Scientific writing advice

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Scientific Style

Your paper is an exercise in formal scientific communication, and as such, should conform to certain conventions and patterns of word use typically followed in this type of writing.

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). In some areas of science, first person constructions are not used at all.

See this web page for information about citation practices in scientific writing.

Do not use contractions.


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.

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

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.

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