Dr. K. Satyanarayana

Guest Lecture delivered at BIC Workshop, JBTDRC, Sept. - Oct. 2003

Non-scientists, and even scientists, frequently complain that scientific literature is hard to read and understand. Many believe that scientists deliberately, inadvertently or as a habit keep scientific writing terse and complex with a lot of jargon. The scientists, on the other hand, assume that the non-readability of scientific papers results from the difficulty in understanding scientific concepts, data and analysis. However, experienced and seasoned scientists believe that even the most complex scientific concepts can be presented in a simple manner.

The purpose of all scientific writing, including research papers, is not mere display of data or presentation of information, but rather communication of what it all finally means. Once the paper is written, the authors often look upon it as a job done. They are right in terms of converting all the data into sentences and paragraphs. However, an important issue that frequently gets left out is: will a large majority of the readers accurately perceive what the author is trying to communicate.

In order to understand how to improve writing, it is important to know how the readers go about reading. Experts in the fields of linguistics and cognitive psychology have studied these issues extensively. Linguists believe that readers do not simply read; they also interpret. Any piece of prose, no matter how short, may 'mean' 10 (or more) different things to 10 different readers. Readers' interpretation about the substance of prose is based substantially on clues from its structure.

The first part of the process is to research, read and think about your topic. The next step is to write a rough draft, and then spend time working on it to produce the final product. Many scientists are not comfortable in writing long chunks of text, especially writing research papers. In the first draft stage, one should not worry too much about expressions and use of language as it could hold you up. For inexperienced writers, it is always advisable to have the ideas on paper, no matter how good the content is, and then work towards improving the manuscript in terms of flow, style, structure, clarity, logic of presentation, comprehensiveness, etc. Some steps and tips towards improving the writing are discussed below.

Be simple and concise

The first and the most important rule of communication is simplicity. For those of us for whom English is not the native language, it is even more important to use simple words. Once the first draft is ready, check each word, phrase and sentence critically. Examine each sentence to ensure that it is needed. If so, can it be shortened or simplified? Can any words or expressions be deleted without significantly affecting the message being conveyed?

Aim for a simple style

A fancy, literary or overblown style is not appropriate in scientific writing. Avoid the use of pompous words in place of simple ones, and metaphorical expressions and hyperbole (exaggeration for effect). Use short words instead of long ones. They are equally, if not, more effective in conveying the meaning. For example, use












commence, initiate or inaugurate



prior to

Some more such words are given in Appendix I.

Choose the concrete over the abstract; words over symbols; initials or abbreviations; English words over foreign, and familiar words over unfamiliar. Table 1 shows some examples taken from various sources.

Table 1: Difficult expressions or sentences, and their simpler versions

Difficult version

Simpler, preferred version

In studies pertaining to the identification of phenolic derivatives, drying of the paper gives less satisfactory results.

Phenolic derivatives are easier to identify if the paper is left wet.

It has been a moot question in the minds of microbiologists whether the gonococcus possesses a capsule.

Microbiologists question whether the gonococcus has a capsule.

In the present report the results of a series of experiments are described in which wine and beer drinkers were tested to see whether...

We tested wine and beer drinkers to find out whether…

The etiology of dependency in elderly people, and therefore the need to seek residential care, is multifactorial.

There are many reasons why elderly persons become dependent and seek residential care.

Various types of household appliances were found to have differing amounts of sales attraction in different areas of Australia.

Refrigerators sold better in Chennai, and radiators in Chandigarh.

Avoid verbosity

Verbosity (use of extra words) not only wastes space, but also adds to confusion. Journals are more likely to accept short articles, since space is at a premium. Deletion of unnecessary words improves grammatical construction and style, and makes the text easier to read and understand.

Superfluous noun phrases

These phrases used with nouns are not needed and can be omitted without any loss of meaning or emphasis.

The amount of

The case of

The character of

The situation where

The extent of

The concept of

The magnitude of

The purpose of

More examples are given in Appendix I.

Weak modifiers











Avoid jargon

In scientific writing, jargons often complicate expression, and are often inaccurately used. Sometimes, jargon may make meaning ambiguous. Technical words should be used only where essential and appropriate. Jargon can be of several types; these are exemplified below.

Shorted form of words used in conversation

The lab data confirmed the diagnosis (correct form: The laboratory data confirmed the diagnosis).

Verb-object relations are ignored

We stocked vegetables in the refrigerator (correct form: We stocked the refrigerator with vegetables).

Nouns are not used with their proper formal meaning

No pathology was found in the lung (correct form: No abnormalities were found in the lung).

Euphemisms used to hide/minimize harsh reality

Many health care providers lack adequate skills in communicating potential adverse effects of the planned surgical procedure (correct form: Many surgeons cannot tell patients about possible bad outcomes of surgery).

There are no simple solutions for minimizing jargon in scientific writing. The thumb rule is that the message should be conveyed directly and clearly.

Avoid ambiguity

It is difficult for an author to find out mistakes in his writing, unless there is adequate time gap between writing and reading. Therefore, one can never be sure if his text conveys the intended meaning to his readers. It therefore helps to get the opinion of a dependable colleague. In addition, one should ask one's co-authors to read the manuscript and tell you what it means to them. The objective is to ensure that a reader without experience in the field would understand the paper.

Choose the correct word

Use general and technical dictionaries whenever you have doubt about the correct meaning of a word or phrase. Guides to accepted usage, such as Fowler's Modern English Usage or Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, are also helpful tools in writing well.

Make sure that you are using words correctly. Does the context change the meaning of the word? The following words are often incorrectly used as synonyms:

amount, concentration;

content, level;

various, varying, varied, a variety of;

different, differing;

alternate, alternative;

imply, infer;

minimal, negligible, slight;

delete, exclude, eliminate;

equal, equivalent;

anticipate, expect;

The following commonly used words often have an imprecise meaning, depending on their context. If you have used these words, check your text again to ensure that their meaning is clear and as intended, and that these have not been used as 'filler' words, in place of another more precise word. More examples are provided in Appendix II.












Common grammatical problems

As these are common problems, it would be worthwhile for you to check them out using a grammar book if you are not already familiar with such usage

Dangling or misrelated participles

After completing the questionnaires, blood pressures were measured. (Dangling - the test subjects/patients have disappeared completely and there is no indication of who completed the questionnaires or whose blood pressure was measured).

After completing the questionnaires, the blood pressure of subjects was measured. (Misrelated- although the word 'subjects' is included, the participle 'completing' is here related to their blood pressure, not to themselves.)

After completing the questionnaires, the subjects had their blood pressures measured. (Correct)

Reviewing the available data, the cause of death was natural not chemical. (not clear who did the reviewing?)

It can be better rewritten as one of the following:

Reviewing the available data, the committee concluded that the death was due to natural causes and not due to chemical poisoning.

A review of available data led to the judgment that the patient's death was due to natural causes, not due to chemicals.

Unidentified or ambiguous antecedents of pronouns

Failure of treatment with penicillin could not have been predicted because of the defective assay method used. Unfortunately, this occurs in many hospitals. (Does the 'this' refer to the failure of treatment, the defective assay method, or the inability to predict?)

Cimetidine is highly effective in suppressing gastric acid secretion in such cases. It is unfortunate that it is not prescribed more often. (The first it is an 'opening it' that has nothing to relate back to, and the second it is intended to relate back to cimetidine, but the reader may think of 'gastric acid secretion' as its antecedent.) Unfortunately, this drug is not prescribed often enough. (This is clearer.)

Relative pronouns

That, which and who are often misused.

Abstract nouns instead of verbs

Scientific writing often contains too many abstract nouns that have been derived from verbs. These should be avoided; instead, the original verb should be used. A useful tip is to look out for words ending in '-ation' - they are often abstract nouns derived from verbs.

The identification and classification of the various histologic types of lymphomas are vital steps towards the introduction of new therapies and the reduction of mortality. (Original)

Identifying and classifying the histologic types of lymphomas are vital steps towards introducing new therapies and reducing mortality. (Preferred)

An investigation of the underlying causes was carried out. (Original)

The underlying causes were investigated. (Or: We investigated the underlying causes.) (Preferred)

The following words - 'empty' verbs - should raise suspicion that a construction with an abstract noun is lurking:














carried out







Noun clusters and stacked modifiers

In scientific writing, groups of words are often used together to describe an effect or process. When more than two words are used together, the meaning may become ambiguous. In such cases, it may be unclear what is modifying what. The hyphen can be a great help in clarifying these modifiers. Here are some non-scientific examples that make the use of the hyphen clear:

An Indian rice importer: Someone from India who imports rice from anywhere.

An Indian-rice importer: Anyone who imports rice from India.

A small arms dealer: A short person who will sell you any kind of gun

A small-arms dealer: A person of any height who will sell you a handgun.

Consistency of style

Be consistent throughout your document with various things like spellings, use of capital letters, abbreviation, style of writing numbers and punctuation.


Check words with more than one accepted form of spellings, plural forms and hyphenated forms. If a word has several accepted spellings (viz. British and American), use one style consistently thoughout the manuscript.


Capitalize proper nouns, names of organisations, units, etc and ensure consistency throughout the text.

Abbreviations and Initials

It is common to use acronyms in reports and articles. Use the full word the first time along with the acronym in parenthesis; thereafter the acronym should be used alone. If your report contains many acronyms, make a list in an appendix.

Alternatively, when a long term is repeated (for example the setting of your study) it can be abbreviated without being reduced to initials. For example, Jai Vigyan Project on Rheumatic Fever and Rheumatic Heart Disease may be referred to the first time in full, then as 'the Jai Vigyan Project' or even 'the RF/RHD Project' or 'the Project', whichever seems appropriate.


Generally, measurements, percentages and any numbers that are not whole numbers (integers) should be written using numerals. However, numbers at the start or end of a sentence should be expressed in alphabets (or you could rearrange the sentence to bring the numerical value to a location somewhere in the middle), as should also be done for single digit numbers (numbers under 10). Make sure all abbreviations for units are correct; use SI unit symbols.

Ninety-two patients were followed over a period of three months by 12 researchers.


Make sure that every quotation has a beginning and an end. This is also true for  parenthesis and brackets.

Other style errors to avoid

Impersonal constructions and the passive voice

Use active voice where possible. It is a common misapprehension that the first person should not be used in scientific writing. It is not unscientific to report what you (or you and your fellow investigators) did in the first person.

The present study was undertaken in order to investigate… (Wordy and impersonal) We undertook this study to investigate… (Better)

We investigated… (Even better)

'In the opinion of the present author' is just pompous. Say: 'In my opinion', or leave the phrase out altogether.

Using two words instead of one

A laparotomy was performed the next day and the diagnosis of appendicitis was confirmed. (Clumsy)

A laparotomy the next day confirmed the diagnosis of appendicitis. (Better) Overused phrases, fad words and slang

Try and remove these from your writing wherever you can. They weigh your writing down and make it flaccid, unoriginal and uninteresting. The prepered and simpler alternatives are shown on right against each.

to impact

to affect, to have an effect

to interface

to work together, to meet

the bottom line is

what this means is




Except in rare cases where they are used for rhetorical effect, contractions are too informal for treatises, essays and scientific writing.

don't - do not

it's - it is

can't - can not

Dehumanising words

One should avoid the use of words which may be considered derogatory, e.g. in a case report, it may be better to characterize the patient as 'a man who had been taking alcohol daily for several years', rather than term him as 'an alcoholic man'. A few similar examples are:

person, not individual

patient, not case

woman, not female

man, not male

patient with diabetes, not a diabetic

patient with cirrhosis, not a cirrhotic

Confused and misused pairs

Homophones are pairs of words with the same sound but different meaning and can be misused.

adapt, adopt;

discrete, discreet;

principle, principal;

sheer, shear;

here, hear;

council, counsel;

complement, compliment


Misspelling of words ending in 'able' or 'ible' and 'ance' ('ant') or 'ence ('ent') is very common.

Many such errors can be checked with spell-checkers and thesauruses in word processing programmes. Editorial offices are also generally on the look out for such errors; however, it helps if authors are careful in their writing.


Many of the examples quoted have been taken from several published sources.

Annexure I

Annexure II

Next        Back