Category Archives: Writing research reports

The difference between a writing rule and a good idea

Why do we have writing rules?

There is a lot of advice about how to improve writing. Some of it is not very helpful or may even make writing more difficult, especially if the advice is delivered as a rule.

How do writing rules evolve?

Sarah struggled with writing long paragraphs and found it helpful if she forced herself not to write more than seven sentences for each paragraph. Sarah said to Peter, “You should restrict your paragraphs to no more than seven sentences.” Peter tried this and it worked for him. He also found that it helped him if he also made sure his paragraphs were not too short. Later, he told his friend Sia that “It’s a good idea if paragraphs are no more than seven sentences and no less than three”. Sia told her friends in her tutorial group, “I’ve heard that paragraphs should be no more than seven sentences and no less than three”. If a suggestion is communicated with absolutes, such as, ‘should’, then it is more easily passed off as a rule. Problems then occur as many do not question something, if they believe it is a rule.

When teaching I am often asked questions phrased as ‘What is the writing rule for…’. I respond by making a clear distinction between what is a rule and what is simply a good idea. Then there is a third option that requires critical thinking and considered thought, before any advice is followed. This is the “Well it depends…” option.

Perhaps some advice ends up as a rule because it appears easier to teach using a black and white perspective. The problem with writing rules is that there are always exceptions. If there are too many exceptions then the rule becomes ambiguous, difficult to learn and difficult to teach. This is the case for some grammar, spelling and punctuation rules.


Some rules are good

Some rules are more important than others. Many grammar rules are essential. We need verbs in sentences otherwise we wouldn’t know what was going on; we need a subject so that we know who or what was doing the thing that was going on. Some grammar rules are important and some are no longer used or followed. Some rules are termed usage rules. Descriptive grammar is when grammar rules are taught based on current usage of the language while Prescriptive grammar is when grammar rules are taught based on rules that generally don’t change and are seen as absolute.

Some rules are archaic or out-dated

Never split your infinitives’ is a rule that dictates one must never place an adverb between ‘to’ and a verb’ (‘You have to quickly speak’ versus ‘You have to speak quickly’). This rule is no longer supported by the Oxford Dictionary yet is still commonly taught. The justification was based on an ancient Latin rule.

Some good suggestions need not be considered a rule

Some rules are just good ideas disguised as rules, for example, the advice that will help your consistency and flow, such as, ‘Always have the same size bullet point indents’. Instead ‘Be consistent with bullet point indents‘ is better: you will not be fined or lose your job if you change the size of your indents halfway through your report.

Some rules are not so good

Then there are rules that are, perhaps at best, only vaguely helpful. A student once claimed that their supervisor strictly enforced the rule to ‘Never write paragraphs shorter than three sentences or longer than seven’. Why? Why not? Who is this rule going to help? Once writing rules are let loose, they are hard to reclaim. Take the mantra we learned at school to supposedly help us with spelling, ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. This was nicely fielded by Simon Taylor’s tweet ‘Except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbour’ and is now also a t-shirt. Also, ‘Never start a sentence with, ‘However’, which must have come from the rule that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction. Personally, I have no problem starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’, as long as it makes sense. But down that path lies doom as it goes against writing convention. Then there is the ‘which and that‘ rule which, according to Jonathon Owen, someone simply made up, while the ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’ rule is one of Grammar Girl’s Top Ten Grammar Myths.

Some writing rules might help some people some of the time, but it’s the exceptions that leaves others fretting and googling. Some people prefer rules because they appear easy to learn and follow instead of having to work through writing problems.

Some rules reflect current convention

Then there is convention, which is defined as ‘what people usually do‘ or ‘an agreement between states covering particular matters, especially one less formal than a treaty‘. There are many writing conventions that are also camouflaged as writing rules. For example, the imperative not to use active voice is very strong in some academic disciplines as it is argued that it is un-objective, which, in science, is bad. The jury is still out and different disciplines have different ideas. There are occasions when active language is necessary; for example, to distinguish your ideas from someone else’s; for example when “It is considered that compound X is not necessary for short assays”, the reader might not know who did the considering; whether this is the author’s conclusion or a general, uncited principle gleaned from general knowledge and understanding of that topic. There are occasions when active language is not necessary; for instance in the Materials and Methods sections of reports, but then this might depend on whether a new method is being developed.

Write first

Yes, we want to avoid writing gobbledegook but let us write for clarity first, and then worry about convention. The top priority when writing about science is not to compromise your meaning. Make sure that what you write is clear and succinct and that your presentation is consistent and easy to navigate. Always get feedback from your friends and colleagues if you want to know if you are making sense. Then you can worry about whether you have followed conventions that will allow your document to get published.

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

When to cite and when not to

What information should be cited? Where do I place the citation in a sentence? These two questions are commonly asked in my writing workshops. Other problems I regularly see are too many citations to support a piece of information or statements of fact made that should be supported by a citation. This blogpost reviews the basic concepts of citation and discusses the importance of always citing your sources.

What is a citation?

Authors of scientific documents use citation to indicate when information comes from another source: who wrote (or produced) the information being discussed and when it was published. 

The standard method of citation is to insert in-text citations directly before, or after, the information that is attributed to another author. These citations are then listed at the end of the document within either a bibliography or reference list. A reference list includes only the references that are cited, whereas a bibliography is both a list of the references cited and additional references used when researching and writing the document.

There are many different referencing styles, including the Harvard style which is commonly used in science publications. The Author – Date (Harvard) in-text citation is where the authors surnames and dates of publication are written within brackets at the end of a sentence or phrase. If there is more than one reference for a particular statement, the citations are separated by semicolons. For example: “Aquatic air breathers periodically break the water surface to gulp air but never leave water (Gonzales et al. 2006).” * (Magellan 2016). Alternatively, the authors surnames are used as the subject of the sentence to introduce their findings, while the date of publication is still written in brackets. In this case, the previous example could be rewritten as ‘Gonzales et al. (2005) found that aquatic air breathers periodically break the water surface to gulp air but never leave water’*.


Where should the in-text citation be placed?

I am often asked which is best, whether to place the citation at the end of the sentence, in brackets, or at the beginning, forming part of the sentence. As a general guide, if you use the findings of a study to develop your reasoning, it is easiest and more concise to place the citation at the end of the sentence. That way you can easily list more than one study as a list of citations in brackets. However, if you are discussing a particular study over more than one sentence, it is easier for the reader if you first introduce the authors as the subject of the sentence.

Hyperlinking is used with electronic publications to link a quote or citation directly to the document being cited, as with the Fensham et. al (2017) paper cited below.

Ideas, quotes and paraphrasing should be cited

You must include a citation if you quote, paraphrase or summarise someone else’s information or ideas. Quoting is writing the exact words used by another author and enclosing the text in double quotation marks; for example: Fensham et. al (2017) concluded that “The findings of the current study support the importance of rainfall variability as the major influence on the demography of E. melanophloia, the dominant tree in a semi-arid savanna” (p. 780). Paraphrasing is rewriting someone else’s writing using your own choice of words; for example, I would both summarise and paraphrase this previous quote as, ‘Fensham et. al (2017) concluded that rainfall variability is the major factor influencing the demography of E. melanophloia’ or ‘The demography of E. melanophloia is most strongly influenced by rainfall variability’* (Fensham et. al 2017). [Note that I used single quotes here to distinguish my wording and double quotes for the direct quotation].

Why do we cite?

The main reasons we cite is to clearly distinguish our work from others and so the source of information can be located and verified. Citation also honours the work or intellectual property of the author. Researchers most often cite other studies when developing their reasoning for their own studies, when comparing their work with other researchers and to indicate when authors reach similar or dissimilar conclusions. In this way, the citation process maintains and further develops the scientific discourse and shows how authors place their work within the published scientific literature.

What information can be cited?

It is a good idea to only cite information that has been published or made publicly available. Be cautious about referencing information from documents that are not publicly available or have not been peer-reviewed. Unpublished research is referred to as grey literature. Grey literature is defined as “…research that has not been published commercially and is therefore not necessarily searchable via the standard databases and search engines. Much grey literature is of high quality and can be an excellent source of up to date research in certain subject areas. Examples of grey literature: government reports, conference proceedings, theses / dissertations, research reports, maps, policy statements, clinical trials, technical standards, interviews and newsletters” (UNSW 2018). If it is necessary to cite unpublished information, the integrity of this information may come into question if no other sources are provided. Be cautious about generating conclusions or inferences solely on the basis of unpublished information.

How to cite different types of publications.

Most Australian university library websites will list guides to different referencing styles; for example Queensland University and Victoria University have in-depth guides on different referencing styles and how to cite and reference different types of publications.Also refer to Colin Neville’s book, The Complete Guide to Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism (2016) for an in-depth guide on how to reference and cite a wide range of published material including books, papers, newspaper articles and audio-visual material.

What doesn’t need to be cited     

Scientific information that is commonly known to be true is not cited. Common knowledge is information that is widely accepted as being true and does not need to be cited. However, what is common knowledge depends upon the knowledge of the audience: what is commonly known to some groups of people would not necessarily be commonly known by another group of people. As readers, we trust that the author’s knowledge of what is commonly known is true. For example, my quote from Fensham (see above) included an unreferenced statement that E. melanophloia is a dominant tree in a semi-arid savanna (Fensham et al. 2017). I assume that this statement is common knowledge as it was uncited. Another example is that it is common knowledge to entomologists that (most) beetles have only one pair of flying wings, with the second pair of wings evolved to form protective covers to the flying wings. This fact would not need to be cited in entomology publications, not only because it is commonly known, but because it is easy enough to find out.

Avoid inadvertent plagiarism

If you continually make unreferenced statements, you can mislead the reader into thinking that your uncited information is either common knowledge or that you generated this information yourself. Remember that unreferenced statements can be considered plagiarism.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2018 www.writingclearscience.com.au

How to create figures from data

Figure 1: A line graph conveying a simple relationship between two variables. In this case, the variation of a measured hormone  over time.

 What is a figure?

Figures visually present information that cannot be clearly explained as written text or presented in a table. Figures can include graphs, flow charts, photographs, maps, illustrations, micrographs and diagrams. They can be simple; for example, a one-line graph that conveys a simple relationship between an x and y variable (see Figure 1), or they can contain multiple components, such as a graph, a diagram, a micrograph or photograph (see Figure 2). Figures have labelled components and a figure legend that clearly describes these components and summarises the key features.

 Planning your figure

As with tables, figures help the reader understand what you have found:  for example, key observations, statistically significant results, expected or unexpected trends in the data or any matter that needs further explanation. Figure design occurs after the data has been analysed and the main findings are apparent. The figures are usually presented in a results section and discussed in relation to  your research question or problem statement that was raised in your introduction. What figures you present also depends upon whether you are writing a report, journal article or thesis. A report can have a multitude of figures, while journal articles usually have strict page limits that force firm decisions on the number that can be included. Usually, there is more leeway for additional figures in a thesis.

Figure 2: An assembled figure contains multiple panels

When deciding how to place figures, prepare a mock layout to work out where each component will go, either by drawing boxes on  paper or by printing draft versions of what you expect the final version to look like. Will the figure take up one column or will it be a large multi-panelled figure that takes up two columns of a journal or one entire page of a thesis? (Figure 3)


 Preparing figures for journal publication

If you are preparing figures for journal publication, it is essential to first check the publisher’s requirements. Most journals have strict and detailed instructions with specific criteria: for example, image size, file type, resolution, colour space (e.g. RGB) and font types. If these criteria are not followed exactly, your publication may be returned by the editor for further changes.

Turning your raw data into a published figure: stay true to your data

Scientists are ethically bound to present their data truthfully and transparently. As a scientist, it is your responsibility to ensure that your figures accurately convey your original data and observations. In addition, universities and research centres must comply with the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. As you manipulate your raw data into graphs and prepare your images for publication, your raw data is inevitably transformed in some way; even simple line graphs are a transformation of a set of experimental values. Photo-editing programs can also transform digital images by re-sampling (see fact sheet: Preparation of figures as digital images), which could result in an image that is different to the original.

Figure 3: Consider whether your figures are small enough to fit in one column to save space; larger figures may require two columns.

When preparing figures for publication in any form, it is important that you adhere to your organisation’s requirements for transparency and peer review. How you manipulated your raw data into the published figure  must be  transparent and repeatable. For example, does your final, published image look like the fluorescently-labelled image you saw down the microscope? Is the photo one actually taken of your study subject and not  another one similar to yours? Does your graph accurately explain the data, or have you left out some aspects of the data and inadvertently misrepresented your original findings? Make sure you save your files at each step of the transformation from raw data into a final published figure, and keep the files together in one folder.

What software do I use?

First, establish what software is freely available to you via your university or organisation.  Graphs and charts can be drawn in Excel and in a variety of statistical programs. CorelDraw or Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator are often recommended by publishers to draw diagrams, and to compile your images, graphs and diagrams into a publication-quality figure.

Some software is expensive while free software is readily available on the internet with workflows available to show  how to create publication-quality figures using free software.  For any type of software, open-source software is often a good choice as it is completely free and is supported by an online community that engages in ongoing support and development. For example, freemind software for mind-mapping and Gimp for photo and image manipulation, and see Wikipedia for software listing for graphic software.

Microsoft Powerpoint is often readily accessible and can be useful for drawing or compiling diagrams. Set the page layout to A4 portrait and add all components, using alignment tools and rulers to align panels and text. However, Powerpoint only exports lower resolution files for monitors, rather than higher resolution required for printing. A way around this is to print the Powerpoint file to a pdf (using Adobe Acrobat Professional) and select High-Quality Print (300 dpi) in “Preferences”. The resulting pdf file can then be cropped and saved as a TIF file with a 300dpi resolution (use either Adobe Acrobat or Photoshop to crop and save as a TIF).

The essentials of a good figure

Once you have created the figure, check the following criteria:
- Does it look good when printed on paper? Can all the features of each different components be clearly seen?
- Are the labels clear and specific?
- Is the resolution of the final assembled figure appropriate?
- Does the legend title convey the key finding?
- Do the details in the legend adequately explain all of the components?
- Is the figure referred to at the appropriate places in the results section? Does the figure accurately convey what is written in the results?
- Ask a colleague to proofread and check the clarity of your figure. Can they understand the overall message? Do they understand what the different components are?

© Dr Liza O'Donnell & Dr Marina Hurley 2016

Further reading (external links):
* A brief guide to designing effective figures for the scientific paper
* What is open source?
Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research

If you are interested in Marina's live lectures and discussions our new free facebook group Q&A SessionsYou can join up here and come along and ask questions and view my previous Facebook live videos. If you subscribe to the Writing Clear Science newsletter you will receive information on upcoming workshops, recent blogposts and live lectures.

Back to basics: science knowledge is gained while information is produced

Some terms used to discuss and describe science are often used interchangeably which can cause confusion: for example, terms such as fact, hypothesis, theory, knowledge, information, results and findings. In this blogpost, I define some commonly-used terms used to describe science, while also explaining how science information is produced. I need to acknowledge that numerous philosophers and have spent many years, even entire lifetimes, debating and discussing the precise meaning of some of these terms. So I encourage you to read some of the books by important science authors and philosophers including Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking to develop a solid understanding of science philosophy and the current developments in science. Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything is also an excellent coverage of science suitable for a wide audience.

Knowledge versus information

The term knowledge is often used instead of information. However, science knowledge is what people gain or learn through absorbing science information or through doing their own research. Science information is a collection of facts that is based upon evidence which is the result of peer-reviewed or peer-verified research. The degree to which science information is considered true and correct will vary according to when the research was published, how large or lengthy the study was and the amount of published evidence that supports this information. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of information that may be considered true but is yet to be scientifically tested; for example, some home remedies for illnesses. 


Facts, assumptions and opinions

A scientific statement of fact is an explanation of a phenomenon or something that is generally held to be true and can be proved by evidence. Facts can later be disproved, as can hypotheses and theories. Communicating information as a judgement or a statement of fact, but without providing evidence for it being true, is expressing an assumption while believing that something is true based upon little or incomplete evidence is forming an opinion. Scientific opinions are generated from science knowledge and may or may not be true yet they are important for developing new ideas, new hypotheses and new science. Scientific opinions and ideas need to be developed into hypotheses or problems that can be tested and supported (or rejected) by research.

What should be cited

Strictly speaking, all science information that is not common knowledge should be cited; that is, the source of the information should be presented so that the reader can verify that the information is supported by evidence. Where relevant, opinions should also be cited, otherwise, it may be difficult for a reader to understand the difference between a scientific opinion and an uncited statement of fact (common knowledge). Common knowledge is what would be generally be accepted as being true without question by a large proportion of a group of people familiar with a certain topic. What is accepted as common knowledge of a topic will depend upon the background, knowledge and experience of the reader.

Results versus findings

The science information produced by a study and published in a research paper is also known as the study’s findings. Collectively, both the Results and the Discussion parts of a research paper represent the authors findings. The Results present the data or observations of the study and the Discussion presents the author’s interpretations that explain what these results mean in relation to the scientific problem under investigation. Traditionally, the format of the research paper is to distinctly separate the Results and Discussion sections so that the bare measurements of the results are not mixed in with, and made indistinguishable from, the author’s discussion or interpretations of their results. As different people may interpret the same data differently, it was (and still is) considered important to allow the reader to clearly see the results in isolation.  However, it may be difficult to separate results and discussion with some types of projects and within some disciplines.

Scientific interpretations are based upon the author’s knowledge, which is gained through their experience, through their reading and through their analytical (inductive and deductive) skills. If these scientific interpretations are accepted by peer-review and published, they may then be considered scientific facts. If other authors disagree with the interpretations in a published paper, they are expected to publish their own papers accordingly and a scientific debate may ensue. Individual interpretations will develop into a scientific consensus when similar studies produce similar results and different authors develop similar conclusions.

Similarly, a theory is supported by consensus. A theory describes the behaviour or activity of a phenomenon or phenomena. It is a statement supported by accepted hypotheses and empirical evidence. A hypothesis is a statement that describes the properties or behaviour of an object or phenomena. A hypothesis is either supported or rejected based upon the evidence developed from testing the hypothesis. A specific, simple hypothesis or null hypothesis is one designed to be easily tested; it can be either accepted or rejected or upheld or discarded. If repeated tests under different circumstances support the hypothesis, then the hypothesis can be developed into a theory. From this theory further hypotheses can be generated. A theory can be supported, validated, reframed, modified or rejected according to evidence. A theory that has been refuted must be discarded and is no longer referred to as a theory.

My next free online mini-lecture in on the topic When to Cite  via our new free facebook group Q&A Sessions, You can join up here and come along and ask questions and view my previous Facebook live videos. If you subscribe to the Writing Clear Science newsletter you will receive information on upcoming workshops, recent blogposts and live lectures.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2018 www.writingclearscience.com.au

The essentials of science writing: What is science writing?

What is science writing?

At its simplest definition, science writing is writing about science. What is central to all types of science writing is that the topic under discussion is a scientific topic; that is, information that has been gathered using accepted scientific methods.

Science writing takes different forms, depending upon the purpose of the author and who the document is designed for. Science writing can create a thesis, a research paper, a report, a blog, magazine article, fact sheet or video script. A scientist publishing a research paper will write for their peers, a journalist writing for a popular science magazine will write for people who are fascinated by science and technology while a technician writing a report may write for other technicians who need to know about a new methodology. The type of terminology used by science writers will depend upon the level of knowledge, education and expertise of the target audience. Scientific terms are only considered jargon if they are used for the wrong audience. Therefore, it is essential that science writers correctly identify their target audience when designing their document.

If it’s not written, peer-reviewed and published, it’s not science

Writing is the foundation of science. Ideas start with a thought, but we can’t walk on Mars or cure Alzheimer’s without writing about it first. All scientists should write and publish their work, otherwise their work will not be considered science; If it’s not written, peer-reviewed and published, it’s not science. New facts, phenomena, dilemmas, hypotheses, theories or ideas all must be written, peer-reviewed and published before they can be considered part of the scientific literature. Anyone can do science and get it published, as long as the methods, analysis and scientific interpretations are validated by peer-review.

Good scientists need to write well and often. For a project to become science knowledge, not only does it need to be written and published (hopefully, in an interesting way), science writing must be read, understood, acknowledged and acted upon.

Who can write about science?

Anyone can write about science, irrespective of background or qualifications, as long the concepts developed and discussed are backed up with solid science and cited accordingly (peer-reviewed, published evidence).

Not all research produces solid science and not all published science is perfect. If the science used to back up a story is not solid, then the language used must reflect that degree of uncertainty. Cautionary language should be used to describe studies that are preliminary, explorative or produce inconclusive or weak results; these include studies that are short or have few samples, studies that have only been repeated a few times, or studies that are based upon assumptions, vague premises or broad hypotheses. Assertive and positive language should be used when studies have been widely validated and when scientific principles are supported by strong evidence. Too often the conclusions made by one small study are taken up by professional and social media with the cautionary language removed.

Science needs to be written

We write about science to inform. We write about science so that others can learn from our achievements. We write about science so that others can repeat what we’ve done, use our results to inform their own research or take the next step and create something new. We write about science to benefit of our community and our environment. We write about science because it is fascinating, mystifying, mind-boggling, intriguing, surprising and sometimes scary.

Science needs to be written clearly

Science writers often need to convince their audience to change their thinking or behaviour. This requires even greater efforts to write clearly and to write well. If you have a good argument and are unable to write it well, your reader will be lost. If your argument is poorly structured or if your writing style is verbose, you don’t stand a chance to engage your audience. If you have a well-written argument, your reader may not necessarily agree with you, but hopefully they will spend their valuable reading time thinking about your argument, rather than trying to work out what you are trying to say.

© Marina Hurley 2018

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Further reading