Tag Archives: science

Work procrastination: important tasks that keep us from writing

There is a lot of angst with people who want to write, yet cannot seem to. This is commonly referred to as writer’s block. Often the cause of writer’s block is procrastination.

There are a lot of blogs about procrastination; lots of advice and many very humourous blogs and skits (remember when Bernard from Black Books (Series 1, Ep. 1) gladly paired his socks and welcomed in the Jehovah’s Witness to avoid having to do his tax?). We could procrastinate by reading about procrastination: It’s very easy to procrastinate by learning how not to procrastinate. It’s also easy to recognise most types of procrastination: playing computer games, snacking, walking the dog, doing the dishes, chatting to your work colleagues and generally allowing yourself to get distracted by anything colourful, shiny, noisy or interesting.

A less obvious type of procrastination is simply keeping busy, also known as busywork: “work that usually appears productive or of intrinsic value but actually only keeps one occupied”. What is even less obvious is what I call work-procrastination; this is when you are working on a task that is very closely related to, but is not actually, writing. For example, sorting computer files; doing that extra bit of background reading on a topic you are already familiar with; editing the reference list of your report; looking up the perfect definition of a concept; proofreading; re-reading; or spending 40 minutes rewriting and polishing a nearly-perfect paragraph when you haven’t yet considered what might be the major points in your first draft.

You tell yourself that working on these related tasks will ultimately help complete the task; you convince yourself that they are important and necessary and that they must be completed before you write. Because we know these related tasks still have to be completed at some point, we procrastinate by doing them instead of writing.

How to realise when you are work-procrastinating?

When you stop writing and allow yourself to be distracted by other important tasks.

How to avoid work-procrastination?

–        Block off time on your calendar where you are only writing.
–        If it’s a first draft, just write. Write messily and incoherently and incompletely. Get your main ideas out first.
–        Don’t stop and worry if you are making sense – leave that for when you tackle the second draft.
–        Don’t stop and re-read and edit what you’ve just written– leave that for when you tackle the second draft.
–        Set up a zone of silence to reduce distractions. 

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

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

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What goes into a document’s Appendix?

In a nutshell: Any additional information or data that supports the main document or report.

Appendices (singular; appendix), supporting information, and supplementary data are terms that describe information presented as an attachment to a report, paper, article or thesis. The term used depends on the type of communication being prepared; appendices are usually used in theses and reports, whereas supplementary data or supporting information are often terms used by scientific journals.

Scientific journals place constraints on the length of published papers and actively encourage the use of supporting information to keep papers short and concise. Supporting materials are also peer-reviewed and their inclusion should be scientifically relevant.

In general, supporting information is:

– Relevant to the main report and provides extra information that will expand the reader’s knowledge of the topic.

– Not strictly necessary or essential; the report should include all of the information required to address the research problem and still be understandable to the reader without referring to the supporting information.

– Too cumbersome for the main report.

Examples of supporting information include:

– Extra information about methods used in the research project; for example, details on reagents, specific conditions used, and detailed descriptions of measuring instruments.

– Large and complex datasets, with a summary or subset of the data included in the main report. Large spreadsheets using software such as Excel can often be inserted in supporting information.

– Detailed drawings, maps, diagrams or charts.

– Sample calculations or detailed mathematical derivations.

– Questionnaires or surveys.

– Raw data or analytical data (e.g. data produced from instruments), with a summary of the processed data included in the main report.

– Detailed text, such as transcripts of interviews and excerpts from surveys.

– Summaries of other reports that expand the reader’s knowledge of the topic.

For studies with large datasets, the use of a public data repository could be appropriate. Check the journal you are submitting to as they usually provide information on the types of data repositories that should be considered. Lists of data repositories are also available (see Further Reading).

​Structure guidelines

Divide the information into appropriate sections, with each section on a separate page. Each section should have a title that clearly explains its content.

Label the sections; appendices are usually labelled Appendix 1, 2, 3 (or A, B, C) whereas as supporting information is often labelled according to its type; for example, Supplementary Table 1, Supporting Figure 1, Supplementary Movie 1. As with figures and tables in the main report, supporting information is numbered according to the order it is mentioned in the text of the report.

The page numbering should be continued from the last page of text in the main report.

Always remember to check publisher’s requirements and editorial guidelines. Figures and tables should be carefully formatted as per editorial requirements, ensuring appropriate file formats are used. Also look at different formats presented in documents specific to your field.


Insert appendices at the end of the report, after the bibliography. Ensure all supporting information is appropriately cited in the report; it should be easy to find. Also ensure it is listed in the table of contents (if used).

Critically evaluate your supporting information; Is it relevant and does it expand the reader’s understanding?

Further reading

Organising your social sciences research paper: Appendices

Data repositories

- Registry of Research Data Repositories

- List of data repositories

Example Instructions to Authors

- Science: preparing your supplementary materials

- The Veterinary Journal Guide for Authors: Supplementary material

International Journal of Molecular Sciences: Supplementary Materials and Data Deposit 

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

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

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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

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The essentials of science writing: identify your target audience

Decide who you are writing for 

When we write, we write about something (the topic) in a certain format (the document type) for a reader or group of readers (the audience). Deciding what we are writing about and what type of document to prepare is usually straightforward for most writers but deciding who we are writing for is not a step that is always considered, let alone completed or completed carefully. To a certain degree, the audience of a document is determined by the type of document and the subject matter but unless researchers and other science writers have a background in marketing, the concept of identifying and catering for a target audience might not be a high priority.

What is your focus? 

A document is not simply a receptacle for words, it is a tool of communication that should perform a service for readers. Thinking about who will read our document, or what they might want from our document, is something that writers might avoid if they are author-focused or project-focused. Author-focused writers have discoveries, data, knowledge and information that they need to share and primarily concentrate on getting their document published. Project-focused writers key aim is to satisfy project, organisation, company or client objectives by documenting the outcomes of a project or series of projects. Audience-focused writers design their document primarily for the reader, while still satisfying their own needs and the needs of project objectives, clients and stake-holders.

Unless catering to a target audience is a central objective, your document may lack some of the fundamentals of good document design. Spending the time deciding what you want to do for your audience, rather than simply delivering information, will help you fine-tune the content and the design of your document. Common writing problems often reflect that a writer has not thoroughly considered who their audience is, for example:

- providing too much, or not enough, detail or background information

- using the wrong language or unfamiliar terminology

- assuming the audience’s level of interest in, or understanding of, the topic

In my experience, one of the biggest mistakes in science writing is to assume your audience knows your topic nearly as well as you do. Authors of most research papers can safely make this assumption and purposely have a narrow, specialised audience. Yet even then, research writers still regularly leave out important background information and project details that are necessary for the reader to understand what they are doing and why.  

It is easy to fall into the trap of writing to simply deliver information if you are a solo writer, if you are inexperienced or if you don’t get regular feedback on your writing. If you do get regular feedback, it might not be enough if you only get feedback from people who know your topic well; your colleagues or supervisors may ensure you write a scientifically-accurate document but they may not realise that what you’ve written is not easy to read as they are so familiar with your topic.

There are different types of audiences to consider

An audience is a collective group of readers and for most purposes we need to think about our readers as a group and generalise about what qualities they have. For any document there may be three broad types of audience: your target audience, your secondary audience and your peripheral audience (see diagram using an ecology research paper as an example). Your target audience are the group of readers that you want to read your document or you expect will want to read your document. These are the people you are designing your document for. They should understand everything you tell them. Some examples are:  research scientists writing peer-reviewed papers for their peers, students writing assignments for their lecturers, or consultants writing reports for clients. If there are some people you think might read your document but will not be able to understand everything, then they should not be considered part of your target audience. These people are part of your secondary audience.

Your secondary audience are those people who still want, or need, to read your document but may have different education backgrounds or work within a different discipline to your target audience. For example, the secondary audience of an ecology research paper might be scientists from other disciplines, or other people interested in your topic or your project outcomes; for example, land managers, farmers, conservationists, journalists, science educators or students. You cannot explain everything for your secondary audience but you can define your key terms and ensure your main aim and findings are abundantly clear. The third group are your peripheral audience who will directly or indirectly benefit and learn about your work but will not read your document themselves; they will find about it through the secondary or target audience of your document. Because your peripheral audience won’t be reading your document, it is crucial for you to ensure your key messages are abundantly clear so they are not misinterpreted.

How to identify your target audience

Decide what group of readers you want to target with your document: your target audience. Consider the following:

  • Who will want to read your document? Who will be interested in your topic and key findings?
  • What is their level of education, expertise and background?
  • Will they be able to understand all parts of your document? If not, include sufficient detail and explanation to ensure that they do.
  • Why will they be interested in reading your document? What reasons do they have for reading your document?
  • What people need to read your document? If they are not already interested, how do you attract them?
  • What task(s) will your document perform for them?
  • How they will find out about your document?
  • How will they access your document?

The essentials of science writing: plan before you write

Writing is a complex activity that needs planning

The planning process prior to science writing is often ad-hoc and focused upon developing content. But there are important decisions that need to be made before you start writing if you want to produce a high-quality document, especially decisions relating to document design and audience identification. If your planning is limited to jotting down a title and a few key points before you start, that is not enough. Careful planning involves thorough decision-making which takes time, even though it might be tempting to cut corners and skip the planning process all together.

An effective plan will help you to be an efficient writer

Not only should planning decisions be made before you start writing, they need to be written into a coherent, separate document plan. This document plan can then be referred to as you write your proposed document.

Getting started is one of the most difficult obstacles to successful writing. If you begin your writing with an effective plan, not only will it help you to get started, it will help you stay on track. A lack of planning can lead to inefficient writing in the early stages; for example, writing too much detail in some sections and not enough in others or spending too much time writing about an idea that gets cut out later. A clear plan will allow yourself sufficient time to think about what you want to write and reduce the risk of producing a document that is difficult to read and understand.

Preparing a written plan may significantly reduce time spent rewriting and redrafting when working with co-authors or if senior staff need to approve your drafts. There is nothing worse than spending hours writing and perfecting your thinking on a topic, only to have this work cast aside because your manager later decides to change the document’s structure or purpose. Once a written plan is agreed to, any changes can be monitored and implemented through regular reviews and updates, if necessary.

Traditionally, document plans focus upon content

Document plans are not new but usually focus upon content preparation (e.g. report templates) and advise the author what to write to satisfy a project’s purpose and objectives. However, an effective document plan should also outline how you are going to manage each stage of the writing process. At different stages of the writing process many people simply think about what needs to be done and jot down tasks on a to-do list or in project management software. Decisions about tasks that involve writing with others are often made through discussions, emails and project management software, while sometimes the writing process might not be managed at all. Rarely are these decisions written down as a separate plan before work commences on the proposed document.

What should be included in a document plan?

A document plan should include all information relating to the design, preparation and production activities needed for you to successfully complete your document. I refer to this type of plan as a Document Preparation Plan that addresses key aspects of document production (Part 1) and document design (Part 2). As with any plan, you should not expect this plan to be perfect as it will not be possible to predict exactly what will be written or exactly what is needed to manage all writing-related tasks. A Document Preparation Plan should be short and succinct and be updated if necessary, depending upon the size of the writing project and whether co-authors are involved.

Part One. Document production

The first part of the planning process involves documenting all tasks that need to be managed in order to successfully complete a high-quality document. It can include how and when these tasks will be completed.

Factors to include:

  1. outlining your purpose (reasons) for writing
  2. identifying your target audience
  3. listing all non-writing activities needed to complete the document and setting appropriate deadlines for each activity
  4. outlining all resources needed for all writing and non-writing activities  

Part Two. Summary of document content & structure

This is the part of a document plan that most writers complete as the first stage of the writing process, but not always satisfactorily; many writers postpone working out the central thrust of their document until the final stages of writing. However, it is crucial to decide what key messages you want to cover before you start writing including your aim or problem statement and key findings. It is ok to change your mind about these key messages as your progress through your writing, but completing this first step in the content planning process gives you a firm framework on which to build your story.

Factors to include:

  1. Draft title and subtitle
  2. The aim and problem statement
  3. Summary of methods & results
  4. Implications of the results and general conclusion(s)
  5. Document type (i.e. science report) & length
  6. Type and number of visual aids (i.e. graphs, tables, diagrams)

Download the Document Preparation Plan (checklist)

To help you design a document preparation plan to suit your topic, I have developed a Document Preparation Plan (checklist) which is available here as a free download (pdf) 

© Marina Hurley 2018


  1. 8 steps to writing your first draft
  2. Two ways to be an inefficient writer
  3. Work-procrastination: important stuff that keeps us from writing

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

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