Introduction to Scientific Writing
What do you think of when you read the word “scientist”? Probably someone working in a lab, wearing a white coat, staring into a microscope, or swirling a mysterious liquid in a flask. You may not come up with this precise cliché, but you almost certainly think of someone running an experiment. You probably don’t think about scientific writing.
While scientists spend plenty of time in the laboratory, many spend more time writing. Scientific writing is the glue that holds together scientific research. It is the difference between aimless tinkering and true science.
This article explains why scientific writing is important and 5 purposes of the scientific writing process. Let’s start with the basics: what is scientific writing?
Definition of Scientific Writing
Scientific writing is a form of writing that captures and shares scientific knowledge. Scientific writing is…
- about scientific research
- written by professional scientists
- published in academic journals
- written for other scientists
The most common types of scientific writing are research articles, review articles, and theses. Together, these are sometimes referred to as the “scientific literature.” (Note: review articles are summaries of a field and do not include original research. I will not be talking about review articles here, but most of what follows will apply to them.)
Academic scientific writing is separate from science writing. Science writing is any written or scripted content on a scientific topic. Science writing includes content for a general audience and for specialists. Academic scientific writing can be thought of as a specialized type of science writing.
Obviously “science writing” and “scientific writing” are easily confused. Personally, I hate that these terms are so similar, but I don’t get a choice in the matter. If you get mixed up, just remember the longer word (scientific) is the fancier type of writing.
Scientific writing may seem strange. It is loaded with jargon, follows a strict structure, and is packed with references. What’s the deal? Why is scientific writing important? Let’s see.
Why is Scientific Writing Important?
Scientific writing is important because it is the primary channel for communicating scientific knowledge. We all know scientists run experiments and take sophisticated measurements, but the results of that work must be documented, validated, and shared for it to be valuable to others. Scientific writing captures that research in a usable format.
The 5 purposes of the scientific writing process are:
- Discrete units of work
- Quality control
- A solid record
Let’s look at each of these in more detail…
5 Purposes of Scientific Writing
Discrete Units of Work
Learning in the real world is scattered around. Ideas come from everywhere and blend with other ideas. Thoughts are squishy and flexible, bending to fit into any shape you want.
Scientific progress requires more rigor than squishy ideas. While scientific ideas constantly evolve, they must be processed into distinct units. Research articles can be thought of as the atomic unit of science. Every research article tells variations of the same story in precise detail:
I did (X).
That means (Z).
X, Y, and Z all need to be clearly defined. Organizing research into these XYZ units turns the raw clay of research into individual bricks, which are easier to understand and work with. This is part of the reason research papers have such a strict structure – standardization. These standardized units make it easier for scientists to digest results and build on them in future work (more on that later).
Quality Control (What is Peer-Review?)
But how do we know if this research is credible? What prevents lazy or scummy scientists from writing low-quality or misleading articles? “Peer review” is a specialized form of editing used in scientific journals to stop flawed research from being published.
Here is a summary of the process:
- When a paper is submitted to a journal, the editors will first check that the article is a good fit; the content is on-topic, the research is novel, and it meets any formatting requirements.
- If the paper passes this first test, the editors will select experts who will review the article. These are not just random scientists but specialists with knowledge relevant to the specific topic. The authors don’t know the identity of the reviewers.
- The experts then review the article. They aren’t doing a simple edit – they are focusing on the science. They identify problems, question experimental methods, and point out holes in reasoning.
- Authors have an opportunity to address comments from reviewers, either by changing the article or by offering explanations and justifications. The authors may even need to conduct new experiments. Reviewer comments must be addressed before the paper is accepted by the journal.
The peer-review process essentially runs on the honor system – reviewers perform this review entirely for free! Why is it effective? Reviewers are typically passionate about and protective of their field. Poor research slows progress and lowers the overall prestige of the subject. Editors are also incentivized to raise the reputation of their journal, which means being selective of the articles they publish.
Peer-review does have limitations, but it is the primary quality check that keeps flawed research from being circulated.
A Consistent Record
Science can be thought of as a massive tower. It is built brick-by-brick, each brick sitting on top of the bricks below. Bricks are more secure when they are resting on many other strong bricks. Strength and stability come from the network of connections.
If researchers had to repeat the work done by their predecessors, there would be no scientific progress. Instead, scientists build their work on the foundation of other researchers. This is done through citations to previous work. References establish a relationship between a single article and all the work before or after.
Science needs a consistent record. Let’s go back to our XYZ story from above. If X is changed slightly, that could impact Y. If Y is altered, Z could shift dramatically. When peer review is done, authors can’t change them after the fact. That would be like moving a brick once it is already cemented in place.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of this approach to organizing knowledge is jargon. Journal articles are aimed at other scientists who are already interested in the topic. The introduction will offer some background, but this is usually extremely limited in scope. Papers use language understood by subject matter experts, but it can become nearly impossible to read for outsiders. You often have to read multiple other articles to understand a single paper.
For academic research to be impactful, it needs to be accessible. Let’s go back to the analogy of building a tower. Imagine you were tasked to add to the tower, but you were blindfolded. You would be lucky to get a single brick in place. This is what it would be like to contribute to a scientific field without knowledge of what others have done.
Academic scientific writing is published in academic journals. Each journal is dedicated to a topic area, though many journals overlap in their subject matter. For example, “The Journal of Organic Chemistry” is only about organic chemistry, but there are many other journals about organic chemistry. Journals were published books in the pre-internet era, but now they are available online. Anyone inside or outside academia can access these journals, so the research is public.
There is debate these days about the distribution of academic scientific writing. Many scholarly journals, including the majority of the most prestigious journals, are behind paywalls. Critics of the system say these costs exclude the public from the scientific process. Open-access journals without paywalls are available, but the quality is uneven. This is a big topic, so look into it more if you are interested.
Credit and Funding – What are Granting Agencies?
As with so much in life, money plays an essential role. How do researchers make money? Private companies do publish some research, but most papers are written by academics in universities or research institutes.
Scientists are paid through research grants. They apply for funding from institutions called “granting agencies,” which are funded by the government. Granting agencies are mostly tied to a specific country. Some of the well-known granting agencies include:
National Science Foundation (NSF) – United States
National Institute of Health (NIH) – United States
European Research Council (ERC) – European Union
United Kingdom Research and Innovation – United Kingdom
National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) – Canada
How do these agencies decide who gets the money? There are many factors, but research publication is a critical one. How many publications do you have? How impactful is your work? Research articles are proof that you can run a lab effectively.
Awards are also tied to publications. Everyone knows the Nobel Prize, but there are plenty of other awards that offer varying levels of prestige and money. These awards are typically given to the lead researcher behind a specific discovery or innovation. Scientific publications are a definitive record of who did what first.
Conclusion – Importance of Scientific Writing
It may not be glamorous, but scientific writing is a critical ingredient in the whole scientific process. Without peer-reviewed academic journals, it would be nearly impossible to organize knowledge in a manner that is accessible or understandable. There are flaws in the system, but it is the best we have for now. Love it or hate it, there is no question that scientific writing is critically important.