Science writing is best when it is concise and precise. Good science writing is full of explicit details, devoid of vagueness, and strictly adheres to a narrative. In fact, a good scientific paper has a lot in common with a short story. Like Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.”
I find myself correcting the same problems in student writing, over and over, at all levels: freshman to graduate. I even see these problems in published papers. I’m tired of writing these corrections over and over, so I decided to write a blog post for my students (and maybe disappointed peer-reviewees). If you disagree with me or have other writing problems to vent, please comment below. Also, several of these were orginially taught to me by Kevin Padian of UC Berkeley; in particular, my opinions of ‘due to’ and ‘the nature of’ grew out of his editorial comments on my early writing. My mentor, Tony Barnosky, is the one who clued me in to limiting waffle words.
“In order to” can often be cut to “to” without losing meaning, e.g.: “We took 15 samples from the tooth in order to quantify changes in diet,” can be: “We took 15 samples from the tooth to quantify changes in diet…” I’m trying to think of an exception in order to provide a balanced view, but I can’t. (see what I did there?)
“The fact that” can often be deleted completely with no loss of meaning: “The fact that bananas are an important export has led to…” could easily be “Bananas are an important export, leading to…”
Rarely, the sentence is correctly about the fact itself, but even in those cases you can make a shorter, active sentence: “Methods have been developed to handle the fact that extinction is non-random,” is not so bad, but better would be: “Methods have been developed to handle non-random extinction.”
“Due to” makes me want to pull out all my hair. Even writing it here has caused me to let out a PRIMAL SCREEEEEEAM!!! Never, ever, should a scientist use the phrase “due to.” This frustrating construction makes a causal connection between two ideas but absolves the writer from making any explicit connection (science thrives on explicit details, remember?). Here is an example: “These sampling gaps are due to hiatuses in deposition.” Instead: “The hiatuses in deposition prevented preservation of fossils, leaving sampling gaps.” See the active verbs “prevent” and “leave”? Those clearly connect the “sampling gaps” to the “hiatuses”.
“Due to the fact that” OMG let’s just take two of the weakest constructions in the English language and put them together, so we can make Prof. Davis have a coronary! Then he can’t correct any more of our papers and we’ll get A’s for sure!!!!
“Because of” isn’t so bad on the surface, but it does the same thing as ‘due to’ only without sounding uneducated. For example: “These sampling gaps are because of hiatuses in deposition.” The same solution applies: use active verbs and make explicit your causal connections.
“Because of the fact that.” Don’t even go there. I’m mad at you for even bringing this up.
“The nature of,” is fine if you’re writing in the context of Taoism or something similar: “Salmon struggle up cascades to spawn because it is the nature of salmon to swim upstream….” Invoking “nature” doesn’t cut it if you’re doing science though: science is the investigation of NATURE. If you explain an observation because it “is the nature of'” that organism, you’re not doing your job. (Note: this is a problem almost exclusively of college freshmen; we do at least train this one out of our scientists.)
The naked “This”. The most common writing problem I find in the work of entering graduate students is a need to link sentences by beginning them with a naked “This.” For example: “This would be alleviated by additional data.” What “this?” If you don’t label your pronoun, I could point it at any noun in the previous sentence (or even several sentences). Always put a qualifier with the “this”: “This difficulty would be alleviated by additional data.”
Number/Amount If you can count individual components of a group, use “number”. If you cannot count individual components, use “amount”. For example: “Today, I collected a large number of fossils. I have also bagged a large amount of matrix. When I return to the lab, I hope to find a number of microfossils within the matrix. If so, I will grind them up to measure the amount of oxygen-18 in them.” Again, to clarify, INCORRECT: “I have read a large amount of blog posts about science!” CORRECT: “I have read a large number of blog posts about science, and I like the ones with good grammar the best.”
“Based off of” seems to be a problem of the newest generation of scientists, because I never saw it until I began teaching at Oregon in 2007. I have a feeling I’m fighting a losing battle here, but until I die I’ll insist that things reside UPON their bases, so one should speak and write of ideas “based on” other ideas. If you’re reading this because you have to write for me (assignments, comprehensive exam proposals, scientific papers), DO NOT USE “based off of”.
“Since” instead of “because” is a more nuanced problem. These two words appear to mean the same thing, but “since” has a before/after connotation, and “because” has a cause-and-effect connotation. If you use “since” when you mean “because” you leave yourself open to a charge of post hoc ergo propter hoc: after the fact, therefore because of the fact. If you want to connect two ideas in a cause-and-effect way, just do it, don’t use “since” and imply that one just happens before the other. An example: “We can tell Tyrannosaurus rex was a carnivore since it had sharp teeth.” Instead, “We can tell Tyrannosaurus rex was a carnivore because it had sharp teeth.” Even better: “The sharp teeth of T. rex would easily cut through the flesh of animals, indicating a carnivorous diet.”
“As” instead of “because”. This problem is similar to the previous one: “as” is for comparisons or introducing examples, as in “‘As’ is not as strong a connector of cause-and-effect as ‘because’.” Heh. Bad example: “We recommend a re-evaluation of the genus-level diagnoses as the specimens possess characters of both genera.” Good fix: “We recommend a re-evaluation of the genus-level diagnoses because the specimens possess characters of both genera.”
Italicizing scientific names As in my since/because example, all genus and species names should be in italics. Higher taxonomic groupings (e.g. Theropoda) should not be in italics. Only genera and species.
Naked specific epithets Along the lines of the previous point: species have binomial names; that means they must have a genus name and a specific epithet. The species name consists of both parts. You can never write ‘rex’. You must always write ‘T. rex’ or ‘Tyrannosaurus rex’. Also, the genus name should always be capitalized and the specific epithet should not.
Passive voice [by zombies]. Do not use the passive voice. Science is done by people, and writing as though you are not there is dishonest (and makes for extremely boring papers). Science writing in the mid-20th-century got into a head game with false objectivity, and several generations of scientists were trained to write passively, hiding their actions like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain of passive voice. The time has come for the men and women behind the curtains to show themselves and take responsibility for their work. If you can add the phrase ‘by zombies’ after the verb, you have written in the passive voice and must own up to your work, lest the zombies take credit.
Too many waffle words. This problem might possibly be my biggest writing hang-up, which could suggest why I likely may have placed it seemingly at the end. The biggest problem science newbs have with their writing is a lack of confidence, expressed as a series of what I call ‘waffle words’ in their conclusions. If you aren’t 100% confident of your conclusion, good. It means you’re doing science well. However, do not hang yourself by including a string of waffle words to indicate your uncertainty. Pick one, place it well in the sentence, and leave it at that. If you’re wrong, oh, well. You did, after all, write that the data only ‘suggests a strong causal connection between bananas and the price of shoe leather’. It’s not like you claimed the connection was written in stone. If you don’t stand up for your work, no one else will. Carry the fight to your opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes.