The Purpose of Scientific Writing
There comes a time in the life of every student when they are asked to write a term paper. They go through a painful stage of picking a topic, sometimes more painful for lecturers if I’m being honest, writing an outline, finding key references, and reading through tons of pages. But when it comes to putting all that cleverness on paper, or rather Microsoft Word, they falter. If you’ve ever struggled with scientific writing, the time has come to conquer your fears and troubles.
What is scientific writing, then? Scientific writing is a sorta-kinda special writing style used to communicate one’s research to others in a clear, impartial, and balanced way. The notion has been around since the fourteenth century when Thomas Sprat decided that scientific inquiry should be written in a clear, nearly-clinical way instead of being riddled with philosophical and rhetorical flourishes. For that, we are thankful.
The purpose of scientific writing is the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if you tried to read a paper and the author kept going off at a tangent about the sock he had lost in the washing machine, pondering on whether this has any impact on the weather. And this was in every paper because that’s exactly how it used to be before the practice of scientific writing was established. Minus the washing machine. Also, minus the washing as only men used to write papers and they hardly knew anything about household chores. But I digress. Like they did back then, see what I did there? It’s called pastiche 😊.
Anyhow, there are different rules and styles in scientific writing, all of them curated by renowned institutions, so, without dawdling any further, let’s go over the most important aspects of academic writing.
Writing a Scientific Abstract
There’s no way around it for you if you’re a university student – scientific (sometimes called academic) writing is a skill you must acquire to have a successful academic career. A part of that includes being able to present your research proposal for a term paper or a publication. A short outline of your research intentions is called an abstract, and its form is firmly structured:
- Broad introduction. You should never jump into the specific details of your study – introduce the broader theme, e.g. field of research, a specific book, or the context in which experiments will be conducted.
- State the problem. Explain what aspect you’re zooming into.
- Explain the methodology. You must detail what methods are used in research (e.g. experiments, surveys, narrative analysis, etc.)
- Theoretical framework. You cannot invent new theories (at least not in short university papers); you must actively work with the existing discourse. Bring out theories you will use to guide your analysis.
- Thesis statement/hypothesis. Make sure your hypothesis is clear – this is your assumption about the research problem and possible results/solutions.
Abstracts are usually about 250-300 words long and serve as a brief overview of your paper. While some suggest that you write your abstract last after your paper is finalised, this is not always possible. Instead, write it to your best ability to predict the results, but don’t be too concerned about different outcomes.
Basic Rules of Scientific Writing
It would be a blasted shame to make your university life difficult over some writing rules, wouldn’t it? The hard truth is that scientific writing can be difficult even when you’ve already learnt the ropes of it, so you might as well be acquainted with the basics:
- The writing should be clear and precise. While your sentences may be longer, they should still be coherent and have a point. Your audience is well educated and can conquer paragraph sentences, but no one can deal with text that goes on and on and never reaches its destination.
- There should be a clear organisational structure. This includes the introduction, main part, conclusion, and relevant sub-chapters. The structure should follow a logical progression of studies, experiments, arguments, and discussion of results.
- The implicit should be explicit. As a researcher, I guarantee you that once you get deep into your topic, everything makes perfect sense, and sometimes that spills into writing. Remember, just because something is obvious to you doesn’t mean it is as clear to someone else. Don’t leave people guessing; make your thoughts explicit. This sometimes also includes explaining in a few brief sentences certain key theories you’re dealing with. Your paper should not force your readers to google a million other names you’re alluding to – it should be clear why they’re important.
- The writing must be neutral. Avoid any slang or jargon like the plague. In fact, avoid it even more than the plague (because we’ve seen how people have dealt with Covid), write in neutral terms, and steer clear of colourful idiomatic expressions (anyone loves a good ‘as dumb as a dodo’, but even dodos have their time and place, and it’s not a scientific paper).
- No plagiarism. Here’s my favourite thing to threaten students with. Any theft of intellectual property is illegal, and not only will it get you failed instantly, but it could also potentially land you with criminal charges. How do you avoid this? By citing your sources properly (and using a plagiarism checker).
And speaking of sources …
Citing Sources in Scientific Writing
Not citing your sources properly could really land you in a fast lane to Trouble-town.
You can use multiple citation styles to refer to your sources correctly. You can expect to write in different styles depending on where and what you’re studying (or whether you’re submitting your paper to a journal). Check the requirements for your specific subject/paper with your professors, publishers, or editors.
One thing that will remain is the distinction between in-text citation and bibliography/works cited.
Firstly, what do you cite? Every quote you copy and paste into your text must be marked as an in-text citation written in parentheses. Usually, this includes the last name of the author you’re citing, the page you’re citing from, and sometimes the year the source was published. For instance, (Jenkins 35). When you’re citing from multiple works of the same author, you’ll want to add the title of the specific publication you’re citing at that moment.
Paraphrases also count as in-text citations. Even if you change the wording completely, you still have to honour the original author. Similarly, you should refer to a publication if you’re summarising the key idea.
On the other hand, the bibliography/works cited page comes at the end of your paper. This is where you include all relevant publication details of every work you have cited/read for your research. Details included in this section encompass titles, publication years, page ranges, etc.
The difference between the bibliography and works cited page is that a bibliography includes everything you’ve read for the paper, whereas works cited only lists sources you quote directly.
A Few Additional Details of Scientific Writing
Apart from citing your sources, there are some pesky details you may be unsure about. Let’s get down to business with them (please leave your Huns at home).
Writing Numbers in Scientific Notation
So, what’s up with scientific notation? Scientific notation is a way of writing numbers that are too big or too small in a convenient way. When you carry out multiple calculations, some results may be a bit, well, ugly on paper. Nobody’s got the time to count all the zeros you’ve added there, which is why some numbers are raised to the power of ten. In case you need help converting your results, you can let this calculator do it for you.
Otherwise, this is what your results should look like:
You will find the ‘raised to the power of X’ in the Home tab of your Microsoft Word, right next to the symbols for bold, italic, and cursive.
Rules for Writing a Scientific Name
If your paper deals with foreign terms, e.g. names of species in Latin, you should include those terms in their proper, original form. The standard nomenclature includes two names for each species. Always write the genus name first (the generic name), followed by the species name/epithet. The first name is capitalised, and the entire term should be in italics. For instance: Ursus arctos is the brown bear.
Scientific Writing – Point of View Problem
There is some discord among researchers on whether the first-person perspective should be used or avoided in scientific writing. The rule of thumb is that most of your paper should be written in an impersonal way, either through the third-person perspective or through the extended use of impersonal and passive sentences.
For example, you shouldn’t say, ‘I conducted an X experiment, and the results were this.’ Instead, you could write: ‘The results collected from X experiment indicate this.’
However, as you go deeper into academic waters, you may occasionally write in the first person when you want to claim intellectual properties on theorisations and argumentations you’ve developed. This should not be used lightly! It’s a device that is relatively common in PhDs, postdoctoral research, and late-career publications in the field in which one is already an established scholar.
So, What Does a Scientific Writing Audience Expect?
To recap, scientific writing is a way of writing about one’s research and making the results accessible to wider scientific audiences through a specified style. With that said, since you’re not writing a fairy-tale for yourself, you can always consider what your audience (again, be that your professor grading the paper or a wide readership of a publication) may expect.
Common rules of scientific writing include:
- Writing in a clear and straightforward way.
- Following a logical, rational structure.
- Citing sources properly.
- Following the guidelines of official citation styles, including details about scientific notation and names.
- Making conclusions explicit and supporting them with strong arguments.
Speaking of … shouldn’t you be writing? 😉