Introduction to Journal-Style
of Contents ] [ PDF
| Get Your Thoughts
is Your Audience?
vs. Third Person |
References | Plagiarism
A critical aspect of the
scientific process is the reporting of new results in scientific
journals in order to disseminate that information to the larger
community of scientists. Communication of your results contributes
to the pool of knowledge within your discipline (and others!)
and very often provides information that helps others interpret
their own experimental results. Most journals accept papers for
publication only after peer review by a small group of scientists
who work in the same field and who recommend the paper be published
(usually with some revision).
The format and structure presented here is a general one;
the various scientific journals, and oftentimes specific disciplines,
utilize slightly different formats and/or writing styles. Mastery
of the format presented here will enable you to adapt easily
to most journal- or discipline-specific formats. While this guide
(a others like it) is a necessary tool of learning the
scientific writing style and format, it is not sufficient,
by itself, to make you an accomplished writer. This guide
will not teach you how to write in the English language, i.e.,
it is not a grammar book. You, the writer, must practice writing
and thinking within this structure, and,
learn by example from the writings of others; learning the nuances
of this style and format will be enhanced as you read the
scientific literature - pay attention to how professional scientists
write about their work. You will see improvement in
your own scientific writing skills by repeatedly practicing reading,
writing, and critiquing of others writing.
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The guide addresses
four major aspects of writing journal-style scientific papers:
(1) fundamental style considerations; (2) a suggested
strategy for efficiently writing up research results; (3)
the nuts and bolts of format and content of each section of a
paper (part of learning to write a scientific paper is learning
how to follow instructions precisely), and, (4) basic
information regarding peer critiques of scientific writing. ALL
journals have a set of instructions for authors which explicitly
state how their paper should be formatted for submission. Consider
this guide to be your instructions when writing lab reports for
the Biology core courses. We encourage you to follow the directions
carefully and to make full use of this guide and the writing
support system (TWAs, instructors, and Writing Workshop staff
tutors) as you prepare your papers. Please ask for help if you
have questions about format, style, or content. Above all, remember
to write with precision, clarity, and economy.
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The first task to accomplish as you begin
the process of writing is to order and organize the information
you wish to present. Some people work well from an outline, others
do not. Some people write first to discover the points, then
rearrange them using an after-the-fact outline. Whatever process
you may use, be aware that scientific writing requires special
attention to order and organization. Because the
paper will be divided into sections, you need to know what information
will go into each. If you don't normally work from an outline,
this may be an occasion when you'll at least want to develop
a list of the major points to be included in each section, before
you begin to write. If the paper has multiple authors, then this
is a good time to work (and negotiate!) with your collaborators
to insure that all the points the group wants to make get listed.
Audience: Who will be reading your paper?
Usually you will be writing to your peers. Simple advice: address
your paper to another interested biology student, or lab group,
in this course or major, and assume they have at least
the same knowledge and expertise base as you. Knowing your audience
helps you to decide what information to include--you would write
a very different article for a narrow, highly technical, disciplinary
journal vs. one that went out to a broad range of disciplines.
Similarly, you would write a paper for an audience of other biology
majors very differently than one you would write for a cross
section of the college. Do not write your paper
specifically for your instructor.
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Your writing should
be in complete sentences and easily understood. It should conform to the conventions of standard
written English (sentence form, grammar, spelling, etc.). Your
ideas will have little impact, no matter how good the research,
if they are not communicated well. Remember always that scientific
terminology very often has precise meaning. Be certain you choose
your words correctly and wisely.
It is important
to write clearly and concisely. Make sure that every paragraph has a clear
topic sentence and that the paragraph content supports the topic.
The goal is to report your findings and conclusions clearly,
and with as few words as necessary. Your audience
(other scientists usually) are not interested in flowery prose,
they want to know your findings. Remember: Writing and
thinking are closely linked enterprises - many people have noted
that, "fuzzy writing reflects fuzzy thinking."
When people have difficulty translating their ideas into words,
they generally do not know the material as well as they think.
Grammar questions or concerns?
Betty (Univ. of Washington)
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Be clear and concise: Write briefly and to the point.
Say what you mean clearly and avoid embellishment with
unnecessary words or phrases. Brevity is very important.
Use of the active voice alone shortens sentence length considerably.
Precise word use
Scientific terminology carries specific meaning - learn to use
it appropriately and use it consistently. A critical
function of technical terminology is to say a lot with a few
words, i.e., economy. This applies as well to appropriate
acronyms (e.g., PCR) and abbreviations. Direct
your paper toward the average reader in your intended audience. If writing for a highly technical journal, you
will necessarily use the technical jargon. If writing for a general
science audience you would limit the jargon.
- You do not have to try
to impress people by using words most people have never heard
of. Many published articles are like this, and they are poor
papers on account of it.
- Do not use colloquial speech, slang,
or "childish" words or phrases.
- Do not use contractions: for example,
"don't" must be "do not" and
"isn't" must be "is not" etc.
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Abbreviations: Do not use abbreviations in
the text except for units of measure. Always abbreviate
these when using them with data (2 mm; 10 min.). Except for temperature
units (F,C, K) never abbreviate units of measure when using them
in a non-data context (e.g., "we
measured length in millimeters"; "time
was recorded in minutes";
was measured in F (or C)";
"100 years have
passed since Mendel did..."). A list of common abbreviations and conversions is provided.
Use Past Tense: Research papers reflect work
that has been completed, therefore use the past tense throughout
your paper (including the Introduction) when referring to the
actual work that you did, including statements about your
expectations or hypotheses. Use the past tense, as well, when
referring to the work of others that you may cite.
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vs. Third Person:
If there is one stylistic area where scientific disciplines and
journals vary widely, it is the use of first vs. third person
constructions. Some disciplines and their journals (e.g., organismal
biology and ecology) have moved away from a very strict adherence
to the third person construction, and permit limited use of the
first person in published papers. Other disciplines, especially
the biomedical fields, still prefer the third person constrcution.
Limit your use of first person construction (i.e., " I
(or we) undertook this study ....): usually it is most acceptable
in the Introduction and Discussion sections, and then only to
a limited extent. Use first person in the methods sparingly
if at all, and avoid its use in the results.
Use active verbs whenever possible; writing that overly uses
passive verbs (is, was, has, have, had) is deadly to read and
almost always results in more words than necessary to say the
oxygen at a higher
was consumed by the mouse at
a higher rate.."
The clarity and effectiveness
of your writing will improve dramatically as you increase the
use of the active voice.
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Other specific comments
on style are also included for each section of the paper. Remember:
precise word use, past tense, active voice, brevity.
References References to the research findings of others
are an integral component of any research paper. The usual practice
is to summarize the finding or other information in your own
words and then cite the source. Any ideas or other information
that are not your own must be substantiated by a reference that
is cited in the text.
As a rule, in research papers, direct quotation and footnoting
are not practiced - simply restate the author's ideas or findings
in your own words and provide a citation.
Ladd Library links:
and Citing Guides
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Plagiarism (use of others words, ideas,
images, etc. without citation) is not to be tolerated and can
be easily avoided by adequately referencing any and all information
you use from other sources. In
the strictest sense, plagiarism is representation of the work
of others as being your work. Paraphrasing other's words
too closely may be construed as plagiarism in some circumstances.
In journal style papers there is virtually no circumstance in
which the findings of someone else cannot be expressed in your
own words with a proper citation of the source. Refer to: The
Bates College Statement On Plagiarism and a Guide to Source Acknowledgment.) If you are unclear about what
constitutes plagiarism, please confer with your instructor.