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Say What You Mean

The importance of clarity in scientific writing

· Writing tips

Accuracy is very important in scientific papers. A misunderstanding in a medical research report, for example, could be disastrous for patients. Although discrepancies are not always life-threatening, they should be avoided when communicating your research findings. In this blog post, I describe some common errors in research papers and explain how to avoid them.

Compare correctly

In almost every experimental setting, a test variable is compared with a control to determine its effect on a particular outcome. But comparisons are not always made correctly in research manuscripts. Here are some things to look out for when comparing things in your research paper:

  • Compare like with like. This means you should only compare two things that are similar in some way. Take a look at the following sentence, which crops up time and time again in research papers:

Our results are similar to previous studies. (Incorrect)

 

We all know what the author wants to say – that their results are similar to findings from previous studies. But this sentence is comparing the results of one study to previous studies as a whole.

 

 Our results are similar to those of previous studies. (Correct)

  • Be careful with the phrase ‘compare to’. This is used to suggest that two things are alike or to make an analogy between them. In a scientific paper, you probably want to point out the similarities and differences between two things, in which case, you should use ‘compare with’. Take a look at the following sentence:

Female surgeons were less satisfied with their careers compared to male surgeons. (Incorrect)

 

Female surgeons were less satisfied with their careers compared with male surgeons. (Correct)

 

Here, you want to suggest a difference in career satisfaction between male and female surgeons so ‘compare with’ is correct.

How many?

Avoid using vague expressions like very few, most, higher, and lower when reporting your results:

The mortality rate was significantly higher in the control group than the treatment group. (Vague)

Instead, give your reader the specific values. This is particularly important if these data are not provided in a table or figure. And provide the P value. This will tell your reader that the difference is significant without you having to say it:

The mortality rate was higher in the control group (62%) than the treatment group (23%) (P = 0.01). (Informative)

Be precise

‘These’ and ‘this’ can be vague. Make sure it is clear what these pronouns refer to. Take a look at this example:

The cytoskeleton consists of microtubules, actin filaments, and intermediate filaments. In neurons, these are called neurofilaments.

Here, it is not clear whether ‘these’ refers to all or just one component of the cytoskeleton. In fact, neurofilaments are intermediate filaments and do not contain microtubules or actin. To be perfectly clear, the sentence should read:

The cytoskeleton consists of microtubules, actin filaments, and intermediate filaments. In neurons, intermediate filaments are called neurofilaments.

Use the right words

Words are often misused in scientific papers, which can cause confusion or even change the meaning of your sentence. Here are some common culprits:

  • ‘Imply’ instead of ‘infer’. Do you really want to say that your results imply something in your paper? This means the reader is free to draw their own conclusion based on the information you have provided. You may want to use infer, which means you have given the necessary evidence to draw a specific conclusion.

 

  • ‘Affect’ and ‘effect’ are often mixed up, but the distinction is very clear. Affect is a verb (to impact or change something) and effect is a noun (the result of a change). So:

 

The drug affected the patient’s heart rate.

 

The drug had an effect on the patient’s heart rate.

 

  • ‘Due to’ and ‘because of’ are not interchangeable phrases. ‘Due to’ modifies nouns and should not be used as an adverb. ‘Because of’ modifies verbs.

 

Try substituting ‘due to’ with ‘caused by’. if your sentence still makes sense, then ‘due to’ is probably correct. For example:

 

Liver regeneration was delayed in Nrf2 knockout mice due to insulin resistance. (Incorrect)

 

Liver regeneration was delayed in Nrf2 knockout mice because of insulin resistance. (Correct)

 

The delay in liver regeneration in Nrf2 knockout mice was due to insulin resistance. (Correct)

 

  • Be careful when referring to your study population. Do not use the term ‘patients’ if no illness is involved – refer to healthy individuals as ‘participants’ to avoid confusion. And do not use the term ‘subjects’; this is considered to be demeaning. There is also an increasing preference to not define people by their disease: ‘patient with cancer’ is preferable to ‘cancer patient’. Check the author guidelines of your chosen journal for specific guidelines on naming your study population.

Keep it clear

Discrepancies should be avoided wherever possible in scientific writing. Although your meaning is probably obvious to you, it may not be clear to your reader, particularly one who is not familiar with your research field. Looking out for the common mistakes outlined in this article will help you to say what you mean in your next research paper.

Make your point crystal clear

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a biomedical journal.

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