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Writing a paper in english - some pointers for non-native speakers

Editor's viewpoint


During my first hour of research surfing the Internet looking for material to include in this editorial, I was amazed at the quality and volume of information available, and how much I was personally going to learn on this journey. As a British national with 20 years experience in engineering, it has been a natural transition to edit scientific papers; I have always tried to be unambiguous and I am used to getting straight to the point.

Each language has it's own style and culture, and English is no exception. Living and working in Brazil I have come to love and respect the color and style of Brazilian Portuguese. I also see how different it is from English.

Your deliverable is the paper that describes your research. You are a very skilled scientist researcher but you may not have the same level of literary prowess to deliver, often in a foreign language, clear and concise documentation. Bad English may reduce the chance of good research being published.

What is the goal of writing a paper? To communicate the results of your research to others. The concepts in scientific writing are often complex. It is my belief that their presentation to the world should be as simple and clear as possible. This allows the message you want to deliver to be clearly visible, not hidden inside a forest of words. Often, inside a poorly written paper there is a good one trying to get out. It is the author's responsibility to discover this paper, not the reader's. They must be able to understand it. It is your duty to help them as best you can.

So ask the question: "For whom am I writing?"

Research shows that the following main groups read scientific papers in English:

i) experienced scientists fluent in English

ii) experienced scientists not so fluent in English

iii) not-so-experienced scientists who may or may not be fluent in English, and

iv) late undergraduate or early graduate students, who may or may not be fluent in English, and who are just learning about your branch in science.

A wide audience! The recommendation that goes along with it is to target groups ii) and iii). Group i) will have no difficulty, and group iv) will be able to find assistance.

Reader Expectation is an important concept, they do not simply read; they interpret. Each unit of discourse, no matter what the size, is expected to serve a single function, make a single point; most scientific periodicals define the structure of an article for instance: Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion. If there is too much experimental data in Results, the reader may become confused.

Readers have definite expectations and they search for information in certain places. If these structural expectations are continually violated, they have to divert energy from understanding the content to unraveling language and structure. This leads to misinterpretation of content and frustration. Speed of understanding a sentence is important; help the reader get there more quickly. Avoid complicated grammar constructions. Be nice to your readers; give them a break. The most important information is expected to be at the end of the sentence, the "stress position". If this expectation is thwarted, your reader may misinterpret or feel cheated.

Try to make sentences short and clear with subject and verb close together; the sentence can then be quickly understood by the reader. I often see phrases with repetitive prepositions; they can usually be rewritten with fewer words to feel more comfortable.

For instance: The Department of Neurology of the Faculty of Medicine of Botucatu, the University of the State of São Paulo, UNESP, São Paulo, Brazil.

Becomes: Department of Neurology, Botucatu Faculty of Medicine, UNESP, São Paulo State University, Brazil.

Save the passive voice for when you want to tone down and depersonalize impact: "We killed the rats for..." becomes "The rats were sacrificed for...". Spelling should be correct. There is no excuse for spelling mistakes. Use your word processor's spell checker and a good technical dictionary. Don't mix British or American English; use the correct one for your target publication.

Punctuation is important: Scan through this article and count the many semi-colons; look at how they have been used. Rewrite a couple of sentences without them. Compare your results with the original. Check through articles you have read recently and make comments on easy and difficult to read passages, what are the differences? Can you improve the difficult ones? What makes the easy ones easy? Now look at your own articles; make the same observations. Can you make improvements? Read magazines that present science to a wider audience; many of them have Internet sites with published material. Look at the language; the structure; the punctuation.

Something else that can work well, say in your head (as if you were talking to someone else) what you wish to write and then copy down what you hear. My experience of asking my clients "What do you really mean by...?" generally elicits a clear concise response which if written verbatim needs little or no editing. Whilst editing your paper read it out loud. Why? Because reading out loud forces you to become a reader not the writer. You will "hear" your paper differently. If you run out of breath reading a sentence, it is probably too long.

Enough of that... Lets go back and now briefly look at the various sections in a standard paper.

A good title draws attention to your article. It should be brief and it must clearly identify the subject, represent the article's content, and facilitate retrieval in indexing and search systems. Many readers peruse titles in a journal's table of contents, or on a computer search engine, to decide whether they are interested in a paper. Start the title with key words - not with words such as 'Effect of' or 'Influence of.' Keep the title free of nonstandard abbreviations, chemical formulas, or proprietary names, and avoid unusual or outdated terminology; use common names whenever possible.

A good abstract says here's something interesting to read. Don't try to cram the whole paper into this section. Leave the "meat" for the article. Be brief and clear; write down the objective, any interesting method statements, remarkable results and a conclusion statement. Think of this as the advertisement for your work. The readers should be able to decide that they want to read the whole article from this information.

The introduction should tell the story of why you embarked upon this research, citing literature in the same field and the contribution you wish to make. It lays the ground for the rest of the paper.

The Materials and Methods section should describe clearly how you conducted the research in enough detail for another researcher to repeat it.

In the Results section remember: "A picture tells a thousand words." Repetitive data are best presented in tables, graphs, and figures; also readers typically study them before they read the text; each one should therefore be stand-alone, complete, and informative in itself. Use tables to list and organize data into logical easy to read blocks. Use whatever table-formatting features your word processing software provides. Learn enough about this feature to let the software do the work. Do not try to override these features with multiple spaces, tabs, and hard returns. Don't repeat in detailed prose what is already clear from an examination of these tables and figures; just call attention to significant findings and special features (e.g. one quantity is greater than another, one result is linear across a range, or a particular value is optimum). Only when there are a few determinations to be presented, treat them descriptively in the text; even then think of them as a linear table; take time to arrange them in a clear logical order.

If you do not have a separate Discussion section, relate the results to your objectives, and to each other.

Whether it is combined with the Results section or stands alone, use the Discussion section to focus on the meaning of your findings, not to recapitulate them. Conclusions should be clear and concise.

I hope my various comments, and ramblings will give you a few tools and guides to better present your research to the world. I always feel humbled by the quality of the research that passes in front of my eyes. I am honored to be able to help it reach those who wish to and can benefit from reading it.

Colin Knaggs

Publication Dates

  • Publication in this collection
    08 Oct 2002
  • Date of issue
    Dec 2001
Centro de Estudos de Venenos e Animais Peçonhentos - CEVAP, Universidade Estadual Paulista - UNESP Caixa Postal 577, 18618-000 Botucatu SP Brazil, Tel. / Fax: +55 14 3814-5555 | 3814-5446 | 3811-7241 - Botucatu - SP - Brazil