Scientific conferences provide unique career-building opportunities. Meeting with our peers to discuss our research and hear about the latest breakthroughs in our field can provide valuable inspiration. But what can experts from outside the realms of science teach us?
In June 2018, editors, translators, and interpreters from all over Europe met in Den Bosch for the SENSE 2018 conference. Many presentations discussed the challenges of academic writing from an editor’s point of view. But it occurred to me that the discussion was also useful for scientists trying to publish their research.
In this post, I outline some of the core messages from this conference of language professionals and explain how these insights can help you to communicate your findings effectively and get your research published faster.
Bad writing habits are inherited
Charles Frink discussed how scientists write to impress their peers rather than communicate their findings to a multidisciplinary audience. He explained that readers want an article that is clear and easy to read. But bad writing habits can get in the way.
Often, Charles says, these bad writing habits are inherited from your supervisors. To stop this from happening, you should concentrate on the overall structure of your paper before thinking about the details.
‘Explain the problem, hypothesis, study design, results, and discussion clearly and explicitly,’ Charles said, ‘then your reader can focus on the actual scientific content of your manuscript instead of struggling to find the point.’ This excellent advice will enhance the clarity of your research manuscript. If you want to know more about how to follow Charles’ advice and structure your manuscript for maximum impact, read my previous blog post.
Is bad English taking over?
The information presented in scientific publications must be accurate. In her talk, Valerie Matarese discussed a worrying trend: the propagation of bad English in biomedical papers. The reason, Valerie explained, is that peer reviewers accept poorly written articles for publication. She illustrated the problem with common examples of inaccurate English that have now become standard in scientific publications.
‘Cancer genes’ is often used to describe genes that, when mutated, cause cancer. However, the correct term is ‘cancer-related genes’ because gene mutations cause cancer, not the genes themselves. Another common example of inaccurate English in scientific publications is using ‘risk’ instead of ‘harm’. For example, it is not correct to talk about the potential risk of radiation exposure when a patient receives a CT scan. The exposure is certain. Instead, we should talk about the potential harm.
Valerie told us that she always corrects these non-standard uses of English when editing manuscripts, but is aware that her clients (and their reviewers) may consider them acceptable. She asked us whether we, as language editors, should accept these non-standard uses of English. We said no: the repeated publication of an incorrect phrase does not make it correct. As scientists, we have a duty to present our results accurately and we cannot do this if we use inaccurate expressions.
If you want to make sure that the words and phrases you use in your research paper are accurate, a language editor with specialist knowledge in your field can help. Be sure to consider your editor’s justifications when they change expressions in your paper that seem familiar to you – they may help you to realise mistakes you did not know you were making.
Science needs language editors
Founding SENSE member Jackie Senior told us why international science needs English editors. ‘Science is now big business,’ explained Jackie ‘and publications written in English are the measure of a scientist’s career. This puts excellent scientists whose native language is not English at a disadvantage.’
So what can English editors do for non-native English-speaking scientists? The answer is – a lot! Jackie explained the following ways a language editor can improve a research paper:
- Clarify the author’s thoughts and make them accessible to international readers
- Improve readability
- Query gaps in content so the message is understood
- Ensure the article meets the word count
- Match the manuscript to the journal style
- Standardize the terminology
Academic journals are trying to help non-native English-speaking scientists by offering guidelines and writing advice and by pointing them to commercial editing services. However, Jackie argued that an editor with relevant subject expertise and direct contact with the author can do a lot more for scientific authors than an unknown third party. So if you are looking for help with your research paper and your institution does not have an in-house editor, you may be better off seeking out an independent freelancer with expertise in your subject area. Check out the SENSE website for a list of available freelancers with expertise tailored to your needs.
Communicate with non-experts
Maria Sherwood-Smith talked about the increasing demand for researchers to communicate their findings to non-experts. For example, the review panel for your grant application may include non-specialists. In addition, some funding bodies now ask you to explain how you will communicate your findings.
To meet these demands, you may decide to start writing a blog or newsletter about your work. Maria emphasized the role of the language editor in helping researchers to communicate their complicated results effectively to non-expert audiences in various contexts.
Specialized teaching programmes can help young researchers present their research effectively. Maria teaches a ‘Presenting your research’ course at the Institute of Social and Behavioural Sciences at Leiden University. In this course, she focuses on the core message of the research.
Students learn how to make their core message easier to understand by removing all redundant words and by using language that is easier to understand (for example, ‘brain region’ instead of ‘parietal cortex’). The end result is a short paragraph that clearly communicates what the research is about in language that everyone can understand.
Maria teaches her students to refer back to their core message repeatedly throughout their presentation. This ensures that the main message is delivered. Why not try the same when you next present your work?
Help is at hand
So there you have it – helpful insights into academic publishing from language professionals. If you would like to hear more about the topics discussed in Den Bosch, check out the SENSE blog, where participants are sharing their own impressions of the conference.
Problems are solved when experts get together
Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copyediting and medical editing. She edits scientific research papers and teaches courses on scientific writing.