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Write: Scientific Writing

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Scientific writing
Writing is an important part of science because it is used to document and share ideas, activities and findings. Good scientific writing is

  • Clear  - it avoids unnecessary detail.
  • Simple - it uses direct language and avoids vague or complicated sentences. Technical terms and jargon are used only when it is necessary for accuracy;
  • Impartial - it avoids making assumptions (eg Everyone knows that ...) and unproven statements (eg It can never be proved that ...).
  • Structured logically - ideas and processes are expressed in a logical order.
  • Accurate - it avoids vague and ambiguous language.
  • Objective - statements and ideas are supported by appropriate evidence that demonstrates how conclusions have been drawn as well as acknowledging the work of others.

Objective & subjective language
Use objective rather than subjective language. Objective language is impartial and states a fact or a process eg the car travelled at 38 kilometres per hour.  Subjective language is open to question or interpretation because it implies personal thought or belief eg the contents of the test tube turned a beautiful blue colour. The subjective statement can’t be measured or accurately explained. Be careful to use language that is concrete and specific rather than vague and personal.

Active VS Passive writing
Use active rather than passive writing. Active writing is clearer, more direct and easier to read. Passive writing may be useful when you want to be formal and impersonal. Scientific writers try to avoid personal expressions or statements to make their writing seem more impartial and formal, but it can lead to clumsy and overcomplicated sentences. Below are examples:

Active: The research officer designed the experiment.
Passive: The experiment was designed by the research officer.

Active: We agreed that the experiment should be …
Passive: It was agreed that the experiment should be …

Active: Someone had broken the water pipe in three places.
Passive: The water pipe was broken in three places.

Past tense
Scientific writing frequently uses the past tense, particularly when the main focus is to describe experiments or observations that have already taken place eg

  • The data was analysed.
  • The temperature was recorded.

You shouldn’t use the past tense for everything because the use of different tenses helps to clarify between what happened (past tense), what you conclude (present tense) and what will be an issue for the future (future tense). An example is:

The experiment was carried out in a sterile environment (past tense). It is particularly important to avoid contamination (present tense). It will be necessary to ensure that the same conditions are replicated in future experiments (future tense).

Scientific writing requires as much care and thought as the experiments that will be written about.  


[The text above is based on that provided by the University of Leicester]