Recently I attended a lecture that explored good science writing and the current issues in science writing. Our speaker, Dr Julie Irish from BioText  stressed that science writing needs to be accurate, clear and objective to have meaning within the science community and to a general audience.

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John.C. Houbolt at blackboard, showing his space rendezvous concept for lunar landings. NASA.

Therefore, it makes sense that the rules of good writing also apply to science writing. Using plain English and an active voice helps to present a clear message. However, there are a few tactic’s currently used in science writing that prevent a clear message being heard. These are hedging, jargon, biased language and exaggeration.

We have all used hedging words to soften the impact of strong statements and here are some examples you may be familiar with:

seem(s)(ed)     a bit             almost         mostly

a little             nearly           perhaps       kind of

somewhat       sort of           any             possibly

maybe            suppose         probably      might

apparently      some             a touch        a tad

partially         partly            sometimes    hardly

Jargon is often used to convey specific meanings within a scientific field, but it can be confusing to others outside of your field and completely overwhelming to a general audience. It is difficult to find the right balance between conveying a specific meaning and not over simplifying things, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki of the ABC does it quite well.

Biased language in science writing can convey a suggested outcome before results have been received.  For example: Evidence to date suggests the health effects of wind turbines are strongly mediated by subjective factors (The Australia Institute, 9 December 2014). This statement implies that ‘future evidence’ may say something different and builds up readers expectation to that end.

Lastly there is exaggeration, a tactic quite common in science writing. It is used to make a greater impact then necessary, more often than not sensationalising research. This only distorts current research and can aid in distorting future research based off it.

Though I am not a science writer or communicator I got quite a lot out of Dr Julie Irish presentation. I think it is really good advice for any writer to avoid hedging, bais, jargon and exaggeration in their work.

Further Resources:

  1. Australian Manual of Scientific Writing
  2. Writing in the Sciences – Free MOOC
  3. Avoiding Common Mistakes


Feature image: Rowan Drinkwater, Measuring gas flux from soil in South-west Queensland, 2015