You don’t need to master English as a native speaker to write excellent scientific papers. It is more important to make your research easy to grasp. Here are three language tips I often give my clients.
If you have followed me for a while, you’ll have noticed that I talk a lot about structure when it comes to writing a killer scientific paper. Structure provides the skeleton of your paper and is, therefore, the most crucial bit. I find the perfect structure is best achieved by using a story-telling approach. Nevertheless, language is important too. Together with the content it adds the meat to the structure skeleton.
All too often academics and scientists think that they have to sound fancy to be taken seriously as an expert. I guess, therefore, papers are mostly difficult to understand if you aren’t researching the exact topic the author is. However, good writing means putting your reader first. And your reader doesn’t want to spend hours to understand your paper.
Contrary to many large scientific editing houses, I don’t think excellent scientific papers need advanced English vocabulary or perfect grammar skills. Or put differently, native speakers don’t automatically know how to write a scientific paper. That means that non-native speakers aren’t terribly disadvantaged when it comes to paper writing compared to those who speak English as their mother tongue. I think both groups need to learn some essential writing skills to publish their killer paper!
Therefore, I’ve gathered some language mistakes I noticed scientists make over and over again when I edit their papers:
i) Verbs Instead of Nouns
Texts that are very noun-heavy are really hard to read. Sentences with powerful verbs are much quicker to grasp. Among the nouns that I notice academics use too often in their papers are “agreement”, “disagreement”, “investigation”, “analysis”, “examination”, “comparison”, “increase”, “decrease” and “improvement” etc. If you use their corresponding verbs instead, your sentences will be way less convoluted.
Let me show you an example:
We present an analysis of the catalyst performance. Because we observed a slight improvement in activity, our results are in agreement with the literature.
is better phrased as
We analysed the catalyst performance. Because the activity improved slightly, our results agree with the literature.
Did you notice how much easier it was to read the second version compared to the first? And that’s not all: The second example contains only two thirds of the words of the first. Thus, using verbs instead of nouns is a great technique to cut down your word count.
II) The Right Tense
To be honest with you, as a graduate student, I kept getting confused about tenses in papers. I’m not surprised if you are too because so many paper authors are not using them correctly. I’d say that in about half of all manuscripts that scientist get me to work on, I’ll make a note about incorrect tenses. I don’t mention this because it’s grammatically incorrect but because it confuses the reader.
Generally, if you describe actions that took place in the past, such as the findings of past research, your own experiments and specific observations, the past tense is the correct one.
Here are some examples of sentences that should be written in past tense:
Janssen et al. observed that….
We measured the diameter of the nanoparticles using…
The activity was dependent on… *
* if this is for a specific experiment
So, when should you use the present tense? This tense is reserved for established facts, truths, generalisations and things that your paper covers.
Platinum is a transition metal commonly used as a catalyst.
The activity depends on…**
In this paper, we show that…
** if this is a general trend, and not only the result of a specific experiment
III) Consistent Terminology
This one is a biggie too. As with the tense, you easily confuse your reader if you use too many synonyms for the same thing. Don’t be afraid of repeating the one word you chose to call something. It’s more important that your reader knows instantly what you are talking about.
I’ll give you an example for this one too:
“Signal”, “electron count", the invented abbreviation “EC”, and “intensity” can all describe the same thing. Instead of using all of these synonyms, decide on one and stick with it!
Now you have three language hacks to bear in mind when you write your next paper. I’m planning to turn this into a small series. Subscribe to my newsletter below if you don’t want to miss any further scientific writing tips.
About the Author:
I’m Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.
I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.
When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.