The Basic Characteristics of Scientific English

The words ‘Scientific English’ often conjure up convoluted, impenetrable sentences in the mind’s eye. What if I told you that it should not be this way? What if I said that Scientific Language (of any kind) should actually be easy for almost anyone to read? Would you call me crazy? Before getting into Scientific English, we need to understand a bit about why it exists and what it does. So what is it? Scientific writing is writing that follows certain characteristics, allowing scientists to communicate with each other easily to spread ideas, findings, and discoveries. For this reason, scientific writing in any language needs to follow the obey the following rules:

Image result for scientific english
The irony of this cartoon is overwhelming. Some principal investigators will actually say these words to colleagues and up-and-coming scientists, such as PhD and Masters students, when they go to publish a paper. THIS IS THE WORST THING THEY COULD DO!

Characteristics of Scientific English

1) Scientific writing must be clear.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most important characteristics of scientific writing. While literature may be flowery and poetic with many complex meanings, scientific writing CANNOT follow the same principles. Why? Other scientists need to be able to follow and replicate your work. If there are any ambiguous meaning, you could end up killing people, especially in clinical studies. This is unacceptable!

2) Scientific writing must be concise.

Concise does not necessarily mean short. It means you don’t include additional, irrelevant information. If you are talking about prokaryotic bacteria, talking about cell nuclei (which only eukaryotic cells have) and cell walls (plants and some other eukaryotic cells) is beyond the cope and adds no value. This is especially true when introducing the topic.

3) Scientific writing must be accurate.

This goes back to ethics in science. DO NOT FABRICATE RESULTS. DO NOT MAKE UP INFORMATION. If someone founds out, your reputation will be ruined and all credibility will be lost. Also, if someone tries to follow your experimental method and can’t due to inaccuracies, no matter how good the rest of the writing is, instantly makes your writing a bad example of scientific writing.

4) Scientific writing must be “easy to read”.

With this, I do not mean that even a five-year-old should be able to understand your research (although if they do, even better). Scientific writing uses specific terminology for very specific things that very few people might understand. “Easy to read” means that the rest of the writing is not complex. A reader unknowledgeable about the subject should be using a dictionary or reference material to figure out terms they do not understand. They should not be trying to figure out exactly what you are referring to with a verb that is on the other side of a sentence from the subject or object because of how you wrote it. If the sentence becomes slightly hard to understand, it is a guarantee that someone will misunderstand what is written. Write sentences as simply as possible!

Additionally, write in a direct series, meaning A then B then C then D. Do not mix this up! A to B to C to D is much easier to understand than A to C through B finally D or any other combination. For example, let’s take the following example, where we are adding chemicals to a solution:

Easier to understand:
To 50 mL of hydrocholic acid, add 10 µL of ammonium sulfate. Next, stir gently while adding 0.957 mg of iron(II) oxide.

Harder to understand:
Add 0.957 mg of iron(II) oxide to 50 mL of hydrocholric acid after 10 µL of ammonium sulfate has been added.

The first example has a clear order. It cannot be misunderstood. In contrast, if someone is following the instructions step-by-step, they may not realise that the ammonium sulfate should be added before the iron(II) oxide.

5) Scientific language must be objective.

While your solution might have turned a “pretty blue colo(u)r”, not everyone might agree that the type of blue it went was pretty. As people have different opinions and different perceptions, universal language that everyone can agrees on is a must. Therefore, the kind of blue that it turned may be ‘dark’, ‘light’ or ‘cyan’, but never ‘blue’, ‘foreboding’, or ‘the perfect complement to the t-shirt that I was wearing under my lab coat’.

Summary

Too long, didn’t read? Scientific language should be clear, uncomplex and objective. If a read can misunderstand or misinterpret something, rewrite the sentence. If someone with no idea about this field has questions other than ‘what does this term mean’ or ‘can you explain the science behind this statement’, then you have failed to use scientific language.

You might be wondering by this point: but I have read scientific papers that I could not make heads or tails of. It was just way too complex. Is this scientific writing? The short answer is no. Unfortunately, many people affiliated with science never learn how to write properly. They think using complex language makes them look smarter. This works directly against their goals of simple, easy and problem-free communication in the scientific community.

Interested in learning more about Scientific English? You can read a brief post on the History and Use of Scientific English here. More posts on Scientific English are available on the English Language Materials page.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Lewis Brooks says:

    Enlightening. However, most professors reject graduate research work because not enough “complex college” words are not used. Straight forward, simple, & concise is always better.

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