Most blog posts are written by Marina Hurley. If you are interested in seeing a topic covered as either a blog post or a writing guide, please let us know. Guest authors are invited to submit educational-based blogs relating to science writing and research. Please email info@writingclearscience.com.au for further information.


If science was perfect, it wouldn’t be science


A common claim espoused across social media is the idea that science must be perfect if we are to believe what is says. For example, when arguments are raised against vaccination, GMO and fluoridation of our water supply, science is criticised for not being perfect and that it should not be trusted. There is a clear assertion that scientists should not make mistakes, and when they do, that science itself is at fault.

What do scientists do?

Scientists solve problems, create new things, come up with new ideas, try things that don’t work and work at things that appear insurmountable. Scientists climb mountains to look at lava, swim with sharks to look at coral, dig ditches to uncover fossils, climb trees to study flowers, wear masks when mixing chemicals, stand all day measuring samples, or sit all day crunching numbers or staring at a computer screen. Scientists write, think, teach, create, destroy, argue, worry, mope and get excited. Scientists make new knowledge and dig through old knowledge for new answers or when working out new ways to do things. Scientists disagree with each other and criticise themselves and others and they try to do things better the next time around. They work with ideas, hypotheses and theories, and come to conclusions and make predictions. They are not always right nor do they expect to be. 

Scientists are not always certain

What we know about science comes from new research and from old research that is looked at again and again. There are things that we are certain are true; there are things that we are reasonably confident are true; then there are things we expect are likely to be true, while understanding there may be important exceptions. Then there are things that we think may, or may not, be true, depending upon the circumstances. Then there are things we are not really sure of at all but have a vague hunch that something about them might be true. Then there are things where very little is known. We don’t know everything and never will. A great many scientific ideas and opinions may be unsubstantiated or simply wrong. Hypotheses either grow up to be theories or discarded and melt into the background of productive thought. Theories are tougher, last longer and are much harder to break, but still do.

Science is not perfect
Science is a process of looking for answers and working on the best way to find these answers. It is not perfect; it couldn’t possibly be as it is done by humans in an imperfect world. Science doesn’t always find the answers and is often inconclusive and indecisive. When looking at their results, scientists regularly find that their answers are inconsistent or contradict currently-held viewpoints. What we know to be true today may be completely wrong at some point in the future, but this is what science is about. Scientific knowledge will always be incomplete. As soon as we find answers to one problem, up springs 10 more questions that demand attention. The search for answers will always bring new questions and new ways of looking at the world. Science is self-improving and never-ending; science is a work in progress.

Scientists make mistakes
Scientists try things that sometimes don’t work, but the idea is to learn why something didn’t work and to improve the method next time. This is a normal part of science. What is rare is when a scientist deliberately makes stuff up to make themselves and their study look good, in order to preserve or improve their career.
The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research “…advocates and describes best practice for both institutions and researchers…” and “…provides a valuable framework for handling breaches of the Code and research misconduct.”

Scientists can be afraid of making mistakes as the culture of science currently favours short, brand-new studies with exciting results over long-term, repetitive and boring studies that are still scientifically-important. The reports that say “we didn’t find anything” often don’t even get written, let alone published, allowing others to repeat the same ‘mistakes’ when trying to solve a problem. Similarly, I have met more than a few PhD students who spend a very long time worrying about their project ‘not working’ because it is common for studies not to produce the results you expect. It is difficult to do statistics on lots of zeros. Nevertheless the science behind why you didn’t find anything is as important as why you did find something.

The checks and balances of science

There are checks and balances that maintain and improve the quality of research but science itself is inherently rigorous; it has its own inherent checks and balances. The scientific record is research that is written and published so others can check that it was done properly, ideally other scientists then repeat or build upon the original study and try to do it better. The peer-review process means that other scientists get to verify that a study was done correctly. The published journal paper in bone-fide journals means that the science community gets to read and further judge whether a study is valid. If they don’t think a published study is good enough, they can write another paper to critique it. Those papers that make a big impact or make it into the higher quality journals get cited more often, meaning these papers are popular with other scientists and become more influential in their field.

Yet none of these checks and balances work perfectly. There are major criticisms of the peer-review system with many suggestions on how to improve the process. There are some papers that get rejected for publishing that shouldn’t have been, while there are papers that get accepted that shouldn’t and some of these get retracted, which means they are withdrawn from publication and are deleted from the journal (The top ten paper retractions for 2015 are listed here).

Scientists disagree with each other

There is a lot of trust in science. We trust that most studies produce accurate and reliable results but some studies are based on little evidence or were conducted with incomplete or even incorrect methodology. We hope that these studies will fail the peer-review stage, but they don’t always. Of those that do get published, if the scientific data is no
t strong, there can be differing opinions on the importance of that study’s conclusions. Nevertheless, below-standard published papers still create important and necessary debate. For example, the paper Neurobehavioral effects of developmental toxicity (Lancet Neurol. 2014; 13: 330–338) that looks at harm caused by fluoridation is critiqued by a paper published in response to this study Neurodevelopmental toxicity: still more questions than answers (Lancet Neurol. 2014; 13: 647 – 648).

Scientific disputes are normal and a necessary part of science. Providing the disagreement is between peers, disputes strengthen science. Disagreement forces researchers to look harder at their own ideas, beliefs and methodology.

There are many ways science can improve: for example, the peer-review process, the amount and extent of scientist training and mentorship, and the amount of funding for training and research. We also need to make is easier for scientists to do their work. The predominance of the publish or perish culture leaves little time for scientists to communicate widely or to do the boring but important work that might not get published in high-quality journals. The lack of funding, tenure and job vacancies means that many months of the year are devoted to preparing job and grant applications of which only a small fraction are successful.

Effective communication is essential

We need science to make decisions about all sorts of things and we usually do not have the time or money to study something 100 times for 100 years. Decisions often need to be made with limited information. Science is not a neat, perfect road map where the direction to home is clearly marked. It is more like the game of snakes and ladders, when sometimes you think you are making satisfactory progress, but something changes or goes wrong and the next step takes you straight back to the beginning.

Yet given the overwhelming advances in science, the drive to do it bigger and better continues. Scientists need the support and understanding of the community and the community needs reliable and digestible information about the impacts of science and technology.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.

Next course opens 26th September 2019

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.


10 writing tips for the struggling ESL science writer


For most people, learning a second language is a struggle, let alone learning how to be a proficient science writer in that language. The following tips and suggestions will help the struggling ESL science writer both identify and tackle common writing obstacles.

1. Don’t aim to learn all the rules of grammar before you start writing

It can take a long time to be proficient in all the English rules of grammar. Even many experienced writers with English as their first language are not proficient at English grammar rules, relying on their innate knowledge of the language when writing. Instead of thinking you need to learn every English grammar rule, concentrate upon the most common grammar errors when learning English as a second language. In a recent study, the most common written grammar errors by ESL tertiary students were found to be Subject – Verb Agreement (SVA) and Verb Tense (Singh et al. 2017).

2. Avoid trying to make your English grammatically-perfect in your early drafts

While the final version of your document should be grammatically correct, don’t worry about having perfect grammar before you start or when preparing early drafts. In your first draft, concentrate upon getting your ideas down and ensure you are addressing a clearly defined aim. You can fix up your grammar as you edit and rework your later drafts.

3. Try writing your first draft in your first language

If writing in English is a significant obstacle to getting your thoughts down, try writing your first draft in your first language to allow you to first concentrate upon writing about your topic clearly. Once you are satisfied with the progress of your document, you can then translate your writing into English and then seek assistance from a science editor to help you correct your grammar.

4. Continue with English conversation classes

Science writers who struggle to improve their written English, are also often not yet proficient in spoken English. Continuing with weekly or monthly English conversation classes will not only improve your written English, but will allow you to pick up commonly-used English vocabulary and terminology.

5. Ask a friend or colleague to regularly give you feedback on your spoken English

Normally, friends or colleagues will not correct your spoken English and unless you are continuing your conversation classes, it may take you a long time to learn where you need to improve. Try asking a friend or colleague to regularly give you feedback on your spoken English.

6. Ask a friend or colleague to give you feedback on late drafts of your document

In addition to any editing and feedback you might receive from co-authors, colleagues or managers, try asking a friend or colleague to give you feedback, specifically on your English grammar. This person need not be an expert in English grammar but be able to point out any obvious anomalies in your writing. Having someone focus on giving you feedback on your English will allow other colleagues to focus on giving you feedback on the scientific aspects of your work. In return, you could also offer to give feedback on your colleagues’ writing. This will also help you to improve your writing as critiquing the work of other writers allows you to notice areas of improvement you might not see in your own work.

7. Use online grammar exercises to improve your grammar

Grammar textbooks are excellent as reference texts to look up individual rules, while online grammar exercises are a good way to learn how to correct grammar using real examples. Online grammar exercises immediately provide both corrections and explanations.

8. Avoid online forums to learn about grammar rules

Grammar queries that are posted in online forums (for example Quora) are invariably answered by both experts and non-experts and some answers can be incorrect. This makes it difficult to decide which is the correct answer to follow. Also, there are some grammar rules that are more difficult to follow than others, especially if there are many exceptions to the rule; for example, the spelling rule ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. Only refer to reputable grammar websites that are specifically designed for education.

9. Be aware that not everyone agrees about what is correct English grammar

Be aware that not everyone agrees about what is correct English grammar and what is acceptable vocabulary. For example, some experts advise never to use contractions (for example “We’re” instead of “We are”) in scholarly or formal writing, yet contractions do not change the accuracy of the message and are argued to make reading more enjoyable.

Choose 3-5 grammar references that are reputable and written by trained, professional experts and consistently follow their advice. Also aim to follow the standard references and style guides for your discipline and institution.

10. Hire an editor that can explain grammar rules

If appropriate for your circumstances and if you have the resources, hire an editor proficient at explaining grammar and ask them to give you regular feedback on your writing.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.

Next course opens 26th September 2019

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.


The zone of silence: reducing distraction in the writing workplace


A meeting is a sacred workplace activity where people are given a quiet space to sit and a table to write on, and are shielded from interruptions or disturbances. You wouldn’t expect someone to randomly walk into a meeting without warning, cup of coffee in hand, and strike up a conversation about how bad the traffic was that morning. Yet these types of disturbances naturally happen when trying to write at your desk. Writing is as important as attending a meeting but doesn’t receive the same respect. Writing is expected to fit in around the edges of everything else: emails, queries from colleagues, telephones and computers. 

Trying to stay focused on any task is difficult if there are distractions. Distractions let the procrastination monster walk right in the front door and kick you out of your chair. Yet many people work in an open office: a shared workspace with no doors and often no walls. If you don’t have a door to close, it’s easier to get interrupted, easier to hear your neighbour‘s conversation and easier to hear incidental noises. Common ways of avoiding distraction are to put headphones on and listen to music (or pretend to), take your work home, or start early or leave late.

Avoid distractions when trying to write

Set up a Zone of Silence

A straightforward and inexpensive tactic is to create The Zone of Silence in your workplace. The Zone of Silence is simply an empty desk close to a powerpoint with a booking sheet stuck to the wall so everyone can see who is using it.

The rules of the zone of silence:

  • The area is used only for writing
  • Turn off your phone
  • Disconnect from the internet and wifi
  • Only brings notes and material connected with your current project
  • No talking
  • Avoid leaving to complete a different task
Active use of The Zone of Silence may raise the profile of writing as an activity that requires dedicated space and adequate periods of time if it is to be completed effectively. If The Zone of Silence, is taken seriously, there is an excellent chance that writing productivity can be improved.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.

Next course opens 26th September 2019

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.

Find out more about our writing workshops here.


How to write when you don’t feel like it


There are many obstacles that can prevent us from being productive and efficient writers, especially procrastination. Even if there is a looming deadline and we are well aware of what needs to be written, sometimes we simply don’t feel like writing. And if we don’t feel like writing, procrastination can creep in, and we might put off writing until the last minute and then produce something that is substandard or incomplete.

Here are four ways to set you on the path of writing, even when you don’t feel like it.

1. Write intensively for short blocks of time

Set a timer and commit to writing for only 30 minutes. Thirty minutes of writing might seem achievable when you don’t feel like writing. Tell yourself that after the 30 minutes is up, as a reward, you will allow yourself to do whatever you want for one hour. Commit to only write for 30 minutes and make sure that you don’t do anything else during that period: no re-reading what you wrote previously, no stopping to google something, no telephone, no talking. Just write. If you find this too hard, start with ten minutes.

If you are normally a productive writer, 30 minutes might not seem like a long time, yet 30 minutes writing is much better than not writing at all. We can write a lot within short time periods if we don’t allow ourselves to get distracted, especially with other work tasks.

Avoid setting the timer for too long a period. Avoid setting unrealistic goals for yourself as you will feel unproductive and unsatisfied if you don’t meet them.

When you set a timer, try placing it out of reach so you have to get up from your computer to turn it off. After 30 minutes, stand up and walk around, print out what you have written so you have physical evidence of your productivity. You may find that you want to reset the timer for another 30 minutes and keep going. Ultimately, you may find that setting these writing blocks allows you to break through the barrier of just getting started.

2. Don’t switch between writing tasks during a designated writing session

During your writing sessions, only compete one type of writing. If you are getting your thoughts down, just write freely and don’t switch to editing or proofreading halfway through. If you are rewriting a section of your document, don’t switch to writing new material on a related topic. 

3. Take a break from the computer: print your document out and use a pen

We spend a large proportion of our time in front of a computer for all sorts of work activities, especially writing.  Periodically take a break from writing on a computer, even if it is for a short time. Try printing out the latest draft of your document and take it to a café or a lounge chair with a pen and a notebook. Edit your draft by hand and use a notebook to write fresh material. You might find that the change in environment allows you to relax yet you can still work on your document.

I always print my document out whenever I complete a draft so that I can see how my writing looks on paper and then plan what writing I will do for the next draft. With a paper printout, I can see my whole document at a glance, without having to scroll through a digital version on a computer screen. Moving to a lounge or a comfortable environment, gives me a break from staring at a computer screen and sitting on an office chair.

4. Find a friend to write with

Writing is usually a solitary activity but you might it more enjoyable if you organise writing sessions with a friend or colleague. Try taking your laptops to a park or a café and set up 30-minute writing sessions followed by 30 minutes social chat. You could also read and give feedback on each other’s work.

And remember…

Avoid creating unrealistic expectations that create stress and reduce our work satisfaction. It is unrealistic to expect that we can be super-productive writing machines that can write anything, anywhere and at any time. Aim to write in intensive pre-organised, short blocks of time in an environment that is as comfortable and distraction-free as possible.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.

Next course opens 26th September 2019

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.


How to maintain high-quality images for publication


How to ensure your photos, graphs and illustrations are of suitable quality for publication

Digital images are stored in different formats, depending upon the software. Common examples include TIFF, JPEG and EPS. Before preparing figures for the web or for print, it is vital to ensure that the appropriate resolution is used.

Resolution describes the number of pixels within an image and image quality increases with resolution. A pixel is the smallest unit of digital information that forms an image. Resolution can be expressed as the number of pixels per dimension (e.g. 1200 pixels wide by 750 pixels high) or as the number of pixels within a specified area (pixels per inch or ppi). An image that has a resolution of 300ppi and is 4 x 2.5 inches in size, will be 1200 pixels wide (4 x 300) = and 750 pixels high (2.5 x 300). In general, the more pixels you have per unit area, the more detailed the image will be and the larger the file size. Some software (such as Photoshop) allows you to change the units to pixels per centimetre; however, the publishing standard is usually ppi.

The resolution of an image for viewing on a monitor is described in ppi, whereas the term dots per inch (dpi)describes the resolution of a printed image, as printers print dots and not pixels. The terms are used interchangeably but for most purposes, ppi and dpi are essentially the same thing to describe resolution. To view an image on the accepted resolution is 72ppi as most LCD monitors display 67-130ppi. When submitting figures for publication, 300 ppi is the generally accepted resolution for print images.

    High quality (300ppi)                                                                      Low quality (50ppi)

If your image needs to be 300ppi, then you need to consider the size of your image in the final printed form and the number of pixels in your total image. A photo that will be 4 x 2.5 inches when printed will need at least 1200 x 750 pixels to achieve the desired print-quality resolution of 300 ppi. If you have fewer pixels, then the quality of the image (i.e. the resolution) will be reduced. You can also quickly check whether the resolution is sufficient by zooming your image to 400% and if it is blurry (pixelated), then the image may not reproduce well when printed. For more information on image resolution, and another way to check if the resolution of your image is appropriate, see https://www.thecanvasprints.co.uk/image-resolution-for-printing. ​

When re-sizing an image, some software programmes automatically change the size of the image without changing the number of pixels. For example, if you re-size a 1200 x 750 pixel image from 4 x 2.5 inches to a 12 x 7.5 inches the number of pixels will remain the same but the resolution will drop from 300ppi to 100ppi . The larger image will look OK on the screen, but the image quality will be poor if it is printed. Whatever image size you require, ensure the final version is at the desired resolution.

Additional terminology

Colour space is the way colour information is stored in a file. Grayscale refers to black and white (and grey!) images which use a single colour channel. RGB is a commonly-used colour space that divides colours into 3 channels: Red, Green and Blue. RGB is used by computers and digital devices and is commonly used by publishers who want to make sure their documents are properly displayed on their reader’s devices. CMYK is a four channel colour space (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) commonly used during the printing process. An RGB image might need to be converted to CMYK if it will be printed. Some publishers will do the conversion themselves, so you need to be aware that the colour of RGB images may look different when converted to CMYK.

Re-sampling changes the number of pixels in an image. Re-sampling is different to re-sizing. Down-sampling removes pixels and creates a smaller image, whereas up-sampling adds pixels using algorithms. Because re-sampling adds or removes pixels, a loss of image quality could result. This could be particularly important if you are presenting images that are taken from a microscope; it is imperative that re-sampling does not change the specific features of the data within the micrograph. As a general rule, create your images at the highest resolution possible to avoid the need to re-sample. However, re-sampling may sometimes be necessary; for example, when converting a very high-resolution image to a small size (2 x 2 inches). Always keep original files and ensure that the re-sampling process only happens towards the end of the figure creation process, so that you can go back to the original image if needed.

​Image compression: Some file types (e.g. JPG) compress the pixels in the image to reduce file size. Be aware that different compression methods can affect image quality. Pay attention to the publisher’s requirements for compression and whether your software compresses by default.

Raster vs vector images: Raster images use raster data that is stored as pixels, for example, digital photographs. Because raster images use pixels, the quality is highly dependent on resolution. Vector images use vector data comprised of lines and curves, for example, line graphs. Because vector images do not use pixels, they can be re-sized to a very large size without becoming pixelated and losing quality. If you are publishing images that are line graphs only, consider using vector format files such as EPS. However, if you are assembling a line graph into a larger figure that includes digital images, the entire figure will become rasterised at some point; meaning that your vector image will become a raster image and need high resolution.

Additional reading on this topic

Introduction to Digital Resolution.
Image resolution and print quality.
How to create publication-quality figures.
The difference between image re-sizing and re-sampling.
Science: preparing your art and figures.

© Dr Liza O’Donnell and Dr Marina Hurley  2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.

Next course opens 26th September 2019

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.

Find out more about our writing workshops here.