The Scientist’s Guide to Writing

Stephen B. Heard, whose blog Scientist Sees Squirrel we mentioned last week, is a biologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. He has written a book, The scientist’s guide to writing (Princeton University Press, 2016).

In the preface he says, “This book is designed for students and early-career scientists across the natural sciences (including mathematics).” There is a chapter for non-native speakers of English.

From the chapter titled Brevity:

Be brief.
Now, that was fun to write, but if advising writers to “be brief ” was all it took, you and I could both just skip this chapter. We can’t. I’ve reviewed, formally or informally, somewhere around a thousand manuscripts over my career, and all but a handful should have been shorter.

You can read the book online through UEA Library.

There are, of course, other books on scientific writing: for example, Writing science by Joshua Schimel, and Academic writing for international students of science by Jane Bottomley (printed copies in the Resource Centre).

Update: Also Mastering Academic Writing in the Sciences : A Step-By-Step Guide by Marialuisa Aliotta.


Science papers are getting harder to read

A study of scientific papers has found that these days they are harder to read.

Here, in a corpus consisting of 707 452 scientific abstracts published between 1881 and 2015 from 122 influential biomedical journals, we show that the readability of science is steadily decreasing. Further, we demonstrate that this trend is indicative of a growing usage of general scientific jargon.

The authors conclude:

more than a quarter of scientific abstracts now have a readability considered beyond college graduate level English.

So if you find a scientific article hard to understand, it may not be your fault!

Source: bioRxiv via Nature



The Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon (OPAL) is a set of four word lists, which you can download as PDFs:

  1. Written single words (1200 words)
  2. Spoken single words (600 words)
  3. Written phrases (370 phrases)
  4. Spoken phrases (250 phrases)

According to Oxford, these are the most important words to know in academic English.

You can also view the words and phrases online and look up definitions, collocations, etc. The phrases can be filtered by functions, such as adding, comparing, defining, hedging and making contrasts.

An opal is “a white or almost clear semi-precious stone in which changes of colour are seen, used in jewellery”.