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Style of writing and use of English in essays and scientific papers
Scientific writing is a central pillar of scientific communication – the other two pillars are presentations at scientific meetings and conferences or poster presentations. Well-written published articles are the sine qua non of the written record of science within scholarly communities. Scientific writing must be presented in logical, rigorous ways and published in peer-reviewed journals. To agree with accepted norms of scholarship and publication, scientific research is subsequently indexed by various abstracting and indexing services such as Medline and Embase. The scientific formats used to structure a scientific paper and acknowledge bibliographic resources is set forth by scientific associations and societies, and may be built on a variation of standards established by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and the Council of Science Editors (CSE). Finally, concise writing is aided through good editorial oversight, planning and critical appraisal. As a researcher, it is important to decide what you want to investigate, do a thorough literature review and proceed by developing your ideas in a sensible manner. Once a first draft of the manuscript is ready for editing, set it aside for a while and revise and edit it yourself once. If possible, have a respected colleague review it to make suggestions and edit it.
Suggestions for better scientific writing:
Use the past tense unless you are describing present or future circumstances. Use the active voice. Active voice is easier to read and reduces sentence length which is important as most scientific journals have a word limit. Indiscriminate changes in tense are confusing and lead to unintended meanings. Write in more than one tense in the literature review e.g. "Brown (1995) showed that the brain is more fully developed at birth than other organs". In this case the present tense can be used for the second half of the sentence because its gives knowledge that can applied generally. Materials and methods should be written in the past tense. Any conclusions should also be in the past tense, e.g. Health librarians found that ....etc. Keep in mind that the purpose of scientific writing is to convey information. This cannot be done if you write in long sentences. Keep sentences short, not more than 30 words in length. A sentence should contain one or two related ideas.
Principles of paraphrasing
Choice of words
Words have precise meaning and using them correctly adds clarity and precision to your writing. Look at the following pairs of words that are used in science, and learn how to use them correctly: Fewer, less; infer, imply; as, because; disinterested, uninterested ; alibi, excuse ; data, datum; later, latter; causal, casual; loose, lose; mute, moot; discrete, discreet. Use a standard dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases to find the correct meaning of words.
Less active blood cells Fewer active blood cells
When you write ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘which’ or ‘they’ are you sure of their meaning? A pronoun usually refers to the nearest previous noun of the same number (singular or plural) The cows ate the food; they were white. The cows ate the food; it was white.
Correct spelling, including the use of plurals
Some words have alternate spellings e.g. tyre, tire, grey, gray; draft, draught; connexion, connection, plow, plough, often the difference is between the American, Canadian and British spellings. Other spelling problems are based on misused words such as principle and principal; practice, practise (former is a noun; latter a verb). The plural of many words in English is achieved by adding an s (or es). Some words are the same in both singular and plural forms. Some singulars, for example, are identical to the plural form (sheep / sheep - no such word as "sheeps"). Some words are already pluralized; think of words such as information and people, so peoples is not used unless you are referring to different groups of people or different ethnic groups. Adopted words take on the plural of the original language, for example datum becomes data; and fungus become fungi.
Use of the present
Having said that the cow stood up. After standing in boiling water for an hour, examine the flask.
A gerund ends in 'ing.' If the sentence is left without a subject (a hanging participle) then the action of the verb is transferred to the object of the sentence (first sentence) or to the person taking the action (second sentence).
Misuse of words (avoid)
Loose expressions (avoid)
Jargon (quotations by J Oliver (1968))
Or to separate subclauses:
Finally to separate all items in a list except for the last two;
Observe the importance of the comma paced between fruit and trees in this particular list.
Other points concerning the use of English
One common mistake for those whose language is not English is to not match verb with noun. A singular verb must be associated with a singular noun, and a plural verb with plural noun; some exceptions exist where a singular noun is used in a plural sense (for example, ‘number’ in this sentence) or a plural noun is used in a singular sense (for example, ‘headquarters’). Here, the verb can agree with the sense of the noun's usage. Difficulties arise with nouns which do not end in ‘s’ in the plural form. For example, livestock and data are best used as plural.
Numbers and Units
Quantities should be given as figures. The metabolic rate should not be quoted as 326.18W if it can be measured to within about 5%. It should be written as 330W. Figures within a number should be grouped (with a small space between each) so that they are easier to read. Commas should be avoided. For example: 21 306.1 not 21,306.1 The Systeme International (SI) should be used where possible. Some common units and their abbreviations are given below. The full stop is not used in the SI system. When incorporating statistical data into the text, the test used (e.g., chi squared) should be included, along with the degrees of freedom, the calculated value and the p-value.
The layout of a scientific paper
The layout for a scientific paper usually follows a structured abstract format with:
Sources of information that may be consulted in the preparation of a literature review on a scientific subject
Many sources of information can be used to find information and used to write a scientific paper. Some sources are not as reliable as others. Information from popular sources is less reliable than from scientific papers. The list below indicates the usefulness of sources (from 1 the most popular to 11 most scientific, up to date and reliable):
Titles for essays and scientific papers
The title should indicate what the essay contains and be as concise as possible. Sacrifice brevity for clarity. The title should be a concise summary of the paper. Include important nouns or key words and then join together within the title. Examples 'The limitations of maize(corn) as an energy source in diets for children' 'The feeding of rice straw and sorghum tops with molasses and urea to cattle' Key words: Maize, corn, humans, diets, rice straw, sorghum, molasses, urea, and cattle When an essay or a paper is being written, an author should constantly refer back to the title to ensure that what is being written is encompassed by the title. J. Oliver, in his book on scientific writing (written in the 1960s), quotes an example where he was looking for paper on 'Acknowledgements'. He could not find it in the indexes because the paper was entitled Independence in Publication. In other words the keyword 'acknowledgements' was missing from the title. This type of problem is less likely to arise today because most searches today are made electronically on databases. These searches include searches of keywords words included in the abstract as well as those in the title. It is highly probable that the word acknowledgments would have occurred in the abstract and he would have found the paper for which he was looking. Unconscious humour or inaccuracies should also be avoided in titles, e.g.one quoted by J.Oliver : Freezing and storage of human semen in 50 healthy medical students. (It is to be hoped that the medical students remained healthy and fertile after such an experiment). Various types of title can be used for a paper:
Types of title that can be used for scientific papers
How to write titles
Ensure that the title:
The title should not:
In most cases when writing a title of a scientific paper the title should be followed by the author's name and full address of the institution where the work was carried out. If an author has moved, his/her new address should be added as a footnote.
How to write abstracts
The abstract should expand on the title. Remember the abstract will be read by more people than the paper. An informative abstract contains a summary of main points in the essay or paper. To prepare an informative abstract an author should read the essay or paper, making notes as he or she progresses. An abstract for a book is written as an indicative one amd tells you what subject matter the book covers; it is not a summary of all its contents. Abstracts should not contain: references to tables or figures, because these appear in the paper; abbreviations or acronyms unless they are standard or explained; references to literature cited; any conclusions not in the paper.
An introduction to a scientific paper should normally not exceed 400 words (check the requirements of the Journal to which you intend to submit your paper) and it should cover the following subjects:
Materials and methods
This section should deal with four main topics:
This section typically contains concrete data and analysis:
NB. The data in tables and graphs should be clearly understood without reference to text; texts should be clearly written without reference to tables and graphs
Discussion and conclusions
These should be clear and any help of academic, scientific or technical nature should be acknowledged. But if the acknowledgement is overdone there is a danger that the reader will wonder what contribution the author made to the paper. For example: 'I wish to thank Dr. Lester, who not only suggested most of the experimental design but also greatly helped with the interpretation of the results, Dr Brown who contributed greatly to the writing of the paper and Mr A.S.Brown who carried out most of the experimental work'.
Tables and graphs in scientific papers
Tables should be numbered in a continuous sequence through the essay. Each table must be referred to in the text, but it may also have a heading clearly showing its content. The units of any numbers in the table must be clearly stated. If the table was synthesized from data published in previous publications these references must be cited. The inclusion of a large number of tables makes the text difficult to read and should be avoided. Sometimes data can be more clearly presented as graphs rather than tables. If it is necessary to include tables which are relevant but not essential for an understanding of the text they should be put in an appendix. Tables should be clearly understandable without reference to the text and vice versa. The text should be used to explain the main parts of a table. Graphs and other figures should also be numbered sequentially. Each must have a self-explanatory heading, and must be referred to in the text. The axes of graphs should be clearly labelled and must give the units.
Citation of reference in the text
Reference may be cited in two ways. Either "Brown, Smith and Jones (2006) and Abdulahi (1998) confirmed these results..." or "These results were confirmed by similar experiments (Brown, Smith and Jones,2005; Abdulahi , 2006)". The names of all authors (but not their initials) should be given the first time the reference is cited in the text. For subsequent iterations, where there are four or more authors, an abbreviation of the form "Brown et al. (2001)..." can be used. Where more than one reference is used for the same author in one year, lower case letters should be used to distinguish between them, for example, "McLean (2002b)".
List of references and end of paper
The reference section contains a list of all the references cited in the text. References should be arranged in alphabetical order (according to the name of the first author). Each reference to an article should contain the following:
Each reference to a book should contain:
Each reference to an article which is published in a book or Conference Proceedings should also contain the title of the book and its editor. For example:
Attention should be paid to uniformity of punctuation. Please check the list of references, since it is very frustrating for the reader to find that references in the text are not included, or that they are wrongly quoted. Make sure that references in the text are in the reference list - Programs such as Word, Papyrus, and Endnote can assist with this chore and that of putting references in order.