tables in scientific writingMore Tables Less Verbosity

By Dr. Michael, Chemistry Editor

 

Reviewers and general readers all appreciate scientific writing that communicates the purpose, while being as brief and cogent as possible. Judicious use of tables in the introduction and results sections can help in this regard.

Often, scientists rather extensively discuss prior research in the introduction. A common paragraph may be:

 

Many scientists have applied polymeric systems toward ion quantitation in environmental matrices. Chu et al.1 used DNA aptamers to quantitate lead(II) ions in the Mississippi Delta, Zho and Jordan2 used a pH-responsive pNIPAAm derivative to detect chromium(VI) ions in industrial effluents, Roberts et al.3–5 used glycodendrimers to capture copper(II) and zinc(II) ions from Cape Fear River sediments, and Gordon6,7 used polymer-supported crown ethers to quantitate cyanide ions in Brazilian mining waste. Our system has the advantages of…

 

As written, this detracts from your message. You want to explain what other researchers have done, yet allow readers to skip over the details and jump more quickly into your research findings, if desired. Consider presenting your literature findings this way:

 

Many scientists have applied polymeric systems toward ion analysis or capture in environmental matrices (Table 1). Our system has the advantages of…

 

Table 1. Selected Literature Examples of Ion Analysis or Capture in Environmental Matrices

Polymeric system

Purpose

Reference

DNA aptamers

Lead(II) ions; Mississippi Delta

Chu et al.1

pH-responsive pNIPAAm derivative

Chromium(VI) ions; industrial effluents

Zho and Jordan2

Glycodendrimers

Copper(II) and zinc(II) ions; Cape Fear River sediments

Roberts et al.3–5

Polymer-supported crown ethers

Cyanide ions; Brazilian mining waste

Gordon6,7

 

This may be a bit less compact than densely packed text, but it serves two purposes:

  • Readers can skip over the literature details and get on with your new findings, if so desired.
  • The literature findings are easier to read, interpret, and use at a glance.

 

Judicious use of tables can also help readers understand and interpret the results of your manuscript. Consider this paragraph:

 

We used IR spectroscopy to identify pertinent functional groups. The broad peak at 3400 cm–1 corresponds to the alcohol group; the broad peak at 2700 cm–1 and the peak at 1750 cm–1 correspond to the carboxylic acid O–H and C=O groups, respectively; the peak at 2230 cm–1 corresponds to the nitrile group; and the peaks at 1550–1690 cm–1 indicate the presence of aliphatic moieties. SEM analysis indicates that our nanoparticles have a length and lateral diameter of 462 ± 6.60 and 7.98 ± 4.33 nm, respectively. We confirmed the presence of tryptophan by its UV absorption at 280 nm.

 

As written, this is hard to read and interpret at a glance. For example, suppose you’re only interested in the IR data for the cyanide group. Unless you’re a good speed-reader, you have to dig through the paragraph to find this data. Consider presenting your results this way:

Table 1 summarizes our IR spectroscopy, SEM imaging, and UV spectroscopy findings.

Table 1. IR, SEM, and UV Data Summary

Analysis method

Observations, data, and interpretations

IR spectroscopy

3400 cm–1, broad: hydroxyl

2700 cm–1, broad: carboxylic acid O–H

1750 cm–1: carboxylic acid C=O

2230 cm–1: nitrile

1550–1690–1: aliphatic moieties

SEM imaging

Length: 462 ± 6.60 nm

Diameter: 7.98 ± 4.33 nm

UV spectroscopy

Peak at 280 nm: tryptophan

 

This may be a bit less compact than densely packed text, but it serves two purposes:

  • Readers can easily skip over details that are of lesser interest to them.
  • The results are easier to read, interpret, and use at a glance.

In summary, dense paragraphs in scientific writing can inhibit at-a-glance clarity and understanding. You’re most likely to have your research manuscripts and grant applications accepted if your reviewers immediately understand all of the following, with minimal effort on their part:

  • Need for your research
  • What other researchers have done (unbiased)
  • What you have done (unbiased), and how you did it
  • Open questions and future directions

 

chemistry editorLearn more about Dr. Michael, Chemistry Editor

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