Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Common vices in science writing include the use of the passive voice instead of the active, the use of the subjunctive mood instead of the present or future tense, the over-use of adjectives to describe a single noun, and the use of professional terminology or ‘jargon’. It is quite easy to purge oneself of these bad habits without having to go back to school to study grammar and syntax.

A great deal of science is written in the passive voice, rather than the active. The active expresses the action directly: ‘We pursued the research’. The passive focuses on the object being acted on: ‘The research was pursued by us’. The reason for overusing the passive voice probably lies in the desire of scientists to appear objective and impersonal when describing experiments and their results. However, science uses the passive to gruesome excess; this makes the writing ponderous and less easily digested than it should be. It adds unnecessary words – in the above example, 50 per cent more words are used by the passive. Writing for the public should avoid the passive voice as far as possible (e.g. instead of saying ‘The passive voice should be avoided in writing for the public …’.). Even scientific editors no longer favour the passive. Search for it in your writing and convert it ruthlessly to the active voice. Your prose will sparkle with new vigour and directness.

For example: ‘In this study the chemodynamics of heavy metals in soils were investigated.’ Why not simply ‘In this study we investigated the chemodynamics of heavy metals in soils’? Or instead of ‘A new treatment for diabetes has been developed by Australian scientists’, just write ‘Australian scientists have developed a new treatment for diabetes.’

The use of the subjunctive mood is a common feature of science writing, which makes it more turgid and its meaning more vague and uncertain to the reader. Without getting into technicalities, the subjunctive is characterised by the use of words like ‘would’, ‘could’, ‘should’, ‘may’ and ‘might’. These are often preferred by scientists to the use of the present tense (is, are) or the future tense (will, shall). However, they increase uncertainty in the reader as to what is meant – and removing them often does little damage to the sense. For example, in the sentence ‘Heavy metals could pollute soil or groundwater … ’ the word ‘could’ can be omitted: ‘Heavy metals pollute soil or groundwater … ’ This is simply a cleaner, more direct way of writing, which avoids the subjunctive but does not significantly alter the intended meaning. It expresses the meaning more directly and with less uncertainty.

Of course, science often wants to convey a degree of uncertainty, and this is the reason for the ubiquitous ‘could’ and ‘would’. However, this is often faulty reasoning on the part of the writer. Uncertainty can be conveyed directly by stating that the conclusion is not certain, or open to different interpretations, and explaining why. This is more direct and honest than using syntax to obscure the meaning, and the reader will appreciate it. Where it is unavoidable, the word ‘may’ is often preferable: ‘The universe may end, not in a bang but a whimper … ’

Source of Information : CSIRO-Open Science Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century 

No comments: