Scientific writing and editing: problems, pitfalls, and pratfalls
By Elaine R. Firestone (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[Presented at STC’s 49th annual conference, Nashville. Reprinted with permission.]
Clear and concise scientific communication is a goal to strive for at all times. To achieve this clear and concise prose, however, is not the responsibility of just the scientist-author or just the editor, but rather of an integrated team of both. What happens, however, when this team or partnership does not work? This article will explore different problems editors might face in a scientific workplace and how the problems can be fixed or at least alleviated.
When authors of scientific texts put their ideas on paper, it is often after years of academic study or research. By the time their words actually get committed to paper, they are intimately joined to those words and ideas and are often loath to change a single word or comma when the editor says to do so.
How is an editor to interact with scientists and other authors who are clearly the subject-matter experts, but not the English experts? How should an editor deal with the author’s possible cultural, gender, and even academic biases? This paper will explore these issues and give some constructive advice for writers and editors of scientific documents who are the writing and editing “instruments” but not the subject-matter experts themselves.
Style issues: can you and should you bend?
Firestone and Hooker (2001) noted that in general, style guides are just that—guides, not the rules set in stone. What happens, however, when they are the rules, when the editor must follow them, but an author refuses? In an organization that only allows third-person prose with an author who uses first person, what can an editor do? Unfortunately, the answer often depends on whom the editor is working for (i.e., who pays the editor’s salary).
Technical editors for a peer-reviewed journal
If an editor is working for a peer-reviewed journal and this person’s sole work is to edit accepted manuscripts that have gone through the peer-review process, there are really only two possible options:
- Ask the supervising technical editor to make the decision (a.k.a., “passing the buck”).
- Rewrite the text to conform with the journal’s style, and confirm those edits with the author—with an explanation about the requirements of the journal’s style guide.
Returning the manuscript to the author is not an option because a manuscript that has gone through the peer-review process has already been accepted by the reviewers, possibly after several revisions. If such a manuscript was sent back for further revision, it might have to go through the review process again. That’s not acceptable.
Technical editors for a company or organization
A technical editor working for a company or organization and faced with a similar situation may have an additional option, depending on the organization and degree of management support: return the manuscript to the author for the author to revise according to the company’s style. This, of course, must be done politely and professionally, in addition to “gently” but also firmly in some cases.
Nonetheless, style issues can remain problematic to the author, and thus, to the editor, too. Remember that if you bend (or break) a style rule for one author, other authors will demand equal treatment. That sets a dangerous precedent.
Remember that scientists may be writing simultaneously for the organization that pays their salaries and for another organization (e.g., a journal). It is natural for them to be more familiar with their favorite journal’s style than with their employer’s style. Because of this, manuscripts written for their employer may demand a totally different style than what they’re familiar with. Do not automatically assume wilful disobedience; departures from corporate style may merely be force of habit.
The same options are available as for journal editors. In addition, you have the option of returning the manuscript to the author for rewriting. Be prepared for the author to appeal to the authority of their favorite journal. Politely and professionally remind the author that they’re not writing for that journal.
Changing words? Changing attitudes?
Journal editors have virtually no contact with the authors themselves. Because of this, the remainder of this paper will deal exclusively with editors who work directly with authors. In that situation, what happens when authors are unwilling to accept changes? What happens when they insist that their prose is clear when it definitely is not?
When an author has this type of attitude toward the editorial process or toward the editor as a person, it is sometimes difficult to remember that the author is not an enemy to be fought and defeated. Instead, the editor must become the author’s ally in the fight for good communication (Zimmerman and Taylor 1999).
Try to meet authors informally while a manuscript is being written, or at least prior to the actual submission of the manuscript. Talk to them, and explain your role is in the publication process. Tell them why you’ll make style changes and how you can help them. After all, they are the subject-matter experts, but you’re the language expert (Zimmerman and Taylor 1999). Remind them that you serve as the reader’s liaison between the research and understanding (Armbruster et al. 2001); if the reader cannot understand what is written, the information is not usable.
“Stand your ground”
If you work directly with authors, you must earn their trust and respect. Although it is all right to be flexible when appropriate, stand your ground on matters of grammar, punctuation, and syntax when you know you are right (Davis and Hodges 1995). Authors respect and trust editors who have this knowledge and who can explain the reason for changes made. Use these explanations as an opportunity to teach the author to write better. Be prepared to explain the errors and their solutions using respected references such as dictionaries, published style guides, and grammar texts. Don’t forget that tact and diplomacy go a long way when querying or correcting an author. What you perceive as incorrect grammar or punctuation may actually be a case of misunderstanding the author.
Offer your expertise while manuscripts are being written, not just as a fait accompli (Davis and Hodges 1995) after the manuscript’s submission. Many problems could be avoided if the author consulted you ahead of time.
The “thesis advisor syndrome”
Scientists and others with advanced degrees often enter the workplace suffering from the “Thesis Advisor syndrome”. No matter how well they may have written before their thesis or dissertation, they may have left the thesis-writing process with misinformation, including incorrect grammar and punctuation—but they’re convinced this information is correct. Why does this happen?
In graduate school, thesis advisors have significant input into the selection and approval of a student’s thesis topic. They also decide when the thesis is acceptable for submission to the review committee. Without their approval, the student will not be awarded their degree. Some advisors will not approve a thesis unless their notions of correct English (incorrect though they may be) are adhered to. Without a caring editor’s intervention, authors pass on these bad habits to other authors. Try to overcome these incorrect ideas and habits by using the inaccuracies as a teaching tool.
Who has the ultimate responsibility?
The author is responsible for the technical and scientific accuracy of a manuscript (Roper 1993). This does not mean that editors cannot find technical errors. Indeed, many editors have considerable knowledge of the subjects they edit and may find technical errors. The author’s temperament and the nature of your relationship with the author will determine how you, as the editor, make the query: as a team player or as a supplicant.
Differences and biases
Interactions between authors and editors can be difficult enough under the best of circumstances. What happens when various differences and biases enter the equation?
If you work in a multicultural workplace, learn something about the cultural background of your authors. People from other cultures relate differently to people. Some cultures stress politeness and the need to avoid offending others. Other cultures define “personal space” differently. Get to know your authors and what cultural differences might impede your interactions with them before problems arise.
People for whom English is their second (or third) language have learned different sentence structures and different “mistakes” than authors who have grown up speaking, reading, and writing English. For example, some Asian and Eastern European languages do not use articles, and even the concepts for words such as “a”, “an”, and “the” may not exist. Manuscripts by such authors are often devoid of articles or use articles incorrectly. Although these are definite “mistakes” in English, the errors may not exist in the author’s native language. If you are aware of these differences, you can fix them during editing with a minimum of angst.
Unfortunately, a disproportionately high number of men work in the sciences and mathematics, which often leads to gender bias in the workplace (Strauss et al. 1991). Sometimes these biases are cultural in nature, but no matter where the bias comes from, you must stand your ground (Davis and Hodges 1995). Remember that you are the language expert, irrespective of your sex. If being firm does not alleviate the problem, discuss the problem with a supervisor or the human resources staff. Because this sometimes involves bringing upper management into the situation, consult the Human Resources Department formally only as a last resort.
Remember that people are products of their upbringing, so gender bias is hard to unlearn. It can also be hard to prove, and once proven, may not be acknowledged as a problem by the offenders.
Academic bias is prevalent in the sciences. Scientists with advanced degrees work long and hard for their degrees, but sometimes try to use their degrees to claim expertise outside their field of study. For example, they presume to know more about language than the editor. This may hold true for authors with a degree in English, but most scientists are no more knowledgeable in writing English than any other well-read person. Some authors use their degrees as a defense mechanism by trying to make the editor feel inferior. Don’t play this game. Scientists and editors must be team players who are willing to listen to each other and do what is necessary to produce a clear, concise manuscript.
The problem of academic bias will generally disappear with time, as you develop a working relationship with the scientist. If not, try talking candidly to the scientist as one professional to another. Inform the scientist of your academic background and professional credentials. Stress the fact that the author is indeed the scientific expert and that although changing the science is not part of your job, you may still detect a problem that must be brought to the scientist’s attention.
In an ideal workplace, scientists and editors work as an integrated team whose main concern is communicating clearly and concisely to readers who need to hear their information. The workplace, however, is often not ideal. Scientists and editors both bring their culture, experience, and sometimes their ego, to their workplace. Part of the editor’s job is to educate authors about what editors do and what an editor can do for them (Zimmerman and Taylor 1999) to enhance their research by adding value to their writing.
Most problems you will encounter in a scientific environment can solved entirely, or at least alleviated, with a few simple tactics:
- Communicate openly and honestly with authors.
- Conduct yourself politely and professionally.
- Understand the author’s cultural background and other sources of bias or friction.
- Stand your ground as a professional.
Most scientist–editor relationships are good ones, and become truly symbiotic: the editor would not be employed if it were not for the author, but the author would not look as good in the eyes of the scientific community without the editor’s assistance. It is in the best interest of both parties to maintain a polite and professional relationship to alleviate or completely avoid the problems described in this article.
Armbruster, D.L.; Burgan, M.W.; Farmery, C.M.; Hibbard, J.L.; Nadziejka, D.E. 2001. Issues in scientific communication. P. 549–550. In: Proc. 48th Annual Conf. Soc. Tech. Comm., 13–16 May 2001, Chicago, Ill.
Davis, N.E.; Hodges, M. 1995. Tips for scientific communicators: how to become a member of the research team. P. 207. In: Proc. 42nd Annual Conf. Soc. Tech. Comm., 23–26 April 1995, Washington, D.C.
Firestone, E.R.; Hooker, S.B. 2001. Careful scientific writing: a guide for the nitpicker, the novice, and the nervous. P. 505–510. In: Proc. 48th Annual Conf., Soc. Tech. Comm. 13–16 May 2001, Chicago, Ill.
Roper, D.G. 1993. How much technical knowledge do editors need? The author’s perspective. P. 215–217. In: Proc. 40th Annual Conf. Soc. Tech. Comm., 6–9 June 1993, Dallas, Texas.
Strauss, M.J.; Shaffer, S.; Kaser, J.; Shaw, K. 1991. Gender bias in mathematics, science and technology: the report card #3. Mid-Atlantic Equity Center, The American University, Washington, D.C. [Available online by searching at www.enc.org] 6 p.
Zimmerman, D.; Taylor, C. 1999. Technical editors: are we our own worst enemies? Strategies for working with authors. P. 351–354. In: Proc. 46th Annual Conf. Soc. Tech. Comm., 16–19 May 1999, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Elaine R. Firestone, ELS, was been the Senior Scientific Technical Editor for NASA’s Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) Project for more than 10 years, and was responsible for the editing, typesetting, and production of the SeaWiFS Postlaunch Technical Report Series. Elaine has been an STC member since 1997, the same year she became a board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences (ELS). She has a BS in Horticulture from the Pennsylvania State University, with minors in English and Music.
Editorial: Paying back, scientifically speaking
By Geoff Hart (email@example.com)
I was trained as a scientist, but though I briefly contemplated a career in research, I discovered that my real passion was the printed word (and later, the online word). Having reconciled myself to the notion that there would be no Nobel prize in my immediate future, I set about learning the trade of editor and honing my passable skills as a writer into a sharper tool. Reading the Chicago Manual of Style cover to cover, and washing that information down with a dose of Strunk and White and a Plotnik chaser, gave me the foundation for the skills I needed to do the new work I was seeking. What was lacking? More formal training in the art and science of communication.
I was fortunate. When I landed my first job, with the Canadian Forest Service, my mentor introduced me to the Society for Technical Communication and budgeted for my membership fee. I soon found a treasure trove of information that could be applied directly to my new profession: an improved understanding of the concept of audience, insights into data graphics through my readings in information design, and a wealth of information in applied cognitive psychology, among many other things. Over the years, I’ve deepened my insights into these and many other fields; better still, I’ve learned to apply the techniques of technical communication to my work in scientific communication. I’ve also joined a community of kindred spirits who have nurtured me and given me an opportunity to nurture others in turn, which is arguably the greater gift.
STC’s near-total lack of focus on anything to do with scientific communication has made membership even more useful. Some friends have argued that membership in a science-focused organisation such as the Council of Science Editors or the National Association of Science Writers would be a more effective way to hone my skills, and there’s certainly some merit to that suggestion. But I’m already immersed in the practice of scientific communication, and what I wanted more than anything else was an outsider’s viewpoint—one that would provide a whole range of different skills and attitudes that could be brought to bear on the problems I face as a scientific communicator. The isolation of the scientific communication community does provide a more focused range of expertise, but leads one to internalize that commmunity’s prejudices and received knowledge. That kind of acculturation makes it much harder to bring new insights to bear on one’s work. STC provides an antidote to a potentially insular world view.
There’s much that we scientific communicators can learn from STC, particularly in the fields of information design and audience analysis. But what could STC learn from us? Let’s consider just one simple example of the kind of things scientific communicators do better than anyone else, and how the related skills could be transferred to other branches of technical communication.
The schema of journal articles
The peer-reviewed journal article has a standard structure so well known to scientists that experienced readers can use its schema (mental model) without conscious thought to gain entry into the information stored in an article. The form in which the information is presented matches its intended use so closely that it’s hard to imagine the kind of breakthrough that would lead to an improved design. Yet if you compare journal articles with (say) software user manuals, it rapidly becomes apparent that no such standard schema exists for documentation. Instead, readers must discover and learn to use a different schema each time they open a new manual.
What if we applied the journal model, suitably modified to fit the new audience and new context, to the task of structuring user documentation? For example:
- An abstract summarizes key insights that the larger text will discuss in more detail. Analogous “quickstart” guides and “quick reference cards” exist for some products. Why not make them part of all user documentation?
- The Introduction provides an overview of a problem the research community faces and of how other investigators have addressed the problem. Documentation should provide similar introductory information that describes what problems the software has been designed to solve. Yet such overviews tend to be either absent or shallow, and no documentation I’ve encountered refers to the broader body of pre-existing knowledge that provides context for the tasks supported by the software. Shouldn’t desktop publishing software provide a tutorial on page layout and typography?
- In a journal article, the Methods and Materials section lets readers assess the validity of the experimental approach, ponder how it might have influenced the results of the research, and repeat the experiment themselves to replicate and thus confirm the results. Documentation rarely includes analogous overviews of the metaphor or metaphors used to structure the software (the methods by which one obtains the desired results) and a discussion of how the input materials affect the use of those methods. Imagine, for example, a word processor manual that discusses effective outlining techniques, then describes how that software implements them.
- The Results and Discussion sections (which are sometimes combined) report what the researchers discovered and the implications of these discoveries in the context of the original research problem. A clear parallel in documentation might be descriptions of which techniques work most effectively, situations in which other techniques would be preferable, and where to go for more powerful, more advanced techniques. Consider, for example, the huge market in “how to” books for Photoshop. When the Results and Discussion are separate, the results appear first, without interpretation, so readers can ponder the meaning of the data before having their own interpretation influenced by someone else’s interpretation; the interpretation (Discussion) then follows. These sections have clear analogies in documentation: separate reference (“just the facts”) and procedural sections (the author’s opinion about how to apply those facts), or sections that integrate this material.
- The Conclusions present a more detailed summary of the key points presented in the Abstract, explore their limitations, and present a call for additional research. In documentation, this section could easily become an expanded Quickstart guide, or an indication of where the current software ends and what other software can take you beyond that point. For an example, consider a word processor manual that explains the difference between its own table functions and the more powerful ones offered by spreadsheet software.
- The Literature Cited section in a journal article provides references to published information by other authors that supports the author’s overview of what is already known, justifies the author’s research approach, and supports (or contradicts) the author’s findings. In documentation, the equivalent might be background material (e.g., references to classic textbooks in photography for users of Photoshop), “best practices” (e.g., cookbooks of standard programming algorithms for software developers), and references to other useful books that go beyond the scope of the current documentation (e.g., references to the “Missing Manual” series of books published by O’Reilly and Associates).
Paying back (and forward)
No one approach fits all situations, and the journal article schema clearly isn’t a perfect match for user documentation. The power in my example lies in considering each of the strengths of this schema, in discerning the underlying principles that give rise to each strength, then applying those principles to the task of improving user documentation. In my example, I’ve listed seven components of a journal article and briefly discussed their principles and how these principles might be applied in technical communication. Let me now issue a challenge: How can you apply those principles to the types of task a typical STC member might have to accomplish? How have you applied these principles?
If you have any insights, disagree with any of my assertions, or want to expand on what I’ve written, The Exchange would be a great place to do so. I’ve long wanted to start an ongoing dialogue on how we can apply the techniques of scientific communication to other forms of technical communication. Conversely, if you’ve learned something from STC that applies to scientific communication, why not share it with other members of the Scientific Communication SIG? There’s plenty of room in our newsletter for a broader range of voices, and I’d be pleased indeed to offer you that room in which to share your own insights.
Online updates: information of interest on the Web
Compiled by Geoff Hart (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Know of any other good resources? Pass them along to me and I’ll publish them in the next issue.
HighWire Press (www.highwire.org, a service of Stanford University) appears to be an interesting source for free or other unrestricted-access journals in science and science-related fields. Their Web page claims: “4,502,141 articles in over 4,500 Medline journals, 696,839 free full text articles”. Worth a look!
Odd though it seems, not all scientific writers and editors are math whizzes. Here’s a good refresher course if you want to find out whether your math has slippped: www.ire.org/education/math_test.html
Or have a look at “Five common, embarrassing mistakes journalists make with numbers”: www.journalism.org/resources/tools/reporting/numbers/mistakes.asp?from=online
Location: New York, NY, USA
Company: Nature Publishing Group
Description: The Nature Publishing Group seeks a copy editor for its prestigious journal Nature Medicine. This challenging job involves substantial editing of complex technical manuscripts to make them clear and consistent with our style. Applicants should have an advanced degree in molecular biology or related field, excellent literary abilities and a strong interest in the communication of scientific ideas. Requires strong computer skills, precise attention to detail and ability to work closely with editors and authors to meet regular deadlines. 1-2 years scientific copy editing experience strongly preferred. Full-time position with competitive salary and benefits.
Reply to: Resumes should be received as soon as possible and no later than April 23, 2004. To apply, please send cover letter, salary history, and resume to:
Nature Publishing Group
345 Park Ave. South, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10010-1701
The Sheridan Press (Hanover, PA) is looking for an in-house journal production editor. “A Bachelor or Associate degree in English is preferred. Excellent PC skills, verbal and written communication skills, customer service skills, and the ability to work in a fast-paced team environment are required. The rewards are competitive compensation and full benefits that include medical/dental/vision/life insurance, tuition reimbursement, 401(k) profit sharing plan with a company match, and an excellent opportunity to grow with a leader in the printing and publishing industry.”
Details available on the Council of Science Editors job board: www.councilscienceeditors.org/jobbank/position_available.cfm
[Editor’s note: This seems to be a good site to bookmark if you’re looking for work in scientific communication.]
Students interested in gaining scientific and medical editing experience on papers related to hypnosis, brain mechanisms, attention, and vision are invited to partake in a unique opportunity at Columbia University. This opportunity is mostly for students either as a summer stint or as a way to gain experience in scientific/medical editing. People who get the position will not become Columbia employees.
Anyone can apply, including freelance editors who telecommute, but there is no money associated with it, as this opportunity is meant for those who wish to build their scientific editing skills by having some experience working on real projects. You will be responsible for heavy rewrites and editing/proofreading of scientific papers at various stages of production (e.g., draft documents and proofs).
- Scientific editing
- Proofreading for lucidity, proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, and style
- Checking for medical/scientific accuracy
- Preparing papers and book chapters for review by scientific journals
- Ensuring that material is properly referenced
- Excellent writing skills
- Scientific/medical inclination
- Pithy and exact style
Send CV and letter of interest to:
Dr. Amir Raz, Assistant Professor of Clinical Neuroscience
Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and New York State Psychiatric Institute
1051 Riverside Drive, Mail Code 74
New York, New York 10032
Tel.: 212-543-6095, Fax: 212-543-6660
“As an historian of ideas, I’ve noticed that the models people use to understand mental processes reflect the technology of their time. For example, in the 17th century, people thought about the mind as though it were a mirror or a lens, and this ‘reflects’ the advances made then in the fields of optics and lens making. The Freudian model of mind, developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seems based on the ubiquity of the steam engine locomotive. Ideas billow up from the subconscious to the conscious in the same way steam moves from boiler to compression chamber. In the early twentieth century, the mind was viewed by some as a vast telephone switching network with circuits and relays running through the brain. For the past thirty years, we’ve had a new model of mind: the computer.”—Roger von Oech, A Whack on the Side of the Head
“What you get out depends on what you put in; and as the grandest mill in the world will not extract wheat-flour from peascods, so pages of formulae will not get a definite result out of loose data.”—Thomas Henry Huxley, biologist and writer (1825–1895)
Contact and copyright information
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