Better science writing for the web
Scientists who write content for their organisation's websites might resist advice to write in plain language. Some find it hard to avoid 'scientese'. This article shows advice from science journal style guides to encourage scientists to write more readable science for the web.
Many organisations publish scientific information online. Scientists often write this content, but the target audience can include people with non-science backgrounds. Web writers or communications staff work with scientists to make the content more readable. This is often 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
Use personal pronouns
Avoid nominalisations and noun strings
Avoid jargon, acronyms
Write concisely, use short sentences
Use a clear, simple style
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 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.
- 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
- Communicating the science of climate change - Physics Today
- Spaghettification and the problem of scientific jargon - BBC News
- A plea for clear language on vaccine safety - Canadian Medical Association Journal
- Two sciences separated by a common language - ArsTechnica
- Alan Alda wants scientists to cut out the jargon - Phys.org
- How to talk to real people - New York Times
- Signs of intelligible life - Science
- Getting science to the people - blog from researcher at McGill University
- Should technical science journals have plain language translation? - Washington Post
- Scientists need plain language - plainlanguage.gov
- Plain language in science: Signs of intelligible life in the scientific community? (PDF) - Council of Science Editors
Joe Kimble, 'You think anybody likes legalese?'
Links to the style guides and sources I used in the first part of this article.