3.2 Language and conventions
3 Academic scientific style
There are many forms of writing that can be labelled as ’scientific’, including on the one hand, academic textbooks and journals, and on the other, popular science books, newspaper articles and websites. This section will help you to become more familiar with the language and conventions associated with academic style, and to distinguish this type of writing from the journalistic or informal style found elsewhere. You will then complete a number of tasks to help you improve your own style.
3.2.1 What is academic scientific writing?
Academic scientific writing is characterised by a particular style of writing which you should try to adopt in your assignments.
1) Read through the texts below quite quickly, without using a dictionary — it is not necessary to understand every word for this task — and decide whether you think they come from an academic or non-academic source.
The basic particles of which atoms are composed are the proton, the electron and the neutron. Some key properties of the proton, electron, and neutron are given in Table 1.4. A neutron and a proton have approximately the same mass and, relative to these, the electron has a negligible mass. The charge on a proton is of equal magnitude, but opposite sign, to that on an electron and so the combination of equal numbers of protons and electrons results in an assembly that is neutral overall. A neutron, as its name suggests, is neutral — it has no charge.
It sounds like an unusual way to win a Nobel Prize.
But ordinary sticky tape was crucial to the breakthrough that yielded graphene, a material with amazing properties and — potentially — numerous practical applications.
Graphene is a flat layer of carbon atoms tightly packed into a two-dimensional honeycomb arrangement.
It is both the thinnest and the strongest material known to science, and it conducts electricity better than copper.
This year’s winners of the physics prize, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, from Manchester University, UK, extracted graphene from the common material known as graphite — widely used as lead in pencils.
Placing the adhesive tape on graphite, they managed to rip off thin flakes of carbon.
In the beginning they got flakes consisting of many layers of graphene.
But as they repeated the process many times, the flakes got thinner.
Microorganisms are used to recycle water during sewage treatment (Figure 1.7), converting the waste into useful byproducts such as CO2, nitrates, phosphates, sulphates, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and methane. Microbes have been routinely used for bioremediation since 1988, cleaning up toxic waste generated in a variety of industrial processes. In these cases, the organisms use the toxic waste as a source of energy, and in the process they decontaminate it. They can also clean up underground wells, chemical spills and oil spills as well as producing useful products such as enzymes that are widely used in cleaning solutions.
One of Faraday’s greatest intellectual innovations was the idea of force fields. These days, thanks to books and movies about bug-eyed aliens and their starships, most people are familiar with the term, so maybe he should get a royalty. But in the centuries between Newton and Faraday one of the great mysteries of physics was that its laws seemed to indicate that forces act across the empty space that separates interacting objects. Faraday didn’t like that. He believed that to move an object, something has to come in contact with it. And so he imagined the space between electric charges and magnets as being filled with invisible tubes that physically do the pushing and pulling. Faraday called those tubes a force field.
Buildings in the city of Adapazari, Turkey, suffered heavy damage during the 1999 Marmara earthquake. Much of the devastation was attributed to the failure of the low plasticity non-plastic silts (Donahue et al. 2007) that had been deposited by the Sakarya River in its almost annual flooding of the plain over the past 7,000 years (Bol et al. 2010). The flood waters often did not recede for a considerable time, and they occasionally formed lakes.
In December, philosopher and artificial intelligence expert Aaron Sloman announced his intention to create nothing less than a robot mathematician. He reckons he has identified a key component of how humans develop mathematical talent. If he’s right, it should be possible to program a machine to be as good as us at mathematics, and possibly better.
Sloman’s creature is not meant to be a mathematical genius capable of advancing the frontiers of mathematical knowledge: his primary aim, outlined in the journal Artificial Intelligence (vol 172, p2015), is to improve our understanding of where our mathematical ability comes from. Nevertheless, it is possible that such a robot could take us beyond what mathematicians have achieved so far. Forget robot vacuum cleaners and android waitresses; we’re talking about a machine that could spawn a race of cyber-nerds capable of creating entirely new forms of mathematics.
Recently, Flaherty et al.9 published the results of a questionnaire on older outpatients’ use of alternative therapies in the US and Japan. According to their data, 74.3% of older Japanese outpatients had used at least one alternative therapy in the past 12 months: 22.0% had used herbs, 7.3% had used acupuncture, and 5.3% had used chiropractic.
Overweight and obesity are major threats to public health globally. One estimate suggests that 1.46 billion adults worldwide were overweight in 2008,1 and projections suggest that by 2020 over 70% of adults in the United Kingdom and United States will be overweight.2 This is likely to result in millions of additional cases of diabetes and heart disease and thousands of additional cases of cancer.2
2) What differences do you notice between the academic and non-academic texts? Some of these differences will be explored in the following section.
3.2.2 Common features of academic scientific texts
The academic texts in 3.2.1 are characterised by certain language and conventions.
Match the features of academic scientific writing style (A) to examples of language and conventions in the examples (B) taken from the texts in 3.2.1.
Language and conventions
1) Academic scientific texts use careful, cautious language when necessary, in order to avoid making overgeneralisations.
Find examples of cautious language: _________________________
2) They tend to adopt an impersonal style, making use of passive constructions ( Appendix 1), and mostly avoiding the use of the personal pronouns I, we and you.
Find examples of passive constructions: ______________
3) They use scientific/technical terminology and a neutral/formal tone, avoiding the colloquial or highly stylised language sometimes found in popular science books, journalism and websites.
Find five examples of scientific/technical terms: ________________
4) They use careful punctuation, making effective use of colons and semi-colons to organise ideas ( 5.2 and 5.3), and mostly avoiding informal punctuation devices such as contractions, dashes and exclamation marks.
Find an example of colon use: ___________________
5) They contain references to sources, following standard referencing conventions ( 9.1). They tend not to include detailed bibliographic information in the main text, as is often the case in popular science writing.
Find examples of two styles of academic referencing: _______________
6) They follow established conventions with regard to the use of tables and figures. ( Chapter 9 for more information on academic and scientific conventions)
Find examples of references to tables and figures: _______________
a) A neutron and a proton have approximately the same mass …
b) This is likely to result in millions of additional cases of diabetes and heart disease and thousands of additional cases of cancer.2
c) Some key properties of the proton, electron, and neutron are given in Table 1.4.
d) According to their data, 74.3% of older Japanese outpatients had used at least one alternative therapy in the past 12 months: 22.0% had used herbs, 7.3% had used acupuncture, and 5.3% had used chiropractic.
e) … deposited by the Sakarya River in its almost annual flooding of the plain over the past 7,000 years (Bol et al. 2010).
f) Much of the devastation has been attributed to the failure of the low plasticity non-plastic silts …
g) Microorganisms are used to recycle water during sewage treatment (Figure 1.7) …
Note that the line between academic and non-academic texts is not always clearly drawn. As you can see from the texts in 3.2.1, academic texts contain occasional informal features such as dashes, e.g.
A neutron, as its name suggests, is neutral — it has no charge.
and the non-academic texts can be academic in tone, e.g.
Graphene is a flat layer of carbon atoms tightly packed into a two-dimensional honeycomb arrangement.
Furthermore, in modern textbooks (including this one!), and some academic journals, informal devices such as contractions and personal pronouns are often employed to make the text more accessible.
While it is good to be aware of the variation in style across academic scientific texts, you should follow the formal conventions outlined above as far as possible in your own academic work, unless otherwise specified, and you should certainly avoid colloquial expressions.
Study Box: Increasing formality
1) Use the formal negatives no/little/few, e.g.
At the time, not many women worked in this area of science.
→ At the time, few women worked in this area of science.
Not much research has been carried out on this topic.
→ Little research has been carried out on this topic.
Note that few is used with countable nouns and little with uncountable nouns.
Be careful not to confuse with a few/a little, meaning some or a small number/amount.
Appendix 3, 2.2 on fewer and less
2) Place adverbs before the main verb, rather than at the beginning (or sometimes the end) of a sentence, as is common in spoken English, e.g.
Originally, the research was conducted in China.
→ The research was originally conducted in China.
Then the tube was placed in the furnace.
→ The tube was then placed in the furnace.
3) Note that, in academic texts, it is generally considered better to avoid the use of and and but at the start of a sentence.
4) Avoid informal expressions such as get, about, though and like, e.g.
Brown got a Nobel Prize for his work on boranes.
→ Brown received/earned/was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on boranes.
about 200 people
→ approximately/an estimated 200 people
Though cooking may destroy the bacterial cells, it is unlikely to inactivate the toxin.
→ Although cooking may destroy the bacterial cells, it is unlikely to inactivate the toxin.
devices like smart phones and tablets
→ devices such as smart phones and tablets
5) Avoid informal uses of do/make/get by choosing more formal equivalents:
get worse → deteriorate
make easier → facilitate
do better → improve
6) Be careful when using besides and as well. Used alone, they have an informal tone; in academic writing, they should be followed by a noun or -ing form, e.g.
The dye is used in the textile industry. Besides, it has applications in food production.
→ Besides being used in the textile industry, the dye has applications in food production.
The dye has applications in the food industry as well.
→ As well as being used in the textile industry, the dye has applications in the food industry.
7) Avoid conversational expressions such as actually, by the way or to be honest.
8) Avoid the informal expressions more and more and a lot of/lots of, e.g.
A lot of studies back up these findings.
→ Many/A large number of/A considerable number of studies back up these findings.
The above expressions should only be used with countable nouns; use the expressions below with uncountable nouns:
a large amount of/a considerable amount of/a great deal of time/money/research
Identify examples of informal style in these examples from 3.2.1.
1) … we’re talking about a machine that could spawn a race of cyber-nerds …
2) It sounds like an unusual way to win a Nobel Prize.
3) … they got flakes consisting of many layers of graphene …
4) … bug-eyed aliens and their starships …
5) He reckons he has identified a key component of how humans develop mathematical talent.
6) And so he imagined the space between electric charges and magnets as being filled with invisible tubes that physically do the pushing and pulling.
7) … a material with amazing properties and — potentially — numerous practical applications …
8) Faraday didn’t like that.
9) … Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, from Manchester University, UK …
10) … his primary aim, outlined in the journal Artificial Intelligence (vol 172, p 2015) …
Which of these sentences, a or b, would be better in an academic text? Why? Note that all the sentences are grammatically correct, and could possibly feature in academic texts, but one is more academic in style than the other.
a) The first clinical trial was conducted in 2008.
b) We conducted the first clinical trial in 2008.
a) There are three main treatments for cancer — surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
b) There are three main treatments for cancer: surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
a) Mobile phone use poses a danger to health.
b) Mobile phone use may pose a danger to health.
a) Not many materials exhibit strong magnetism.
b) Few materials exhibit strong magnetism.
a) Rutherford received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908.
b) Rutherford got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908.
a) There are about 3000 species of cricket in the world.
b) There are approximately 3000 species of cricket in the world.
a) An increasing number of seals are being treated for internal problems caused by oil poisoning.
b) More and more seals are being treated for internal problems caused by oil poisoning.
a) The machine was originally developed for internal company research.
b) Originally, the machine was developed for internal company research.
Rewrite these sentences to make them more academic in style. Most sentences only require minor changes.
1) In the beginning they got flakes consisting of many layers of graphene. But as they repeated the process many times, the flakes got thinner.
2) He reckons he has identified a key component of how humans develop mathematical talent.
3) This study aims to figure what caused the structural damage.
4) A lot of research has been done on the subject of runway friction.
5) Most thermometers are closed glass tubes containing liquids like alcohol or mercury.
6) Then, the solution was heated to about 70°C.
7) You can see the results of the analysis in Table 2.
8) Not much is known about the proteins linked with RNA.
9) Eating disorders cause individuals to feel tired and depressed.
10) There are three different types of volcano — active volcanoes (erupt frequently), dormant volcanoes (temporarily inactive but not fully extinct), and extinct volcanoes (unlikely to erupt again).
Summarise the information in Text B in 3.2.1, presenting it in a more academic style. You will need to think about organisation of information as well as language. Use your own words as much as possible, but do not try to change technical expressions. Chapter 7 for more information on this