Guidelines on style for scientific writing

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  • Use a US-English spelling checker.

  • Make sure you use words according to the precise meaning understood by the average person.

  • Ideally, you would check whether every word could be deleted or replaced by a better one.

  • Aim for economy: because instead of based on the fact that; for or to instead of for the purpose of. Similarly: there were several subjects who completed…; it is suggested that a relationship may exist…; both alike; one and the same; a total of n subjects; four different groups; absolutely essential; found previously; small in size; in close proximity; very close to zero; much better; period of time; summarize briefly; the reason is because; also included; in order to; except for.

  • Aim for precision: patient or gymnast instead of subject; concentration or frequency instead of level.

  • Don’t generalize unnecessarily. For example, don’t say some if you know of only one instance.

  • This on its own is known as an ambiguous antecedent. Use instead this test or this problem or whatever.

  • Avoid hype (hyperbole). Words like very and extremely are usually unnecessary.

  • Affect or effect? Temperature affected the outcome. There was an effect on outcome. Try this to help you remember which is which: Affluence affects attitudes. The effects of effluent are everywhere. Note also: the new regime effected (i.e. produced) substantial changes. Affect can also mean emotion.

  • Note these singular and plural forms: criterion, criteria; datum, data; medium, media; phenomenon, phenomena.

  • Don’t use however or its synonyms twice in one paragraph, because changing the direction of an argument twice in one paragraph may annoy readers.

  • Don’t use however more than once every 10 paragraphs. Try a thesaurus for synonyms.

  • Keep jargon (technical terms) to a minimum. Explain any that you have to use.

  • Avoid the so-called non-human agent. For example, use the authors concluded that… rather than the study concluded that….

  • Avoid colloquialisms, such as steer clear of.

  • While sounds more modern than whilst.

  • Avoid as such. Poor: The SCAT is a reliable test of state anxiety. As such, it is suitable for experimental studies. Better: The SCAT is a reliable test of state anxiety; it is therefore suitable for experimental studies.

  • Avoid her, his and any other sexist language, even if the subjects are clearly of one gender.

  • The following APA rules, in my view, are old fashioned and need not be adhered to strictly:

  • Use while and since to refer to time. Do not use them when the meaning is whereas, although, or because.

  • Don't start sentences with because, since, or as.


  • Make sure you write well-formed sentences, and keep their structure simple.

  • Use the first person (I or we tested six runners¼ ) rather than the passive voice (Six runners were tested¼ ). Similarly, say Smith reported instead of reported by Smith.

  • With comparatives (more than, less than), the than may need to be than that of or than with or than by etc. to clarify the meaning. Similarly, similar to may need to be similar to that of. Examples: The measure was more valid than that of Smith et al. (1994). We experienced fewer problems with the revised instrument than with the published version. The method was similar to that of an earlier study.

  • Don't use a long string of qualifiers in front of a noun: a modified test of cognitive function is better than a modified cognitive-function test.

  • Avoid grammatically questionable formal cliches, such as: Based on these results, it is concluded that¼ and The results showed that¼

  • Use the past tense to report results (yours or others'). Use the present tense to discuss them. We have found that…; Smith (1989) reported a similar result. A simple explanation of these findings is that…

  • Avoid so-called misplaced modifiers: When sedentary, protein supplementation resulted in… Athletes were consulted when designing the questionnaire… If necessary, subjects were tested… Based on these results, we conclude… The next two examples are marginal: Using stable tracers, it is possible to measure… Given the importance of body mass, there has been little study of its effects… Note that a noun was verbed to verb something (e.g. an experiment was performed to test this hypothesis) is also technically incorrect but is used so widely that it has to be accepted. A noun was verbed (by) verbing… is also acceptable. The active voice would avoid these awkward expressions.

  • Put only, partly and mainly next to the word they modify: The test consists only of new items.

  • Note: partly vs wholly; partially vs completely. In the same vein, continual = repeated, whereas continuous = without a break. Not many writers get these right!

  • The following rules are broken so frequently that I doubt whether they can be considered rules any more.

  • Which or that? Simple rule: Which always follows a comma (and a pause), but that never does. This study, which cost $10,000, was a success. The study that cost $10,000 was a success.

  • Owing to or due to? Simple rule: Owing to always has a comma, due to never does. The data were lost, owing to computer malfunction. The loss of data was due to computer malfunction.

  • An adverb is placed usually after the verb. Placing it before the verb produces a split infinitive. For example, to boldly go… is acceptable if you are emphasizing go, but if the emphasis is on boldly, to go boldly is better.


  • Focus your thoughts by writing the summary first, even for articles that don't require one.

  • Three ways to help get your ideas in a sensible sequence are to make an outline in the form of headings, to put the draft aside for days or weeks, and to get others to comment on the drafts.

  • The first sentence of a paragraph usually sets the topic for that paragraph. Don’t have any unlinked ideas (non-sequiturs) in the same paragraph.

  • A paragraph must consist of more than one sentence.

  • Try to make the ideas within each section flow together.

  • Don’t put things in the wrong section or subsection. Skim the finished document to make sure.

  • When appropriate, keep the order of ideas the same in different sections of the article.

  • Check that you don't contradict or repeat yourself in different sections of the article.

  • Aim for simplicity: many readers are less intelligent and less knowledgeable than writers.

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