A person sitting in a laboratory writing notes with a pen in a notebook.
Effective scientific writing starts with concision, precision, and practice.

Writing is a big part of being a scientist, whether in the form of manuscripts, grants, reports, protocols, presentations, or even emails. However, many people look at writing as separate from science—a scientist writes, but scientists are not regarded as writers.1 This outdated assertion means that writing and communication has been historically marginalized when it comes to training and educating new scientists. In truth, being a professional writer is part of being a scientist.1 In today’s hypercompetitive academic environment, scientists need to be as proficient with the pen as they are with the pipette in order to showcase their work. 

Using the Active Voice

Stereotypical academic writing is rigid, dry, and mechanical, delivering prose that evokes memories of high school and undergraduate laboratory reports. The hallmark of this stereotype is passive voice overuse. In writing, the passive voice is when the action comes at the end of a clause—for example, “the book was opened”. In scientific writing, it is particularly prevalent when detailing methodologies and results. How many times have we seen something like “citric acid was added to the solution, resulting in a two-fold reduction in pH” rather than “adding citric acid to the solution reduced the pH two-fold”?

Scientists should write in the active voice as much as possible. However, the active voice tends to place much more onus on the writer’s perspective, something that scientists have historically been instructed to stay away from. For example, “we treated the cells with phenylephrine” places much more emphasis on the operator than “the cells were treated with phenylephrine.” Furthermore, pronoun usage in academic writing is traditionally discouraged, but it is much harder, especially for those with non-native English proficiency, to properly use active voice without them. 

Ways to Use the Active Voice Without Using Pronouns

We investigated the effectiveness of the treatment using ELISA and found a four-fold decrease. (active with pronouns)
The effectiveness of the treatment was investigated using ELISA, showing a four-fold decrease. (passive without pronouns)

Active verbs:
Investigating 
(instead of investigated) stem cell treatment effectiveness using ELISA showed a four-fold decrease. (active)

Altering words:
ELISA
 (the presence of an assay implies investigation) showed a four-fold decrease in treatment effectiveness (active)

Nominalization (be careful, as overuse can make the prose difficult to read):
ELISA investigation (instead of investigated) showed a four-fold decrease in treatment effectiveness. (active)

Things are changing though, and scientists are recognizing the importance of giving themselves credit. Many major journals, including Nature, Science, PLoS One, and PNAS allow pronouns in their manuscripts, and prominent style guides such as APA even recommend using first-person pronouns, as traditional third-person writing can be ambiguous.2 It is vital that a manuscript clearly and definitively highlights and states what the authors specifically did that was so important or novel, in contrast to what was already known. A simple “we found…” statement in the abstract and the introduction goes a long way towards giving readers the hook that they need to read further.

Keeping Sentences Simple

Writing in the active voice also makes it easier to organize manuscripts and construct arguments. Active voice uses fewer words than passive voice to explain the same concept. It also introduces argument components sequentially—subject, claim, and then evidence—whereas passive voice introduces claim and evidence before the subject. Compare, for example, “T cell abundance did not differ between wildtype and mutant mice” versus “there was no difference between wildtype and mutant mice in terms of T cell abundance.” T cell abundance, as the measured parameter, is the most important part of the sentence, but it is only introduced at the very end of the latter example.

The sequential nature of active voice therefore makes it easier to not get bogged down in overloading the reader with clauses and adhering to a general principle of “one sentence, one concept (or idea, or argument).” Consider the following sentence: 

Research on CysLT2R, expressed in humans in umbilical vein endothelial cells, macrophages, platelets, the cardiac Purkinje system, and coronary endothelial cells, had been hampered by a lack of selective pharmacological agents, the majority of work instead using the nonselective cysLT antagonist/partial agonist Bay-u9773 or genetic models of CysLT2R expression modulation).

The core message of this sentence is that CysLT2R research is hampered by a lack of selective pharmacological agents, but that message is muddled by the presence of two other major pieces of information: where CysLT2R is expressed and what researchers used to study CysLT2R instead of selective pharmacological agents. Because this sentence contains three main pieces of information, it is better to break it up into three separate sentences for clarity.

In humans, CysLT2R is expressed in umbilical vein endothelial cells, macrophages, platelets, the cardiac Purkinje system, and coronary endothelial cells. CysLT2R research has been hampered by a lack of selective pharmacological agents. Instead, the majority of work investigating the receptor has used either the nonselective cysLT antagonist/partial agonist Bay-u9773 or genetic models of CysLT2R expression modulation.

The Right Way to Apply Jargon

There is another key advantage to organizing sentences in this simple manner: it lets scientists manage how jargon is introduced to the reader. Jargon—special words used within a specific field or on a specific topic—is necessary in scientific writing. It is critical for succinctly describing key elements and explaining key concepts. But too much jargon can make a manuscript unreadable, either because the reader does not understand the terminology or because they are bogged down in reading all of the definitions. 

The key to using jargon is to make it as easy as possible for the audience. General guidelines instruct writers to define new terms only when they are first used. However, it is cumbersome for a reader to backtrack considerable distances in a manuscript to look up a definition. If a term is first introduced in the introduction but not mentioned again until the discussion, the writer should re-define the term in a more casual manner. For example: “PI3K can be reversibly inhibited by LY294002 and irreversibly inhibited by wortmannin” in the introduction, accompanied by “when we applied the PI3K inhibitor LY294002” for the discussion. This not only makes things easier for the reader, but it also re-emphasizes what the scientist did and the results they obtained.

Practice Makes Better

Finally, the most important fundamental for science writing is to not treat it like a chore or a nuisance. Just as a scientist optimizes a bench assay through repeated trial and error, combined with literature reviews on what steps others have implemented, a scientist should practice, nurture, and hone their writing skills through repeated drafting, editing, and consultation. Do not be afraid to write. Putting pen to paper can help organize one’s thoughts, expose next steps for exploration, or even highlight additional experiments required to patch knowledge or logic gaps in existing studies. 

Looking for more information on scientific writing? Check out The Scientist’s TS SciComm section. Looking for some help putting together a manuscript, a figure, a poster, or anything else? The Scientist’s Scientific Services may have the professional help that you need.

References

  1. Schimel J. Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited And Proposals That Get Funded. Oxford University Press; 2012.
  2. First-person pronouns. American Psychological Association. Updated July 2022. Accessed March 2024. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/grammar/first-person-pronouns