Challenges in science writing

Being balanced and accurate

Along with the complex ideas, terms and units of measurement in science and technical writing, the nature of science itself presents some additional challenges for writers and editors.

In some forms of writing, we accept, or even expect, emotion or exaggeration. For example, fiction or advertising engages readers by calling directly on their feelings and desires. In writing about science, however, it is important that the language is accurate and balanced.

Whereas journalistic writing often presents the world in black and white (New compound is a cure for cancer), quality science and technical writing needs to include the greys. This is because modern science is based on the testing of scientific theories. A theory is an explanation or model that reliably explains and predicts natural phenomena. Sound scientific theory is based on a careful and rational examination of hypotheses that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and testing.

Scientists are aware that there is always the chance, however slight, that a new theory may broaden or change our knowledge and understanding. Scientific language needs to recognise that chance, and to describe events as possible and probable, rather than certain.

Scientific writing needs to draw a careful line between what is known and what is unknown:

We have discovered a new compound. This may lead to new treatments for cancer.

It needs to recognise that science is based on theories. Sometimes, nonscientists see this type of language as showing a lack of evidence or certainty about the science. But it is actually the most accurate way of describing any scientific theory.

Theories, in turn, are based on hypotheses. A hypothesis is a possible explanation for something that can be observed, and predicts what will happen in situations that can be tested. A good hypothesis makes logical sense, but this does not make it true – it is merely the basis for testing. While negative results of testing can prove a hypothesis false, positive results do not prove it true – they only increase our confidence in its accuracy. When several related hypotheses consistently provide a testable explanation of observations, this knowledge forms the basis of a theory.

But scientific and technical writing need not be bland or dull. Writing about science and complex material should also aim to engage readers, through great ideas, vivid images and metaphors, and clear and interesting language. It can tap into our humanity in an authentic way through storytelling or other artistic expression.

The presentation of data and graphics is also important in science writing. Consider the clear presentation of your scientific data as the visual partner to clear language. Showing discusses this topic in detail.

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Using tenses correctly

Robert A Day published specific conventions (sometimes referred to as Day’s rule) about the tense to use in scientific papers:

  • Use present tense to write about established facts.

Smoking causes lung cancer.

  • Use past tense to write about your findings

    In this study, smoking was strongly associated with lung cancer.

    and if you are going to challenge the findings of published work

Dhani found that foxes ate more mice than rabbits,14 but we found that foxes ate more rabbits than mice.

  • You can use both present and past tense in the same sentence.

We confirmed that people who smoke are at higher risk of lung cancer.

See Clear and appropriate language for other ways to ensure that your writing is clear.

Day’s rule

‘One special convention of writing scientific papers is very tricky. It has to do with tense, and it is important because proper usage derives from scientific ethics.

‘When a scientific paper has been validly published in a primary journal, it thereby becomes knowledge. Whenever you state previously published findings, ethics require you to treat the work with respect. You do this by using the present tense. It is correct to say, “Streptomycin inhibits the growth of M. tuberculosis (13)”. Whenever you state previously published findings, you should use the present tense; you are referring to established knowledge ...

‘Your own present work must be referred to in the past tense. Your work is not presumed to be established knowledge until after it has been published. If you determined that the optimal growth temperature for Streptomyces everycolor was 37 °C, you should say, “S. everycolor grew best at 37 °C” ...

‘In the typical paper, you will normally go back and forth between the past and present tenses. Most of the Abstract should be in the past tense, because you are referring to your own present results. Likewise, the Materials and Methods and the Results sections should be in the past tense, as you describe what you did and what you found. On the other hand, much of the Introduction and much of the Discussion should be in the present tense, because these sections often emphasize previously established knowledge ...

‘The main exceptions to this rule are in the area of attribution and presentation. It is correct to say “Smith (9) showed that streptomycin inhibits S. nocolor”. It is also correct to say “Table 4 shows that streptomycin inhibited S. everycolor at all pH levels”. Another exception is that the results of calculations and statistical analysis should be in the present tense, even though statements about the objects to which they refer are in the past tense; for example, “These values are significantly greater than those of the females of the same age, indicating that the males grew more rapidly”. Still another exception is a general statement or known truth. Simply put, you could say “Water was added and the towels became damp, which proves again that water is wet”. More commonly, you will need to use this kind of tense variation: “Significant amounts of type IV procollagen were isolated. These results indicate that type IV procollagen is a major constituent of the Schwann cell ECM”’.

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