Better science writing for the web

Scientists sometimes write content for their organisation’s websites. Some resist advice to write in plain language. Others find it hard to avoid ‘scientese’. This article presents tips from science journal style guides to help persuade and encourage scientists to write more readable science for the web.

Many organisations publish scientific information online—particularly in the government and higher education sectors. Scientists often write this content, but the target audience can be fairly broad and often includes people with non-science backgrounds. Sometimes web writers or communications staff need to work with scientists to make the content more readable. This can be challenging.

Resistance to change

Some people believe that science writing should be quite formal. Anything else is resisted as ‘dumbing it down’. As Joe Kimble recently wrote, this type of attitude is hard to shift because “it preys on a vague, undeveloped sense of literary quality”.

Interestingly, many of the techniques that are resisted—active voice and personal pronouns seem to elicit the strongest negative reactions—are explicitly recommended by many science journal style guides. However, style guides are rarely read. Instead we tend to copy the style of our peers, believing this is the standard we must conform to.

Writing tips from science journals or organisations

To help scientists accept some change, here are a few examples from science style guides I was able to find online. I’d love to compile a bigger list, so please comment at the end if you know of any I could add.

Use the active voice

“The tendency to present scientific text in the passive voice is fading. Most Wiley-Blackwell journals and readers now accept use of the active voice.” – Wiley-Blackwell House Style Guide 

“Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (‘we performed the experiment…’) as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly.” – Nature

“In general, authors should use the active voice, except in instances in which the author is unknown or the interest focuses on what is acted upon.” –  American Medical Association

“Active voice is much preferred to passive voice, which should be used sparingly. Passive voice tends to ‘depersonalize’ the subject and remove the author(s) from active responsibility (or bias?) for his/her work. Active voice is generally more concise than passive voice and saves space and time. Passive voice may force the reader to stop and think about whom is doing the action. It does not relieve the author of direct responsibility for observations, opinions, or conclusions” –  Opthalmology

“When possible, did you use active rather than passive voice? ” – Journal of Pediatric Psychology  

” Use the active voice whenever possible: We will ask authors that rely heavily on use of the passive voice to re-write manuscripts in the active voice.” –  Journal of Trauma and Dissociation

Use personal pronouns

“Write in the active [voice] and use the first person where necessary.” – British Medical Journal

“The first-person active voice is preferable to the impersonal passive voice.” – Behavioural Ecology

“While the use of the phrase ‘the author(s)’ is acceptable, we encourage authors to use first and third person pronouns, i.e., ‘I’ and ‘we’, to avoid an awkward or stilted writing style.” – Journal of Trauma and Dissociation

Avoid nominalisations and noun strings

“Sentences with many nominalizations (noun forms of verbs) result in texts that are difficult to understand. Energize your text by transforming the noun forms of verbs back into verbs and avoid noun strings (nouns modifying nouns), which result in too much compressed information that is confusing to readers.” – Journal of Neuroscience

Avoid jargon, acronyms

“We ask authors to avoid jargon and acronyms where possible. When essential, they should be defined at first use; after first use, the author should use pronouns when possible rather than using the abbreviation or acronym at every occurrence. The acronym is second-nature to the author but is not to the reader, who may have to refer to the original definition throughout the paper when an acronym is used.” – Nature

“One general point to remember is the need to avoid jargon and acronyms as much as possible.” – SciDevNet

Write concisely, use short sentences

“Strategies for eliminating awkwardness and cumbersome constructions include writing short, declarative sentences; keeping subjects and verbs as close together as possible; and, given a choice, selecting shorter and simpler rather than longer words (try vs.endeavor, show vs. demonstrate).” –  American Society of Agronomy

Preferred uses: after, not following; before, not prior to; to, not in order to. –  Biophysical Journal

“Try to avoid long sentences that have several embedded clauses.” – British Medical Journal

“Redundancy of text or duplication of text points in tables wastes precious space and unnecessarily complicate a manuscript. Authors should plan to do several revisions before submission to shorten and to focus an article.” – Opthalmology

“Write concisely (e.g., ‘even though,’ not ‘in spite of the fact that’).” – Science

Use a clear, simple style

“Nature is an international journal covering all the sciences. Contributions should therefore be written clearly and simply so that they are accessible to readers in other disciplines and to readers for whom English is not their first language.” – Nature

“The text should be clear, readable, and concise.” – Behavioural Ecology

“While a polished literary style is not demanded of scientific papers, they should conform to the elementary rules of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and clarity. Slang and jargon should be avoided.” – American Astronomical Society

“Please write in a clear, direct, and active style. The BMJ is an international journal, and many readers do not have English as their first language.” – British Medical Journal

“Good writing supports and augments good research. Clear, concise language is highly desirable in scientific communications and consistent with good scholarship.” – Opthalmology

“The goal is to report your findings and conclusions clearly, and with as few words as necessary. Your audience (other scientists usually) are not interested in flowery prose, they want to know your findings. Remember: Writing and thinking are closely linked enterprises – many people have noted that, ‘fuzzy writing reflects fuzzy thinking.’ When people have difficulty translating their ideas into words, they generally do not know the material as well as they think.” – Department of Biology, Bates College

Breaking old habits

Many scientists want their work to be more widely read, but don’t know how to make it more readable. Some find it difficult to break old writing habits.

To help, we’ve put together a series of links to articles and resources that we’ve shared on Twitter in the last year or so. And we welcome you to come along to one of our web writing workshops.

Writing guides

  • Writing science in plain English (video)
    Dr Lynn Dicks, manager of the Conservation Evidence project at the University of Cambridge demonstrates how to write about science in plain English following 12 simple rules. A 30-minute training video for students or professionals in any science subject.
  • Writing science in plain English (book)
    Each chapter  tackles a writing principle and includes real-life writing examples—good and bad. Exercises allow readers to apply the advice. Helps improve all forms of scientific writing, including grant proposals, lab reports and research papers.
  • How do I write a scientific paper?
    Great advice from SciDevNet.
  • Federal plain language guidelines
    Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) is a community of federal employees dedicated to the idea that citizens deserve clear communications from government.
  • Plain language writing for the web
    From howto.gov, a site helping US government agencies deliver a better online experience.
  • Introduction to plain language at National Institutes of Health
    Part of the NIH mission is to reach all Americans with health information they can use and to communicate in a way that helps people to easily understand research results.

Articles, opinion pieces

References

Joe Kimble, ‘You think anybody likes legalese?’

Links to the style guides and sources I used in the first part of this article.