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Effective writing is readable — that is, clear, accurate, and concise. When you are writing a
paper, try to get your ideas across in such a way that the audience will understand them
effortlessly, unambiguously, and rapidly. To this end, strive to write in a straightforward way.
There is no need to write about science in unusual, complicated, or overly formal ways in an
effort to "sound scientific" or to impress your audience. If you can tell a friend about your
work, you are off to a good start.
To construct sentences that reflect your ideas, focus these sentences appropriately.
1) Express one idea per sentence.
2) Use your current topic — that is, what you are writing about — as the grammatical subject
of your sentence (see Verbs: Choosing between active and passive voice).
3) When writing a complex sentence (a sentence that includes several clauses), place the main
idea in the main clause rather than a subordinate clause. In particular, focus on the
phenomenon at hand, not on the fact that you observed it.
Constructing your sentences logically is a good start, but it may not be enough. To ensure
they are readable, make sure your sentences do not tax readers' short-term memory by
obliging these readers to remember long pieces of text before knowing what to do with them.
In other words, keep together what goes together. Then, work on conciseness: See whether
you can replace long phrases with shorter ones or eliminate words without loss of clarity or
The following screens cover the drafting process in more detail. Specifically, they discuss
how to use verbs effectively and how to take care of your text's mechanics.
1) Much of the strength of a clause comes from its verb. Therefore, to express your ideas
accurately, choose an appropriate verb and use it well. In particular, use it in the right tense,
choose carefully between active and passive voice, and avoid dangling verb forms.
Verbs are for describing actions, states, or occurrences. To give a clause its full strength and
keep it short, do not bury the action, state, or occurrence in a noun (typically combined with a
weak verb), as in "The catalyst produced a significant increase in conversion rate." Instead
write, "The catalyst increased the conversion rate significantly." The examples below show
how an action, state, or occurrence can be moved from a noun back to a verb.
Instead of
Make an examination of . . .
Present a comparison of . . .
Be in agreement . . .
Perform an analysis of . . .
Produce an improvement in . . . improve
Using the right tense
In your scientific paper, use verb tenses (past, present, and future) exactly as you would in
ordinary writing.
Use the past tense to report what happened in the past: what you did, what someone reported,
what happened in an experiment, and so on.
Use the present tense to express general truths, such as conclusions (drawn by you or by
others) and atemporal facts (including information about what the paper does or covers).
Reserve the future tense for perspectives: what you will do in the coming months or years.
Typically, most of your sentences will be in the past tense, some will be in the present tense,
and very few, if any, will be in the future tense.
Past tense
Work done
We collected blood samples from . . .
Groves et al. determined the growth rate of . . .
Consequently, astronomers decided to rename . . .
Work reported
Jankowsky reported a similar growth rate . . .
In 2009, Chu published an alternative method to . . .
Irarrázaval observed the opposite behavior in . . .
The mice in Group A developed, on average, twice as much . . .
The number of defects increased sharply . . .
The conversion rate was close to 95% . . .
Present tense
General truths
Microbes in the human gut have a profound influence on . . .
The Reynolds number provides a measure of . . .
Smoking increases the risk of coronary heart disease . . .
Atemporal facts
This paper presents the results of . . .
Section 3.1 explains the difference between . . .
Behbood's 1969 paper provides a framework for . . .
Future tense
In a follow-up experiment, we will study the role of . . .
The influence of temperature will be the object of future research . . .
Note the difference in scope between a statement in the past tense and the same statement in
the present tense: "The temperature increased linearly over time" refers to a specific
experiment, whereas "The temperature increases linearly over time" generalizes the
experimental observation, suggesting that the temperature always increases linearly over time
in such circumstances.
In complex sentences, you may have to combine two different tenses — for example, "In
1905, Albert Einstein postulated that the speed of light is constant . . . . " In this sentence,
postulated refers to something that happened in the past (in 1905) and is therefore in the past
tense, whereas is expresses a general truth and is in the present tense.
Choosing between active and passive voice
In English, verbs can express an action in one of two voices. The active voice focuses on the
agent: "John measured the temperature." (Here, the agent — John — is the grammatical
subject of the sentence.) In contrast, the passive voice focuses on the object that is acted upon:
"The temperature was measured by John." (Here, the temperature, not John, is the
grammatical subject of the sentence.)
To choose between active and passive voice, consider above all what you are discussing (your
topic) and place it in the subject position. For example, should you write "The preprocessor
sorts the two arrays" or "The two arrays are sorted by the preprocessor"? If you are discussing
the preprocessor, the first sentence is the better option. In contrast, if you are discussing the
arrays, the second sentence is better. If you are unsure what you are discussing, consider the
surrounding sentences: Are they about the preprocessor or the two arrays?
The desire to be objective in scientific writing has led to an overuse of the passive voice,
often accompanied by the exclusion of agents: "The temperature was measured" (with the
verb at the end of the sentence). Admittedly, the agent is often irrelevant: No matter who
measured the temperature, we would expect its value to be the same. However, a systematic
preference for the passive voice is by no means optimal, for at least two reasons.
For one, sentences written in the passive voice are often less interesting or more difficult to
read than those written in the active voice. A verb in the active voice does not require a
person as the agent; an inanimate object is often appropriate. For example, the rather
uninteresting sentence "The temperature was measured . . . " may be replaced by the more
interesting "The measured temperature of 253°C suggests a secondary reaction in . . . ." In the
second sentence, the subject is still temperature (so the focus remains the same), but the verb
suggests is in the active voice.
Similarly, the hard-to-read sentence "In this section, a discussion of the influence of the
recirculating-water temperature on the conversion rate of . . . is presented" (long subject, verb
at the end) can be turned into "This section discusses the influence of . . . . " The subject is
now section, which is what this sentence is really about, yet the focus on the discussion has
been maintained through the active-voice verb discusses.
As a second argument against a systematic preference for the passive voice, readers
sometimes need people to be mentioned. A sentence such as "The temperature is believed to
be the cause for . . . " is ambiguous. Readers will want to know who believes this — the
authors of the paper, or the scientific community as a whole? To clarify the sentence, use the
active voice and set the appropriate people as the subject, in either the third or the first person,
as in the examples below.
Biologists believe the temperature to be . . .
Keustermans et al. (1997) believe the temperature to be . . .
The authors believe the temperature to be . . .
We believe the temperature to be . . .
Avoiding dangling verb forms
A verb form needs a subject, either expressed or implied. When the verb is in a non-finite
form, such as an infinitive (to do) or a participle (doing), its subject is implied to be the
subject of the clause, or sometimes the closest noun phrase. In such cases, construct your
sentences carefully to avoid suggesting nonsense. Consider the following two examples.
To dissect its brain, the affected fly was mounted on a . . .
After aging for 72 hours at 50°C, we observed a shift in . . .
Here, the first sentence implies that the affected fly dissected its own brain, and the second
implies that the authors of the paper needed to age for 72 hours at 50°C in order to observe
the shift. To restore the intended meaning while keeping the infinitive to dissect or the
participle aging, change the subject of each sentence as appropriate:
To dissect its brain, we mounted the affected fly on a . . .
After aging for 72 hours at 50°C, the samples exhibited a shift in . . .
Alternatively, you can change or remove the infinitive or participle to restore the intended
To have its brain dissected, the affected fly was mounted on a . . .
After the samples aged for 72 hours at 50°C, we observed a shift in . . .
In communication, every detail counts. Although your focus should be on conveying your
message through an appropriate structure at all levels, you should also save some time to
attend to the more mechanical aspects of writing in English, such as using abbreviations,
writing numbers, capitalizing words, using hyphens when needed, and punctuating your text
Using abbreviations
Beware of overusing abbreviations, especially acronyms — such as GNP for gold
nanoparticles. Abbreviations help keep a text concise, but they can also render it cryptic.
Many acronyms also have several possible extensions (GNP also stands for gross national
Write acronyms (and only acronyms) in all uppercase (GNP, not gnp).
Introduce acronyms systematically the first time they are used in a document. First write the
full expression, then provide the acronym in parentheses. In the full expression, and unless
the journal to which you submit your paper uses a different convention, capitalize the letters
that form the acronym: "we prepared Gold NanoParticles (GNP) by . . . " These capitals help
readers quickly recognize what the acronym designates.
Do not use capitals in the full expression when you are not introducing an acronym: "we
prepared gold nanoparticles by… "
As a more general rule, use first what readers know or can understand best, then put in
parentheses what may be new to them. If the acronym is better known than the full
expression, as may be the case for techniques such as SEM or projects such as FALCON,
consider placing the acronym first: "The FALCON (Fission-Activated Laser Concept)
program at…"
In the rare case that an acronym is commonly known, you might not need to introduce it. One
example is DNA in the life sciences. When in doubt, however, introduce the acronym.
In papers, consider the abstract as a stand-alone document. Therefore, if you use an acronym
in both the abstract and the corresponding full paper, introduce that acronym twice: the first
time you use it in the abstract and the first time you use it in the full paper. However, if you
find that you use an acronym only once or twice after introducing it in your abstract, the
benefit of it is limited — consider avoiding the acronym and using the full expression each
time (unless you think some readers know the acronym better than the full expression).
Writing numbers
In general, write single-digit numbers (zero to nine) in words, as in three hours, and multidigit
numbers (10 and above) in numerals, as in 24 hours. This rule has many exceptions, but most
of them are reasonably intuitive, as shown hereafter.
Use numerals for numbers from zero to nine
when using them with abbreviated units (3 mV);
in dates and times (3 October, 3 pm);
to identify figures and other items (Figure 3);
for consistency when these numbers are mixed with larger numbers (series of 3, 7, and 24
Use words for numbers above 10 if these numbers come at the beginning of a sentence or
heading ("Two thousand eight was a challenging year for . . . "). As an alternative, rephrase
the sentence to avoid this issue altogether ("The year 2008 was challenging for . . . ").
Capitalizing words
Capitals are often overused. In English, use initial capitals
at beginnings: the start of a sentence, of a heading, etc.;
for proper nouns, including nouns describing groups (compare physics and the Physics
for items identified by their number (compare in the next figure and in Figure 2), unless the
journal to which you submit your paper uses a different convention;
for specific words: names of days (Monday) and months (April), adjectives of nationality
(Algerian), etc.
In contrast, do not use initial capitals for common nouns: Resist the temptation to glorify a
concept, technique, or compound with capitals. For example, write finite-element method (not
Finite-Element Method), mass spectrometry (not Mass Spectrometry), carbon dioxide (not
Carbon Dioxide), and so on, unless you are introducing an acronym (see Mechanics: Using
Using hyphens
Hyphens can be tricky in English, especially in long expressions. Here is a more detailed
Use hyphens in English to clarify relationships in chains of words. Thus, low temperature
impact (without a hyphen) suggests a low impact of the temperature, whereas lowtemperature impact (with a hyphen) suggests the impact of or at low temperature. Such
hyphens, useful for (nouns used as) adjectives, are unnecessary for adverbs. For example, a
highly interesting paper does not need a hyphen; in this phrase, highly can only qualify
interesting (not paper).
In general, do not use a hyphen with a prefix, namely an element that is not a word in itself
and that is added at the beginning of a word to modify its meaning. Thus, write multichannel,
nonlinear, preamplifier, postdoctoral, realign, etc. As an exception to this rule, use a hyphen
to separate vowels that would otherwise be read together, as in pre-embryo, or when the
original word is written with a capital, as in pre-Columbian.
Punctuating text
Punctuation has many rules in English; here are three that are often a challenge for non-native
As a rule, insert a comma between the subject of the main clause and whatever comes in front
of it, no matter how short, as in "Surprisingly, the temperature did not increase." This comma
is not always required, but it often helps and never hurts the meaning of a sentence, so it is
good practice.
In series of three or more items, separate items with commas (red, white, and blue; yesterday,
today, or tomorrow). Do not use a comma for a series of two items (black and white).
In displayed lists, use the same punctuation as you would in normal text (but consider
dropping the and).
The system is fast, flexible, and reliable.
The system is
This page appears in the following eBook
English Communication for Scientists, Unit 2.2
Tips on how to present the results of a study, and give it the best chance of publication.
Adapted with permission from a text developed by the Applied Ecology Research Group at the
University of Canberra Australia, and prepared with the aid of 'How to Write and Publish a
Scientific Paper' by Robert Day (ISI Press, Philadelphia, 1979).
A scientific paper is a written report describing original research results whose format has been
defined by centuries of developing tradition, editorial practice, scientific ethics and the interplay
with printing and publishing services. The result of this process is that virtually every scientific
paper has a title, abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion.
It should, however, be noted that most publications have rules about a paper's format: some
divide papers into these or some of these sections, others do not, and the order may be different in
different publications. So be prepared to revise your paper in to a publication's format when you
are ready to submit.
One general point to remember is the need to avoid jargon and acronyms as much as possible. A
second is the fact that some journals like papers to be written in the active voice - i.e. "we carried
out a test to..." rather than " test was carried out to..." — but that this is not always the case.
A title should be the fewest possible words that accurately describe the content of the paper. Omit
all waste words such as "A study of ...", "Investigations of ...", "Observations on ...", etc. Indexing
and abstracting services depend on the accuracy of the title, extracting from it keywords useful in
cross-referencing and computer searching.
An improperly titled paper may never reach the audience for which it was intended, so be
specific. If the study is of a particular species or chemical, name it in the title. If the study has
been limited to a particular region or system, and the inferences it contains are similarly limited,
then name the region or system in the title.
Keyword list
The keyword list provides the opportunity to add keywords, used by the indexing and abstracting
services, in addition to those already present in the title. Judicious use of keywords may increase
the ease with which interested parties can locate your article.
A well-prepared abstract enables the reader to identify the basic content of a document quickly
and accurately, to determine its relevance to their interests, and thus to decide whether to read the
document in its entirety. The abstract concisely states the principal objectives and scope of the
investigation where these are not obvious from the title. More important, it concisely summarises
the results and principal conclusions. Do not include details of the methods used unless the study
is methodological, i.e. primarily concerned with methods.
The abstract must be concise; most journals specify a length, typically not exceeding 250 words.
If you can convey the essential details of the paper in 100 words, do not use 200. Do not repeat
information contained in the title. The abstract, together with the title, must be self-contained as it
is published separately from the paper in abstracting services such as Biological Abstracts or
Current Contents. Omit all references to the literature and to tables or figures, and omit obscure
abbreviations and acronyms even though they may be defined in main body of the paper.
The introduction begins by introducing the reader to the pertinent literature. A common mistake
is to introduce authors and their areas of study in general terms without mention of their major
findings. For example: "Parmenter (1976) and Chessman (1978) studied the diet of Chelodina
longicollis at various latitudes and Legler (1978) and Chessman (1983) conducted a similar study
on Chelodina expansa" compares poorly with: "Within the confines of carnivory, Chelodina
expansa is a selective and specialised predator feeding upon highly motile prey such as decapod
crustaceans, aquatic bugs and small fish (Legler, 1978; Chessman, 1984), whereas C.
longicollis is reported to have a diverse and opportunistic diet (Parmenter, 1976; Chessman,
1984)". The latter is a far more informative lead-in to the literature, but more importantly it will
enable the reader to clearly place the current work in the context of what is already known.
Try to introduce references so they do not interfere with the flow of your argument: first write the
text without references so that it reads smoothly, then add in the references at the end of sentences
or phrases so they do not interrupt your flow. Note that not all journals use author's names in
references some use numbers in the text with a list of citations at the end of the article. Check the
publication's style when you are ready to submit your paper.
An important function of the introduction is to establish the significance of your current work:
Why was there a need to conduct the study? Having introduced the pertinent literature and
demonstrated the need for the current study, you should state clearly the scope and objectives.
Avoid a list of points or bullets; use prose.
The introduction can finish with the statement of objectives or, as some people prefer, with a brief
statement of the principal findings. Either way, the reader must have an idea of where the paper is
heading to follow the development of the evidence.
Materials and methods
The main purpose of the 'Materials and Methods' section is to provide enough detail for a
competent worker to repeat your study and reproduce the results. The scientific method requires
that your results be reproducible, and you must provide a basis for repetition of the study by
Equipment and materials available off the shelf should be described exactly (e.g. Licor
underwater quantum sensor, Model LI 192SB) and sources of materials should be given if there is
variation in quality among supplies. Modifications to equipment or equipment constructed
specifically for the study should be carefully described in detail. The method used to prepare
reagents, fixatives, and stains should be stated exactly, though often reference to standard recipes
in other works will suffice.
The usual order of presentation of methods is chronological. However, related methods may need
to be described together and strict chronological order cannot always be followed. If your
methods are new (i.e. unpublished), you must provide all the detail required to repeat them.
However, if a method has been previously published, only the name of the method and a literature
reference need be given.
Be precise in describing measurements and include errors of measurement. Ordinary statistical
methods should be used without comment; advanced or unusual methods may require a literature
citation. Show your materials and methods section to a colleague. Ask if they would have
difficulty in repeating your study.
In the results section you present your findings: display items (figures and tables) are central in
this section. Present the data, digested and condensed, with important trends extracted and
described. Because the results comprise the new knowledge that you are contributing to the
world, it is important that your findings be clearly and simply stated.
The results should be short and sweet. Do not say "It is clearly evident from Fig. 1 that bird
species richness increased with habitat complexity". Say instead "Bird species richness increased
with habitat complexity (Fig. 1)".
However, don't be too concise. Readers cannot be expected to extract important trends from the
data unaided. Few will bother. Combine the use of text, tables and figures to condense data and
highlight trends. In doing so be sure to refer to the guidelines for preparing tables and figures
In the discussion you should discuss what principles have been established or reinforced; what
generalisations can be drawn; how your findings compare to the findings of others or to
expectations based on previous work; and whether there are any theoretical/practical implications
of your work.
When you address these questions, it is crucial that your discussion rests firmly on the evidence
presented in the results section. Refer briefly to your results to support your discussion
statements. Do not extend your conclusions beyond those that are directly supported by your
A brief paragraph of speculation about what your results may mean in a general sense is usually
acceptable, but should not form the bulk of the discussion. Be sure to address the objectives of the
study in the discussion and to discuss the significance of the results. Don't leave the reader
thinking "So what?" End the discussion with a short summary or conclusion regarding the
significance of the work.
Whenever you draw upon information contained in another paper, you must acknowledge the
source. All references to the literature must be followed immediately by an indication of the
source of the information that is referenced, for example, "A drop in dissolved oxygen under
similar conditions has been demonstrated before (Norris, l986)."
If two authors are involved, include both surnames in this reference. However if more authors are
involved, you may use 'et al', an abbreviation of Latin meaning 'and others'. In general you should
not use the abbreviation in the full reference at the end of the article, although some journals
permit this. If two more articles written by the same author in the same year are cited, most
journals ask you to add suffixes 'a', 'b' etc in both the text and the reference list.
If you include in your report phrases, sentences or paragraphs repeated verbatim from the
literature, it is not sufficient to simply cite the source. You must include the material in quotes
and you must give the number of the page from which the quote was lifted. For example: "Day
(l979: 3l) reports a result where '33.3% of the mice used in this experiment were cured by the test
drug; 33.3% of the test population were unaffected by the drug and remained in a moribund
condition; the third mouse got away'".
A list of references ordered alphabetically by author's surname, or by number, depending on the
publication, must be provided at the end of your paper. The reference list should contain all
references cited in the text but no more. Include with each reference details of the author, year of
publication, title of article, name of journal or book and place of publication of books, volume
and page numbers.
Formats vary from journal to journal, so when you are preparing a scientific paper for an
assignment, choose a journal in your field of interest and follow its format for the reference list.
Be consistent in the use of journal abbreviations.
Appendices contain information in greater detail than can be presented in the main body of the
paper, but which may be of interest to a few people working specifically in your field. Only
appendices referred to in the text should be included.
Formatting conventions
Most publications have guidelines about submission and manuscript preparation, for online or
mailed submissions. Most journals require the manuscript to be typed with double spacing
throughout and reasonable margins. Make sure you read the guide to authors before submitting
your paper so that you can present your paper in the right format for that publication (refer to
submission of paper article in this series).
Finally — and perhaps most importantly — ALWAYS read the journal's guide to authors before
submitting a paper, and ALWAYS provide an informative cover letter to your submission.
Constructing tables
Include a caption and column headings that contain enough information for the reader to
understand the table without reference to the text. The caption should be at the head of the table.
Organise the table so that like elements read down, not across.
Present the data in a table or in the text, but never present the same data in both forms. Choose
units of measurement so as to avoid the use of an excessive number of digits.
Don't include tables that are not referred to in the text, or be tempted to 'dress up' your report by
presenting data in the form of tables or figures that could easily be replaced by a sentence or two
of text.
Don't include columns of data that contain the same value throughout. If the value is important to
the table include it in the caption or as a footnote to the table.
Don't use vertical lines to separate columns unless absolutely necessary.
Constructing figures
Include a legend describing the figure. It should be succinct yet provide sufficient information for
the reader to interpret the figure without reference to the text. The legend should be below the
Provide each axis with a brief but informative title (including units of measurement).
Don't include figures that are not referred to in the text, or be tempted to 'dress up' your report by
presenting data in the form of figures that could easily be replaced by a sentence or two of text.
Don't fill the entire A4 page with the graph leaving little room for axis numeration, axis titles and
the caption. The entire figure should lie within reasonable margins (say 3 centimetre margin on
the left side, 2 centimetre margins on the top, bottom and right side of the page).
Don't extend the axes very far beyond the range of the data. For example, if the data range
between 0 and 78, the axis should extend no further than a value of 80.
Don't use colour, unless absolutely necessary. It is expensive, and the costs are usually passed on
to the author. Colour in figures may look good in an assignment or thesis, but it means redrawing
in preparation for publication.
Adapted with permission from a text developed by the Applied Ecology Research Group at the
University of Canberra Australia, and prepared with the aid of 'How to Write and Publish a
Scientific Paper' by Robert Day (ISI Press, Philadelphia, 1979).
This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication and has been
reformatted to become this practical guide.