Do you ever wonder how many people are actually going to read your science paper? I mean, not even my mum has read my papers, and with good reason…
There is no form of prose more difficult to understand and more tedious to read than the average scientific paper.
– Francis Crick The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (1995), xiii.
It’s not surprising that research papers are difficult to understand; they are usually written for a very specific audience. That audience is typically fellow scientists within a niche field. This means the paper is often full of technical information and jargon.
But wouldn’t it be nice if your paper could be read by scientists outside your field? Or by medical professionals that may implement some of your findings in their treatment plans? Or by science journalists who could then inform the wider public of the exciting work you are doing? (Read more about the “Science of Spin” here).
The key to making science papers less ‘tedious to read’ is to keep your audience’s attention. And the best way to retain your reader’s interest is to follow the three c’s of good writing: be clear, be concise and be correct.
How do the three c’s apply to science writing?
1. Be clear
My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.
– Ernest Hemingway
Just like Hemingway, you should write your article in the ‘simplest way’. Try not to overcomplicate things; the science is usually complicated enough. When possible, use words that are familiar to reader, for example, “burgeoning” becomes “increasing” and “etiology” becomes “cause”. Don’t try to impress your reader with complicated phrases. Another mistake is to use really long sentences, which can leave the reader confused. These lengthy sentences can be spotted easily if you read your paper aloud. Break them down into shorter sentences. Another good tip is to get a colleague or friend to read your draft and then ask them what they thought were the main points. This will tell you whether your writing is clear.
2. Be concise
For the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.
– Dr. Seuss
Stick to the point. Figure what your main message is and stick to that topic. Remember that you don’t need to tell the reader everything you know about an entire field in one paper. You may have spent years learning about a particular protein or scientific technique, but it might not be relevant to the topic at hand. Ask yourself whether that sentence or paragraph helps the reader to interpret your findings. Also, check that you haven’t duplicated sentences or entire paragraphs in your introduction and discussion.
You should also remove all unnecessary words. For example: “it is evident” becomes “evidently”; “is a reflection of ” becomes “reflects”; “we performed a detailed analysis of” becomes “we analysed”; “the question as to whether” becomes “whether”; and “a large majority” becomes “most”. Cutting out these words will improve the overall readability. For more examples on how to simplify sentences, watch this short youtube video by the American Chemical Society.
3. Be correct
The third c refers to both correct grammar and correct content. The correct use of punctuation and grammar will improve the readability of your paper. Consider the following sentence:
Inclusion criteria for the study were aged between 10 to 15 years intravenous administration of antibiotics diagnosed with sepsis and no respiratory complications.
This sentence makes no sense. But with the correct punctuation, it becomes much easier to read:
Inclusion criteria for the study were: (i) aged between 10 to 15 years; (ii) intravenous administration of antibiotics; (iii) diagnosed with sepsis; and (iv) no respiratory complications.
The content (i.e., the science) also has to be correct. Be specific. For example, “we analysed 115 patients with type I diabetes treated with an insulin pump” is not the same as “we analysed 115 diabetic patients treated with insulin”. Being ‘concise’ at the expense of being ‘correct’ is not acceptable when reporting a scientific method or its results.
So, the next time you sit down to write a paper, remember the simple ‘three c’s of good writing’. By following these few tips, your paper will become much easier to read.
Some other resources to improve your writing:
- The Nature website has a great article on writing scientific papers in its section on English communication for scientists. Read more here.
- Read an article on how to structure your science paper, inspired by the ‘Guide to Authors’ for Elsevier journals here.
- Richard Threfall wrote a series of articles on the Chemistry Views website. He takes you through each section of your paper and gives practical tips on how to improve it. Check it out here.
- Another good tip for correctly structuring your science paper is to use the three c’s of effective paragraphs: context, content and conclusion. Read a blog post on this topic by Precise Edit here.
- Finally, for basic grammar queries, check our sites like Grammar Girl.