How to Navigate Scientific Language

If writing a personal essay is a drive on Germany's Autobahn, then writing a research article is Friday evening gridlock in Manhattan. One is free-flowing and colorful with a rhythm that stirs the senses. The other is formulaic, dense, slow-moving, and grating on the nerves.Both types of writing fall under the category of nonfiction and are governed by certain rules of the road, such as grammar and truthfulness. Both can benefit from the use of a guide to style and usage; Strunk and White's The

Jill Adams
May 9, 2004
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If writing a personal essay is a drive on Germany's Autobahn, then writing a research article is Friday evening gridlock in Manhattan. One is free-flowing and colorful with a rhythm that stirs the senses. The other is formulaic, dense, slow-moving, and grating on the nerves.

Both types of writing fall under the category of nonfiction and are governed by certain rules of the road, such as grammar and truthfulness. Both can benefit from the use of a guide to style and usage; Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is a classic.1 But the language of science is more constrained than that of other fields. The commonly bemoaned use (or overuse) of technical terms, acronyms, and passive voice certainly contributes to the stilted prose of research. But restrictions on word choice also play a role.

Above all, science seeks to be as objective as possible. The words and phrases...

Yield Before Using Flowery Words

Many researchers think that current constraints on word choice are appropriate and serve to emphasize objectivity and detachment. Further, research reports are easier to read and understand if they follow the formula, says Sam Enna of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. "Scientists don't have a lot of time to read the literature and don't want to be bogged down with flowery prose when they are perusing an article," he explains. "Adjectives such as beautiful, masterful, elegant, and seminal just take up space and suggest a bias on the part of the author."

Ellen Unterwald of Temple University in Philadelphia describes a student in her laboratory who uses "flowery" words. Unterwald red-pencils most of them. "I think more interesting words are OK for reviews and other science writing, just not primary research articles."

Past Rules

The style of scientific writing was previously more colorful and descriptive. While reading papers published in the 1960's, Ellen Walker of Temple University found the discussion "much more interesting ... almost like a professor's lecture." Further, she noticed phrases with unusual honesty, such as '... and we do not know what these results mean.' "I can't imagine saying that so clearly in a paper today," she says. "I guess, like lawyers, we try to be obscure."

The Subjective Slippery Road

Some scientists consider current constraints on word choice regrettable and think they contribute to stilted, hard-to-read papers. "I don't strike any words because they are too conversational. I like that effect," says Lee Robins, professor emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis. She finds scientific writing "given to pomposity and jargon." On the other hand, she most often self-edits two words, very and important, "because the data should stand on their own feet."

Ken Minneman of Emory University in Atlanta says, "It's hard to think of particular words that would always be inappropriate in scientific writing," because it depends on the context. "Some things really are dramatic, but at other times that word would be too colorful." Because such a word is "in the eye of the beholder," it is by nature subjective. Minneman likes to use such words "when no reasonable person would argue with the conclusion."

Take the Scenic Route

Some people successfully write with color and wit in the scientific literature. "The way one writes is often a reflection of one's personality, so colorful characters (of which there are quite a few in science) often use colorful language," says Minneman.

"How many different receptors does it take to taste the sweet universe?" Charles Zuker of the University of California, San Diego, poses this question in the introduction of a recent paper in Cell.2 "I always write papers in a way that the language conveys both the data and the character and soul of the work," he says. He feels "fortunate in that editors and reviewers have been very receptive" to his style, with a few exceptions.

Roadblocks to Change

Multiple mechanisms are at work to keep word choice in check. Mentors influence students, training them to write in a "professional" style, says Eddie Morgan of Emory University. Journal publishers pressure authors to be concise with word limits and edit them with house style. "Early in my career, I tried injecting some words and phraseology that one doesn't usually see in scientific papers," says Morgan. "The reviewers didn't seem to mind, but [the words] were axed at the redactory stage."

Jill U. Adams jilluadams@aol.com is a freelance writer in Delmar, NY.

The Red- and Yellow-Light List

The Scientist asked researchers to nominate words deemed inappropriate in scientific writing. Whether any particular word gets a red, yellow, or green light is (of course) a matter of opinion.

Unnecessary and Redundant

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Important

Impressive

Obvious

Surprising

Unexpected

Very

Conversational and Familiar

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Besides that

Downright potent

Fair amount

Falls well short of

Hard-pressed

Reasonably assured

Judgmental and Rude

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Arrogant

Egocentric

Stupid

Subjective and Imprecise

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Amazing

Beautiful

Dramatic

Elegant

Immediately noticeable

Masterful

Remarkable

Seminal

Sizable

Flowery

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Abrogate

Capriciously

Conundrum

Energized

Mellifluous

Rubric

Weasel Words

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Could

Might

Should

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