Science writing style

Scientific subjects are often complex, with hard-to-understand concepts, or layers of important and detailed information. Thus, readers already face hurdles in understanding scientific documents.

In addition, scientists sometimes do not communicate their ideas as effectively as possible. Many use a style of writing they were taught at school and university. Some of the features typical of this style are: 

Some scientists, as well as other technical and government writers, believe that ‘scientific style’ needs to be very formal and impersonal. They may believe that writing in plain English means ‘dumbing down’ the science, and that a more casual style will not be accepted by journals or other scientists.

But, given the choice, most scientists prefer a simpler and more direct style of writing:

Traditional and modern scientific writing

A well-known science writer and trainer, John Kirkman, asked members of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the British Ecological Society and the Biochemical Society to give their views on 6 different versions of a scientific text. The information in the texts sent to each group was the same; only the writing style varied between the versions. The opening passage from 2 of the 6 versions sent to the Biochemical Society are shown below. Version A was written in a ‘traditional’ passive scientific style with heavy use of specialised terminology; version B was expressed in a more modern, active style with a minimum of specialised terminology.

A         The purpose of the study reported here was the establishment of an unsophisticated in vitro system, based on measurement of the rate of release of growth hormone from isolated fragments of anterior pituitary from rats, which would provide a suitable technique for further elucidation of the mechanisms by which regulation of the growth hormone secretory process in the cells of the anterior pituitary may be achieved. The choice of rat anterior pituitary for these studies was made by virtue of the ready availability of this gland in the fresh state and its relatively small size which permits fragments being obtained with minimal damage to the tissues involved.

B         Our aim was to devise a simple system for further in vitro investigation of ways of controlling secretion of growth hormone. The investigation was to be based on measuring the rate at which growth hormone is released from isolated fragments of anterior pituitary from rats. We chose rat pituitary because it is relatively small, so fragments can be obtained with only slight tissue damage. Also, fresh pituitary is easy to get.

John asked readers: Which is most comfortable to read, easy to grasp and simple to digest? Which style would you use?

A clear majority of readers (70.5%) preferred the simpler, more active styles. Version B was the most popular of all the 6 versions (38%), and version A was the least popular (5%).

Source: Kirkman J (2005). Good style: writing for science and technology, Routledge, London.

Ideally, readers should only need to read a text once to get the meaning. Modern scientific style aims to achieve this by eliminating the undesirable features of traditional scientific writing (see Clear and appropriate language and Moving away from the impersonal for how to do this in your work).

Origins of scientific style

Interestingly, a few centuries ago, scientific writing style was closer to modern style than the ‘traditional’ style.

The Royal Society of London was one of the earliest scientific societies. The Royal Society published the first scientific journal and was one of the first groups to produce guidelines for scientific exploration and reporting. In the 17th century, Royal Society member Robert Boyle, best known for his ideal gas law, created a series of guidelines for writing an experimental essay:

Boyle’s guidelines for writing experimental essays

  • Brevity: This does not apply to the degree of detail, but rather it is in reference to sentence length. Sentences should be concise and easy to follow. Thorough detail should be provided with regard to the experiment so that a peer could repeat the experiment. Unnecessary details or tangential details should not be included.
  • Lack of assertiveness: The observations and findings should be reported as observed. Subjective and authoritative weight should not be given to explain the findings (the author’s opinions should not be included). The author should not ‘arrive at definite conclusions or systematise the results obtained’.
  • Perspicuity: All reports should be ‘barely stated, without any prefaces, apologies or rhetorical flourishes’, as the purpose of the essay is to convey findings in a clear and accurate style.
  • Simplicity of form: This refers to the physical sentence constructions. It is preferable to use simple verbs. Active voice is preferred, ‘highlighting the role and importance of the scientist and his/her function as the subject’. However, passive voice is effective in highlighting ‘unexpected results or to report how certain procedures were carried out’.
  • Objectivity: Verbs indicating the author’s uncertainty (seem or appear) should be avoided. All research should be conducted and then presented without bias or personal insights.

Source: Lareo I & Montoya Reyes A (2007). A scientific inquiry into the art of scientific writing [blog].

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