Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Scientific Writing as an Art and as a Science

Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Scientific Writing as an Art and as a Science

Article excerpt

By "scientific writing" I refer here to the writing scientists do in reporting their research outcomes or "results" to peers-- especially scientific papers, which biologist Michael J. Katz has called "the scaffolding of science" [1]. The goal of scientific writing, then, is to communicate to one's peers an accurate and plain reconstruction of one's work. Katz asserts that scientific writing must be crystal clear: "Each sentence must convey a definite idea, and it must have an unequivocal interpretation: there can be no mystery, no vagary, and no intimations of unwritten meanings or of arcane knowledge" [1]. Some might say that the complexity of science itself makes scientific writing necessarily difficult to read. Nevertheless, complex scientific information and concepts certainly can be expressed in ways that facilitate rather than impede readers' understanding. For scientific writing to permit the close and independent scrutiny required by the scientific community, it must be both clearly written and easil y read. Successful scientific writing, therefore, is centered on the reader. To this end, it helps to look at scientific writing as both a product and a process--the production of highly structured documents through a systematized process. Such a framework reveals that at its best and most readable, scientific writing can be usefully viewed as both a science and an art.

Scientific Writing as a Science

A decade ago, George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan published an article in American Scientist titled "The Science of Scientific Writing" [2]. Parenthetically, their collaboration was striking in that Gopen held a Ph.D. in English and a J.D., both from Harvard, and directed the writing program at Duke, while Swan had earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at M.I.T. and taught scientific writing at Princeton. The authors used the word "science" to indicate two things: first, that there are systematic approaches that can be used to check the clarity of scientific writing, and second, that the techniques they suggest for producing clear scientific prose are supported not only by rhetorical theory but also by scientific research in linguistics and cognitive psychology. Unlike Katz, quoted earlier as asserting that every sentence "must have an unequivocal interpretation," Gopen and Swan begin with a radically different and more realistic premise: "We cannot succeed in making even a single sentence mean one and only one thing ; we can only increase the odds that a large majority of readers will tend to interpret our discourse according to our intentions" [2]. Thus, they offer a methodology for producing clear scientific writing that is based on certain key reader expectations of how scientific information should be presented; the goal is to maximize the chances that the intended meanings will indeed be derived. The set of principles they demonstrate helps writers clarify content without oversimplifying. Among Gopen and Swan's key considerations are the following: subject-verb separation, stress position, gaps in logic, and locus of action. Let us take at least an abridged look at a few of their examples within those four areas.

Consider how readers' expectations of content order are violated by subject-verb separation (italicized) in the following sentence: A. "The smallest of the URF's (URFA6L), a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the [NH.sub.2]-terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene" [2].

Note the great distance between the grammatical subject of the sentence, "the smallest," and its verb, "has been identified." This kind of subject-verb distance delays the reader's recognition of what relative value any intervening content has. What are the author's intentions regarding relative emphasis of content? If the content between subject and verb here is indeed significant, the sentence might be restructured as follows:

B. …

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