Scientific Writing Rules At A Glance

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Scientific communication

Successful communication in science involves clarity and simplicity, short sentences, transparency, and consistency.

Biomedical communicators and scientific writers do not need to "dumb down" scientific writing or omit technical terms to write plainly and clearly. However, they do need to define or explain terms that their audiences may not recognize. They also need to write logically, building from what information the reader knows to what new information the reader will learn in the article.

Quantity can never replace quality of our scientific message, nor can it mask any vagueness we may have as a result of an incomplete understanding of the concepts.

Spelling

Misspelled words in sciences distract and annoy the reader. The credibility of your work hinges on the proper use of the language.

Every document that leaves the writer's desk must have undergone careful screening for spelling errors, both by the author/editor and the spell checker.

A mixture of American and British spelling within any one document is both confusing and annoying to the reader.

If you have the choice, use either American or British spelling, but do so consistently. Keep your target audience in mind (European or international).

If language requirements are defined (e.g., company-internal conventions, journal house style, publishers' requirements), use the given spelling rules consistently.

Punctuation

Do not hyphenate Latin expressions or non-English-language phrases used in an adjectival sense, e.g., in vivo experiments, an a priori argument, postmortem findings.

In the text, do not use hyphens to express a range (e.g., 10% to 20% of the substance), except if the range expresses fiscal years or life spans (e.g., the 1975-1982 data set) or if the range is given in parentheses (mean age was 22 years; [range, 11-32 years]).

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Punctuation

Do not hyphenate modifiers in which the second element is a number or letter, e.g., Type II diabetes, Grade A material.

Divide words only if necessary, and divide them correctly. Unnecessary hyphens in the middle of the text are distracting and annoying.

Never use contractions in scientific, technical, medical, or other professional texts.

Use nonbreaking spaces and hyphens to avoid inappropriate separation of terms.

Shortened word forms

Define abbreviations the first time they appear. Subsequently, use the abbreviation rather than the full term. Avoid abbreviations in titles and abstracts. Use a glossary of abbreviations (unless this is not encouraged by the journal to which you wish to submit your paper).

Use units of measurement consistently (e.g., ml or mL). Use the same abbreviations for the singular and plural forms (e.g., 1 mL, 10 mL; 1 h, 3 h; 1 cm, 50 cm).

Use capitals and no periods (full stops) for acronyms and initialisms. Exceptions are words that have become commonly accepted as nouns (e.g., laser, scuba).

Do not capitalize the words from which an acronym or initialism is derived (e.g., prostate-specific antigen [PSA]).

Use no apostrophe in plural forms (e.g., ECGs, RBCs).

Suspensions (e.g., Mr, Dr) do not have to be followed by a period. True abbreviations (e.g., Prof.), however, always end with a period.

Numbers

Getting your numbers right first time saves much time and effort in subsequent editing rounds.

Spell out one-digit numbers (one to nine) and use numerals for all larger numbers.

Whatever style of expressing numbers you adopt, remember to be consistent. Heterogeneous styles in any single document are both distracting and annoying to the reader.

Capitalization

Capitalized words in science are either proper nouns, key words in titles, or first words of sentences.

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Tense

Report established knowledge in the present tense, but new, previously unpublished findings (including your own results) in the past tense.

Parallel statements

For parallelism, the term(s) linked via a conjunction must have the same grammatical structure.

Subject-verb agreement

In general, a singular subject takes a singular verb, and a plural subject takes a plural verb.

For terms that can be either singular or plural, use the singular verb if the term refers to a unit, amount, discipline, or organization. Use the plural verb if the term indicates individual members or components rather than the collection as a whole.

Syntax (word order)

Modifying phrases should be as close as possible to the words, phrases, or clauses they modify.

If the adverb strongly qualifies the verb, i.e., if you wish to place special emphasis on the nature of the action, it is legitimate to split the infinitive.

Although you may end a sentence with a preposition, place the preposition within the sentence if the same meaning is achieved.

Danglers

Carefully check proper participle-subject matching in sentences that include a participle.

Avoid dangling gerunds by using an alternative noun and proper word order.

Respectively

Only use "respectively" if two series are listed and if there could be ambiguity. Use a comma before "respectively."

Plurals of abstractions and attributes

Use the singular for abstractions and attributes possessed in common.

Active voice

Use the active voice most of the time because it is more direct and less wordy. If you want to emphasize the action rather than the agent, use the passive voice, bearing in mind that the proportion of passive verbs should not exceed 30%.

Copula formulations

Copula formulations are frequently essential. However, a powerful alternative for the verb "to be" may sometimes make the sentence more interesting.

Prepositions

Use prepositions in a "healthy" proportion to the remaining words of the sentence (i.e., no more than one preposition per every four words).

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Modifiers

Use modifiers in moderation. Limit the number of decorative words to those that add necessary information to the statement.

Avoid modifier strings in sentences, names, and titles.

Uniform Requirements and journal house style

Before drafting a manuscript, consult the current version of the Uniform Requirements as well as the specific instructions for authors of the selected journal.

Company-internal conventions

Poor writing style handed down by tradition will delay review of the document. This, in turn, prolongs the "time to market" of publications and applications for marketing authorization of a new drug. An internal style manual to be used by all contributors can be a great help.

Double negatives

If the statement is positive, state it in the positive.

Tautology

Do not duplicate terms and expressions.

Jargonized writing

Resist the temptation to use jargon in scientific writing. Always apply your common sense before adopting a term from others.

Oxymorons

When using an oxymoron, make sure the term is commonly known and its use is appropriate in scientific communication.

Sexist writing

Use the plural "they" if you refer to both women and men. If this is inappropriate, use "he/she" to include both sexes.

Use the modern title (Ms) for women of either marital status in everything you write, unless the woman holds a doctorate, in which case you should address her as "Dr XY"

Use gender-neutral terms in titles and salutations. Avoid any expression containing "man" if you refer to both women and men.

Racist writing

Use valid and politically correct racial or ethnic designations. Mention race and ethnicity only if this information is relevant to the scientific/medical message.

Reference style

For quoting published or unpublished information, consult the journal's house style and follow the reference style consistently. If no specific guidelines are given, use Vancouver style.

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