Scientific English – What could be simpler?

Scientists and clinicians offer many different reasons for joining their chosen fields. However, I have never, in my 35 years as a scientist in academia and industry, met one who entered their field because they loved writing. Yet, when they make meaningful observations and develop important theories, they want to communicate them to their peers. In fact, the importance of these observations and theories, in the eyes of their peers, is often important to their development as professionals. Academic growth and funding decisions can depend on the ability of a scientist or clinician to convey both the substance of their work and its importance to the field. Clear, concise, easy-to-read scientific writing, which is the goal of all of the people involved in the process, often seems difficult for writers to produce, even when writing in their native language.

A large and growing number of scientists and clinicians, however, are not writing in their native languages. Journals published outside the US and UK are now also reviewing and publishing manuscripts written entirely in English. For example, if you search the publication list at the U.S. National Library of Medicine1, you will find more than 1100 periodicals published in Japan that list English as a language of publication. Even after doing a quick correction to remove the publications that offer English versions of their Japanese content, you will find hundreds of Japanese publications published in English. This is just one example of the growing body of scientific and medical knowledge that is being written, reviewed, and published in English by non-native speakers.

As a result of the widespread use of English, variants of scientific English have evolved in different regions of the world. These regional forms of English are sometimes difficult for readers outside the region to understand. American English, represented by Science or The New England Journal of Medicine and British English, represented by Nature and The Lancet, are perhaps the two most widely recognized variants. However, as an editor of scientific manuscripts who works with manuscripts from Japan and China, I have come to recognize that there are more than just these two regional versions of English. Although these variants have helped workers in each region to overcome language barriers, reviewers in these geographical areas tend to be insistent about their own variant of English. They occasionally reject a manuscript that has been written or edited by a native English speaker on the grounds that the English is not good enough. So we all face the challenge of writing clear, concise, easy-to read manuscripts that will get our work published quickly, in English. Are there any new approaches that could help?

A recent innovation is called Globish2. It was developed by Jean-Paul Nerriere to help the business community conduct business in English. Globish has reduced the English language to approximately 1600 common words, and simple sentence structures. It seems like an interesting way to introduce someone to the English language, and promises to allow business to be conducted entirely in Globish. I entered the first two paragraphs of this post into the Globish Text Scanner3 and then edited them to remove incompatible words. Despite my efforts, the highlighted words remain incompatible with Globish. In my opinion, attempts to create a common English by drastic reduction in the scope and complexity of the language are not compatible with scientific writing meant for an audience of experts.

Where does that leave us? Is there a simple way to ensure that your manuscript is clear, concise and easy-to-read?

Fortunately, resources and guidelines are available from several sources. The US National Institutes of Health supports the US Government’s Plain Language initiative, which represents a commitment to communicate with the public, other governmental agencies, and each other in plain language4. Since much of that communication occurs over the internet, this work is tightly linked with advice for creating clear, concise, easy-to-read websites. So, although using their information may results in manuscripts that seem to be written in English that is too informal, the guidelines can teach us useful lessons. Three places you can go are the Center for Plain Language5, which is based in the US; the Plain English Campaign6, which is based in the UK; and the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University7.

The Center for Plain Language has some a 5-step checklist8 that I have modified to fit the scientific author:

  1. Identify the target audience and select the appropriate journal
    1. Write directly for the intended audience in a journal they read
    2. Include only content that is needed – omit items that are interesting, but not needed.
  2. Structure the content properly
    1. Follow the journal’s instructions for authors
    2. Unless otherwise instructed by the journal, follow the IMRDC format
      1. Say why you did the work in the Introduction
      2. Say how you did the work in the Methods.
  • Reveal the data in the Results section.
  1. Draw conclusions from the data, describe their relevance to the field, and comment on the limitations of the study in the Discussion.
  2. Provide a short set of conclusions and suggest the next steps in the Conclusion.
  1. Write each section in plain language
    1. Use simple words and simple sentence structures, favoring the use of active voice – see Purdue’s Online Writing Lab9.
  2. Design the tables and figures to support the conclusions of the manuscript
    1. Make sure to describe (but not repeat) each of them in the text.
  3. Test the design and content

The last point is an important one. It is wise to share your results with an experienced person who can give you advice on the content, the structure, and the suitability of your choice of journal. In addition to your colleagues, there are a number of editing and publication experts that can help you prepare the manuscript before you submit it. We can also help you after it has been reviewed.

 

1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/nlmcatalog

2 http://www.globish.com

3http://www.globish.com/?page=globish_scanner

4http://www.nih.gov/clearcommunication/plainlanguage/index.htm

5http://centerforplainlanguage.org

6http://www.plainenglish.co.uk

7https://owl.english.purdue.edu

8http://centerforplainlanguage.org/5-steps-to-plain-language/

9https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/01/

 

6http://www.plainenglish.co.uk

7https://owl.english.purdue.edu

8http://centerforplainlanguage.org/5-steps-to-plain-language/

9https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/01/

  1. Say why you did the work in the Introduction
  2. Say how you did the work in the Methods.
  3. Reveal the data in the Results section.
  4. Draw conclusions from the data, describe their relevance to the field, and comment on the limitations of the study in the Discussion.
  5. Provide a short set of conclusions and suggest the next steps in the Conclusion.
  • Write each section in plain language
    1. Use simple words and simple sentence structures, favoring the use of active voice – see Purdue’s Online Writing Lab9.
  • Design the tables and figures to support the conclusions of the manuscript
    1. Make sure to describe (but not repeat) each of them in the text.
  • Test the design and content

The last point is an important one. It is wise to share your results with an experienced person who can give you advice on the content, the structure, and the suitability of your choice of journal. In addition to your colleagues, there are a number of editing and publication experts that can help you prepare the manuscript before you submit it. We can also help you after it has been reviewed.

1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/nlmcatalog

2 http://www.globish.com

3http://www.globish.com/?page=globish_scanner

4http://www.nih.gov/clearcommunication/plainlanguage/index.htm

5http://centerforplainlanguage.org

6http://www.plainenglish.co.uk

7https://owl.english.purdue.edu

8http://centerforplainlanguage.org/5-steps-to-plain-language/

9https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/01/

 holler400Learn more about Dr. Holler

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1 Comment
  1. David 3 years ago

    The role of subject-specific technical terminology is interesting to consider in this context. To someone educated in the subject, technical terms promote clear and concise communication (as long as they are used correctly). They can summarise often complex ideas in a single word. On the other hand, to someone not educated in the subject they are “jargon” and tend to have the opposite effect, obscuring meaning and making communication difficult. In the end I suppose it all comes down to that important first step: know who you are writing for (subject experts, a broader scientific audience, or the general public) and write appropriately for that audience.

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