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Writers' Center

Eastern Washington University

Scientific Writing

Tips for organizing and writing a strong scientific paper.

Thinking and Writing Like a Scientist

The Scientific Method

When writing or reading about science, it is useful to keep the scientific method in mind. The scientific method is used as a model to construct writing that can be shared with others in a logical and informative way. Any piece of scientific writing is informative and persuasive: informative because the author is telling the audience how he or she conducted their research and what new information they learned, and persuasive because science papers demonstrate how that new information was obtained and what conclusions can be drawn from the data collected. The format of most journal articles follows the steps of the scientific method, with Introduction, Methods, and Results sections at a minimum. 

Scientific method

Evidence and Argumentation

Science writing has a persuasive element to it. Researchers need to convince others that they have done their experiments properly and that they have answered their central research questions. Therefore, all science papers, even theoretical ones, make use of evidence to support their points. Remember that statistical measures, while extremely useful, are not the only source of evidence. Observations of even a single event can be useful in the right context. Remember to use logic to link your evidence and claims together!

Tips for writing a persuasive paper: http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/awolaver/term1.htm

Relating evidence and ideas: http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/coreofscience_01

Writing Clearly

Clarity and Reader Expectations

Many people complain that scientific literature is difficult to understand because of the complicated language and the use of jargon. However, scientific literature can be difficult to understand even if one is familiar with the concepts being discussed.

To avoid confusing the reader, writers should focus on writing clearly and keeping the reader’s expectations in mind. In a scientific paper, it is important that most readers will agree with the information being presented. Writing in a clear and concise way helps the writer accomplish this. Use the paper as a story-telling medium. Concentrate on showing the reader that your experiments show definite conclusion, and how this contribution changes the state of knowledge in the field.

Gopen and Swan (1990) offer the following seven easy ways to make your writing more clear and to say what you want the reader to hear.

  1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
  2. Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize. 
  3. Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position. 
  4. Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward. 
  5. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb. 
  6. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new. 
  7. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.

[Gopen, G. and Swan, J. 1990. The Science of Scientific Writing. American Scientist. Available here: https://www.americanscientist.org/blog/the-long-view/the-science-of-scientific-writing ]

Be Concise

One major problem many students have when they start writing papers is using so called “running jumps.” This is the placement of unnecessary words at the beginning of a sentence. For example:

RUNNING JUMP: According to the researchers, the control group showed more change in chlorophyll production (Smith et. al., 2014).

NO RUNNING JUMP: The control group showed more change in chlorophyll production (Smith et. al., 2014).

We’ve already cited a study, so it’s clear that we are referring to researchers and their findings. So the first part of the sentence is unnecessary. 

Try to limit the number of ideas expressed in a single sentence. If a sentence seems like it is trying to say more than two things at once, split it into two sentences. If a sentence is long and tangled and just doesn't make sense, don't try to perform "surgery" to fix the sentence. Instead, "kill" the sentence and start over, using short, direct sentences to express what you mean.

If you can make a noun phrase into a verb, do it! For example, made note of = noted, provided a similar opinion = agreed with, conducted an experiment = experimented, etc.

Avoid the Passive Voice Where You Can

If a sentence is written in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence (person/thing doing the action) does not come first; rather, the object of the sentence (person/thing not doing the action) is the first noun in the sentence. 

PASSIVE: Radiation was the mechanism by which the samples were sterilized.

MORE ACTIVE: The samples were sterilized using radiation.

ACTIVE: We sterilized the samples using radiation.

Professors (and scientific journals) have differing opinions on the use of passive voice. Some consider it unacceptable, but many are more lenient. And in fact, often it will make more sense to write in the passive voice in certain sections (i.e. Methods) and when you can't use first-person pronouns like "I." In any case, reducing overuse of passive voice in your writing makes it more concise and easier to understand.

Here's a useful link for clear scientific writing style: http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/effective-writing-13815989

Posters

Posters are often used as an accompaniment to a talk or presentation, or as a substitute. You’ve probably seen posters hanging up around campus, showcasing students' research. The idea of a poster is to simplify a study and present it in a visual way, so it can be understood by a wide audience. The most important thing to remember when designing a poster (or completing any kind of published work) is to follow the guidelines given. If your instructor, or the conference you’re presenting at, wants a certain format, adhere to that format. These three rules are especially important to follow:

  1. Shorter is better: make sure that your poster does not contain too much text! Packing text onto the poster makes it difficult to read and understand.
  2. Bigger is better. No, this is not a contradiction of rule 1! Make sure your text is large enough to read, and readable against the background of the poster.
  3. Use images. The key aspect of a poster is that it is a visual medium. Include graphs, photos, and illustrations of your work.

Here are some excellent tips and templates for research posters: 

1. http://colinpurrington.com/tips/academic/posterdesign

2. http://www.waspacegrant.org

3. http://www.personal.psu.edu/drs18/postershow/: Poster tips from Penn State

 

Citation Help

Most scientific citation styles are based on APA format. It’s totally okay to use a resource to look up how to format a paper in APA style! As you become more familiar with the format, you will become less reliant on these resources, but for now, here are some sites that may be useful.

Our APA guide

Purdue OWL

APA Style Official Website