subject. The problem with using the passive voice is that when the performer of each action is the researcher, using the passive voice requires changing the subject in every sentence. For example, compare these two versions of someone’s morning routine:

The alarm clock was first turned off after having been placed on snooze three times. Subsequently, teeth were brushed and clothing from the dresser were donned. Breakfast was prepared and consumed in under 10 min. Using keys previously collected, the car door was opened and the ignition turned on. The vehicle was driven down the road at a velocity of 60kph.

Lina hit snooze on her alarm clock three times before turning it off and getting up. She brushed her teeth and got dressed with clothes from her dresser. She ate breakfast in only ten minutes, grabbed her keys, opened the car door, and started the ignition. She drove down the road at 60 kilometers an hour.

Now, these two paragraphs are in markedly different styles, but it is not style alone that differentiates them. The second one is much easier to understand and feels much less like a disjointed series of actions than the first. The first paragraph, because it uses the passive voice throughout, creates a series of actions that do not feel otherwise connected.

Thus, Sentence 1 above can be rewritten as We obtained the radially symmetric solution for the three-dimensional foundation-soil interaction or The researchers obtained the radially symmetric solution for the three-dimensional foundation-soil interaction without any loss of quality and with a great improvement in the comprehensibility of the writing.

The Curse of Knowledge

One of the hardest things for a writer to remember is that not everyone knows what you know. When we write, we know what we mean to say, so it doesn’t occur to us that no one else might understand what we’ve written.

There are a couple of ways to avoid this very common pitfall.

Background

Even the most seasoned professional needs the occasional reminder about developments in the field. Brief explanations of phenomena or processes can provide much-needed clarity.

Now, given that most of the people reading your paper will be familiar with the subject matter, you don’t need to go into great depth—you don’t need to do what legal writers often do. As one colleague noted: “Before they can talk about this year’s car models, they have to go through the whole invention of the wheel.” Having said that, if you wish to be understood by a broader audience or the media, providing a little background can help.

Use Verbs, Not Nouns

Consider the following sentence:

(1) Morale in the department has improved ever since the reorganization.

It is good to know that morale has improved, but the reader doesn’t have any sense of why it has because reorganization is opaque. The reorganization of what? How?

Consider this sentence:

(2) Morale in the department has improved ever since we reorganized the supervisory structures for our employees.

Here, the nature of the reorganization and its likely reasons for having improved department morale are much clearer. The remainder of the text can refer to “the reorganization” and be much more understandable.

Putting the Lessons into Practice

With these guidelines, let’s see how the example sentences from above can be reworked to be clearer and in a more natural English style.

Original VersionEdited Version
The radially symmetric solution of the three-dimensional foundation-soil interaction is obtained.We obtained the radially symmetric solution to the three-dimensional foundation-soil interaction.
Further, it was also captured from the velocity-time history curves that there was a large negative wave crest after the first positive peak.Further, the velocity–time history curves allowed us to capture a large negative wave crest after the first positive peak.
Finally, the most relevant details of its construction process carried out to ensure the exact position of the timber laths are presented.Finally, we present the most relevant details of the construction process used to ensure the exact position of the timber laths.
A systematic literature review is performed to assess to what extent the current evidence addresses the effects of the sound environment on cognition and learned helplessness measured by motivation in children and young adults until the age of 21.We perform a systemic literature review, examining the extent to which the current evidence addresses the effects of the sound environment on cognition and learned helplessness in children and young adults up to 21 years old, using the children’s motivation to measure their cognition and learned helplessness.

Some of these edited sentences are shorter, and some are longer; all of them are clearer.

Conclusion

The primary function of writing is to communicate effectively. Writing that is difficult to follow or that does not express its ideas clearly undermines effective communication.

Writing in clear and accessible language is essential for effective scientific communication. Avoiding excessive use of the passive voice, providing background information, and using specific verbs can significantly improve the clarity and comprehensibility of scientific writing.

When we narrow the gap between scientific knowledge and reader understanding, we not only make our writing clearer and more enjoyable, we enhance the impact and accessibility of scientific research to the wider world.


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