Scientific writing advice

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Revision as of 16:07, 19 January 2012 by ElizabethJockusch (Talk | contribs) (Scientific Style)

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Scientific Names

Special formatting rules apply to scientific names

  • Scientific binomials and trinomials and genus names used alone are always italicized (or underlined). The genus should be capitalized; the species and subspecies start in lower case.
         Homo sapiens 
Homo sapiens sapiens
  • The first time the scientific name of a species is mentioned, it should be spelled out in full. After that, the genus name is usually abbreviated.
          H. sapiens
  • Higher taxonomic categories (e.g., families and phyla) are capitalized but not italicized.
          Chordata, Insecta, Pongidae, Plethodontidae, Scincidae
  • Many taxonomic category names are also used informally (with different endings), in which case they are not capitalized. For example, the formal scientific name Plethodontidae (which identifies a family a salamanders) is capitalized, but the adjective derived from it (plethodontid) is not.
         Not everyone is as fond of plethodontid salamanders as Dr. Jockusch is.
Newly discovered pongid fossils change our understanding of primate evolution.
  • Common names should generally be capitalized
         Turkey Vulture

Scientific Style

Scientific Writing. In general, discuss ideas, not “papers" or “articles”. Do not talk about the “assignment”. Avoid a book report style. Write for a professional audience.

For example, do NOT begin with a long-winded introduction: Dr. Elizabeth Jockusch and Dr. Ima Nobody of the University of Connecticut published the following paper in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology: “The role of olfaction in passerine birds.”

Appropriate would be: Jockusch and Nobody (2001) investigated how birds use their sense of smell.

State the authors' findings in past tense: Jockusch and Nobody (2001) reported a general increase in researcher preferences for smelly birds.

Avoid “touchy-feely” writing that relies on personal experience or feelings. Your papers should not contain the phrase "I feel that X". The important question is what you think and what you can support. (In many cases, "I feel that X" can be appropriately replaced by "I think that X" in scientific writing).

You can download a short, humorous example of scientific writing a citation HERE.


Avoid quotations: In scientific writing, you should paraphrase what the authors say, not quote it. Quoting is appropriate only when the original phrasing is particularly memorable. Unlike in some fields, where support for a claim comes from citing statements made by authorities, in science the primary support comes from presentation of the authors' data, not of their words. As you will see when reading the scientific literature, most papers contain no direct quotes. Remember that you still must use citations to give credit for the ideas, even when you are explaining them in your own words.

Common Mistakes

The word “data” is the plural of “datum”. Therefore, it is correct to say that “the data show...” not “the data shows...”. There is no such word as "specie." Species is used as the singular and plural. "Few" refers to numbers, "less" refers to amounts. The word "then" is used to indicate a time progression while, the word "than" is used to compare two items; the two words are not interchangeable. For example, "Species one was allowed to feed first, then species two was allowed to feed" and "Species one ate more than species two." The following is incorrect: "Species one ate more then species two." "That" refers to a specific thing and is used without a comma: Writing a scientific paper that uses clear, concise writing is a good idea; as opposed to “which”, which usually follows a comma and refers to some quality or aspect of the subject parenthetically: Writing a scientific paper, which uses clear, concise writing, is a good idea. In the first case, the thing that is a good idea is a scientific paper written in clear, concise language. In the second case, it is writing a scientific paper that is a good idea—and oh, by the way, a scientific paper is a kind of paper that uses clear, concise writing.

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