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Mastering the Many Forms of Scientific Writing in Academia

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In the science discipline, the art of communication is not a mere accessory—it is the linchpin of progress. Especially in the age of disinformation and “fake news,” the ability to effectively articulate ideas is critical for scientists to disseminate their findings, foster collaboration, secure funding, influence policy, and advance scientific understanding. To achieve these milestones, scientists are expected to turn their hand to a variety of writing styles, from social media posts and emails to grant proposals and research articles.1

While many countries continue to publish journals in their native tongue, English has emerged as the universal language of science and technology. This has forced millions of scientists around the world to grapple with the complex grammar, unpredictable spelling, and unstandardized nature of this Germanic language.

24-FLE-39450 Mastering Scientific Writing in Academia

Whether English is your second language or your first, this article can help you along your scientific journey.

Considering Style and Audience

As of 2024, a budding scientist might be expected to write for a diverse range of formats, tailoring their writing style to different audiences and the restraints of each platform. When crafting your own pieces, think about how to effectively connect with your readers and consider the publication format. The expectations and attention spans of audiences differ significantly, whether you’re composing a social media post or a lengthy manuscript. 

Let's review some general advice for writing short-, mid-, and long-form content.

Short-Form Content

To promote your research and connect with others in your field, consider posting on LinkedIn or X (formerly Twitter). Being active on these platforms can help you get quick feedback about a research topic or find potential collaborators. Short-form social media content should instantly engage your audience while conveying key information, such as relevant attributions and calls to action. Owing to their brief nature, it is essential to maintain flawless grammar and spelling in these correspondences, as mistakes will be easily detectable. If a colleague or proofreader is not available to check posts before they’re sent, virtual writing assistants, such as Grammarly or Copilot, can help you identify and correct simple errors.

Mid-Form Content

Emails and guest blog posts are two of the most common types of mid-form writing you’ll do as a researcher. When writing emails to peers or other professionals in the scientific community, it’s important to maintain a professional tone while ensuring clarity and effectiveness. For emails, writing a clear and descriptive subject line that summarizes the content can help the recipient understand and prioritize its importance. Be sure to re-read your entire message before sending, not only to catch grammatical errors but also to remove any superfluous words or phrases and prevent ambiguity. Stating your intent clearly and with brevity demonstrates respect for the intended recipient.

Treating your colleagues and peers with courtesy and respect in your emails is key to avoiding subtle misunderstandings that can arise through tone. Refrain from making demands or using overly assertive language, and express appreciation for their time and assistance when appropriate. Depending on your relationship with the recipient, you may wish to begin your email with a professional greeting, such as “Dear [name]” and sign off with the same level of respect. 

When crafting a blog post for a scientific news outlet, a group blog, or for a page on your department's or university's website, be sure to consider the intended audience. If you work in a niche field, or if the content is intended for a lay audience, avoid using scientific jargon and consider explaining concepts or processes that seem obvious to you. 

Long-Form Content

Writing short-form or mid-form messages is distinctly different from formal long-form text, such as journal articles and white papers. Not only do these materials require greater planning and research, but their composition demands greater scientific veracity. In many longer formats—for example, a scientific paper in a specialized technical journal intended for a narrow, expert audience—the content might employ extensive jargon with minimal explanations. Complex technical concepts can also be presented without much elaboration, assuming the reader’s specialized knowledge in the field.

However, factual statements will generally require substantiation from credible sources, and writers must learn to write in the specific house styles, which may involve adapting to new reference styles, understanding the differences between American and British English, and avoiding certain grammatical structures. Checking the house style guides of your intended submission platform will help you avoid rewriting your article unnecessarily.

In addition, writers must learn to paraphrase without plagiarizing. A skill on its own, paraphrasing can be made easier using online tools such as large language models. However, AI is a new frontier in content creation, and users must exercise caution. Be mindful that AI may not always accurately process scientific content, leading to potential errors or distortions in the meaning of the original text. It’s best to only use AI-generated content as a starting point and never submit something directly from an AI platform, even if it is scientifically and grammatically accurate.

Blog: The Peer Review Process: What Is It, and How to Suggest Reviewers

When writing for a scientific journal, writers must also capture the correct tone, which is typically formal, objective, precise, and authoritative. Accordingly, and particularly when reporting primary research findings, scientific writing should avoid colloquialisms or emotional and casual language while focusing on data, evidence, and logical reasoning. To achieve this, scientists should approach the writing process with a critical mindset and be prepared to revise and iterate based on feedback received from peers, reviewers, and editors.

The Importance of Reading

To be a good writer, you must be a good reader. Each field of science possesses its own dialect, conforming to an agreed-upon vocabulary, set of phrases, and style. Avid readers of literature will automatically internalize these nuances, and over time, this will be reflected in the quality of their writing. Moreover, by consuming a varied diet of literature from successful authors in your field, you will begin to generate a mental blueprint on which to map your own ideas. Therefore, it is recommended to read as much high-quality information as possible.

Using The AMA Manual of Style to Hone Your Voice

Written and maintained by the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the AMA Manual of Style is an indispensable resource for scientists looking to develop their own voice. Today, the majority of major scientific journals follow AMA format. Guiding researchers through the finer points of punctuation, capitalization, and grammar, it extends beyond the rudiments of language, offering insights into the myriad dilemmas encountered by those contending with the ever-shifting landscape of scientific inquiry. 

The AMA Manual of Style can guide you on grammar questions you might not have known needed answering. The following are just a few of the questions we’ve referred to it for guidance on:

  • Should western blot be capitalized? No, it shouldn’t, unless it’s in a title!
  • Should there be a space between the number and degree symbol when writing a temperature? No, AMA Style calls for degree symbols to be written thus: 4°C.
  • Where does the hyphen go in Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy? What about CAR-T cell? There isn’t 100% industry consensus here, but it’s generally accepted that the hyphen is used between two terms acting as an adjective to modify a noun, and therefore, the answer can vary depending on context. 
  • When do you use affect vs effect? Affect is usually used as a verb, and it means “to change” or “to influence.” Effect is usually used as a noun, and it refers to a "change that has been produced.” Context is helpful for understanding the difference:
    • New techniques will affect how researchers develop therapeutics.
    • New data reveals the effects of the new therapeutic on the disease.
  • What do e.g. and i.e. actually mean, and when is it correct to use each? "E.g." is Latin for “exempli gratia,” which means “for example” and it’s often used before a list. On the other hand, "i.e." stands for “id est,” which means “that is” or “in other words,” and it is typically used to clarify a statement.

By sharpening your writing style against this widely accepted whetstone, you will learn to convey complex concepts with lucidity to both seasoned researchers and neophytes. The latest edition of the manual also expounds on ethical and legal considerations, addressing issues such as authorship, conflicts of interest, and scientific integrity, reminding scientists to navigate the terrain of citation and reference with integrity and transparency.

Practice Makes Perfect

As with any craft, becoming proficient at scientific writing requires practice. Having a mentor support your writing journey or a trusted colleague review your work can be incredibly valuable. Rest assured that while progress may be gradual, the benefits are worthwhile. Remember that paying attention to the minutiae of the English language is important, but fixating on them can cause you to lose sight of the larger picture. As you become more comfortable writing scientific content in a variety of formats, you’ll learn that some grammar rules are absolute, while others can be bent or broken depending on the context, audience, and purpose of the content.

The artistry of scientific writing lies in its ability to distill complex ideas into elegant prose to transform abstract concepts into tangible realities that resonate with the reader. It requires a keen eye for detail, an unwavering commitment to clarity, and a profound respect for the truth. At its best, scientific writing oversteps the expectations of ordinary communication, inspiring, enlightening, and transforming our understanding of the world.

References and Further Reading

  1. Abraham G. (2020). The Importance of Science Communication. Metallography, Microstructure, and Analysis. doi.org/10.1007/s13632-020-00613-w
  2. AMA Manual of Style Committee. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors (11th ed.). doi.org/10.1093/jama/9780190246556.001.0001

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Alexandra Foley
Alexandra Foley
Alexandra is a scientific marketing writer at CST and the editor of the Lab Expectations blog.

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