Language Issues in Writing a Scientific Journal Article
Eva Braidwood, Suzy McAnsh, Riitta Sallinen, Outi Toropainen,
University of Oulu, Language Centre, P.O. Box 7200,
FIN-90014 Oulun yliopisto, FINLAND
“Communication lies at the heart of research. It is as vital for research as the actual investigation itself, for research cannot properly claim that name until it has been scrutinized and accepted by colleagues.” (Meadows, 1998)
While getting your article published may be your primary aim, there are other aspects of writing a scientific paper to keep in mind. Writing a scientific paper is an act of participation in a research community. This means that you are presenting your own contribution to science for the scrutiny of your colleagues, using the medium of language to try to convince them of the significance of your work and expecting your fellow researchers to respond.
In this article , we shall point out that different research paradigms may require different approaches to writing a paper, discuss the role of genre knowledge as a persuasive device and outline the language skills that writers need. We also give advice about the actual process of writing and mention some readily available tools which can help you to polish your text.
Effect of research approach on writing
Research approaches and the practices of communication may differ from one discipline to another. The main divide between the so-called hard and soft sciences can best be seen in the differences of research approaches and subsequently in the conventions of scientific and academic writing. (Creswell, 2003.) In the hard sciences, the quantitative approach, based on verifiable data and objectivity, seems to be more frequently used. In contrast, certain soft sciences take a qualitative approach, which allows subjective interpretation with supporting argumentation (Bazerman, 1981). In between these polarities, social sciences have developed a special mix of the above two approaches. All these types of scientific enquiry have produced their own varieties of research articles with distinctive language features, differing from other kinds to a certain extent.
When you have chosen the appropriate research approach, you should be aware of its implications for the typical organisation and content structure of your text. In addition, you need to bear in mind that the research approach may also determine linguistic choices related to the degree of formality, active or passive verbs, and the use of various rhetorical devices (metaphor, rhetorical questions and paraphrase).
Journal articles as persuasive narratives
When you set out to write an article on your study or experiment, two distinct purposes should guide your effort. First, you need to reconstruct the study procedure to tell the readers the story of your research. However, you must also aim to convince the readers of your knowledge and skills as a researcher, of the soundness of the research procedure, and of the validity of the findings. This means that a research report can be defined in text-linguistic terms as a persuasive narrative. This narrative makes use of a kit of conventionalised means of persuasion.
Genre knowledge to enhance persuasion: structure and language choices
To master the above two skills of narration and persuasion in the context of research reporting, you need to be aware of the distinctive features of research articles, in general, and of the specific research-reporting conventions of your discipline, in particular. This is known as genre knowledge, which implies a familiarity with the widely accepted characteristics of the content, structure and style of a text from a particular genre.
As a researcher, you can gain credibility by following the genre rules of written communication in your discipline. The basics of such genre knowledge related to research reporting include the following:
- organising the contents of your article into sections using the IMRaD pattern or its disciplinary variant (N.B. the IMRaD structure, while widely accepted as a model, certainly has a variety of modified forms in different fields and disciplines),
- keeping to the conventional information content and sequence of the individual sections (e.g. the Introduction presents the i) background of the study, ii) references to previous literature, iii) relevance of the study, iv) research question or purpose of the study),
- discipline-specific use of titles (complete sentences, noun phrases or compound titles)
- discipline-specific use of references (types of in-text referencing and list of references),
- the types of illustrative devices (tables, graphs, figures) used, and how these are integrated into the body of the text [“Figure 3 below indicates some interesting divergence from the previous experiment….”],
- the style of language used in research articles
formal written language o discipline-specific terminology
general scientific idiom: appropriate word choices, word forms and combinations [get results ==> obtain results; do a test ==> carry out a test; the variables are, for example, …. ==> the variables include…] (see http://sana.tkk.fi)
grammatical choices typical for the type of article you are writing, including use of articles, typical usage of verb tenses in different sections of the article, preference for active or passive voice,
use of punctuation, capitals, abbreviations, etc.
The best way of exploring the disciplinary conventions of your field is perhaps to analyse articles in your field, paying particular attention to the above features and to familiarise yourself with the requirements and instructions for publication in target journals (see article on ‘Target Journal’ ).
Genre knowledge to enhance persuasion: content and arguing your position
Genre knowledge also involves understanding that the persuasive effect of your text arises from such content-related conventions in the various sections of a journal article as
- reviewing the relevant literature in the Introduction and thereby demonstrating your thorough knowledge of the field (Torronen, 2007),
- supporting your claims and quotations by references to previous literature throughout the article (Hyland, 2004),
- presenting the research procedure in the Methods section in a transparent way, which allows replicability,
- referring to the very experiment, test or analysis that produced your finding in the discussion of that finding; this in fact provides evidence for your claim [“Our results show that…”],
- comparing current findings with the findings of other similar studies in the Discussion [“These findings were also corroborated by Andersen (2009), who...”],
- arguing for and explaining your own claims in the Discussion in order to anticipate possible criticism [“Although our findings differ to some extent from those in the studies mentioned above, they can be explained by…“],
- using appropriately hedged language to avoid later criticism or to signal caution (often called downtoning), or to stress the significance of your study or findings (often called boosting) throughout the text [“the findings suggest” instead of “the findings demonstrate“; or the other way round for boosting/.
These devices help you win credibility as a researcher and can be used for strategic effect.
Cultural differences in scientific writing
Some differences have been observed in the writing in English of Finnish and native- speaker writers. One difference has been noted in the use of phrases which help guide the reader through the article and make the text easier to follow (Mauranen, 1993a, 1993b). The possibly more frequent use of such phrases in English texts reflects what is referred to as “writer-responsible orientation” (Hinds, 1987), where the writer leads the reader explicitly through the text, as opposed to a “reader-responsible orientation”, where the writer relies on the reader’s ability to make sense of the message. Anglo-American readers tend to expect that writers take responsibility for making their message clear to readers, guiding them to notice what the writer deems to be important and convincing the readers to accept the writer’s claims. These phrases may take the form, for example, of
- previews of what is to follow later in a text,
- explanations of what topics the text will not cover,
- summaries of significant topics that have already been discussed,
- signals of the writer’s commitment or caution towards a claim
- explicit instructions about where readers can find illustrations or data presented in tables or figures.
The use of such devices, however, varies from one discipline to another and from one part of a journal article to another.
Another area of difference can be noted in the approach to argumentation. For example, it has been observed that, when reporting the main results of a study, Anglo-American writers have a tendency to begin with the results, followed by supporting explanation.
Finnish writers, however, tend to prefer an “end-weight” strategy, presenting the results as a conclusion to an argument. (Mauranen, 1993a.)
Necessary skills for constructing a text
You also need to know how to construct logical, smoothly flowing text that both keeps the current topic in the spotlight and allows the text to develop from one aspect of the topic to another. This means placing familiar content before new information in a sentence, constructing paragraphs with a clear focus on one main idea (most commonly an overview followed by further details) and using various typical patterns of paragraph organisation which are suitable for your purpose.
However, to introduce new topics as the “story” unfolds, you must also apply a good knowledge of “signposts”, phrases that indicate how ideas are connected within a sentence or from one sentence to another. These devices make the article easier to read as they signal cause-effect relationships, contrasts or similarities, or the existence of additional evidence to support scientific claims (for example, moreover, in addition, however, nevertheless, consequently) (for more examples see also sana.tkk.fi). In addition, you should know that English prefers the “action” to occur close to the start of a sentence. This means that you must be able to manipulate long, complex concepts into a position after the verb, thus making the sentence easier to process (Compare “In this paper, the advantages and limitations of each of the above-mentioned techniques for chemical sensing is discussed.” with “This paper discusses the advantages and limitations of each of the above-mentioned techniques for chemical sensing.’’).
The process of writing
Creating a text involves the scrutinising and summarising of knowledge, but also includes the actual process of writing. Even among experienced writers, few are able to produce a final version of a text in the first draft. Writers can certainly benefit from experience, but there is a danger that habitualisation can result in an over-reliance on tired formulae. While writing requires know-how and knowledge of language and genre conventions, the act of writing is also creative cognitive activity. (Hyvarinen, 2007; Valiverronen, 2007; Hirsjarvi, et al., 2000; Flower & Hayes, 1981.)
There are many ways of stimulating the act of writing and getting the process started. One such tried and trusted method is to chart your thoughts on a mind map. With the help of a mind map, you can organise (construct) the knowledge you possess. In this way, you can create for yourself a representation of your own thoughts and the relationships between them before you start to write. Used well, a mind map can clarify the boundary between essential and non-essential knowledge. Mind maps are particularly helpful for writing which is goal-oriented and situated in a specific context, a characteristic of the writing of scientific journal articles. (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996; Kristiansen, 2004.). There are several free mindmapping tools available online (for example, FreeMind, CmapTools and XMind).
The larger and more complex your research study, the greater the challenge of reporting your reading and communicating new knowledge. In this, we can make a distinction between the reiteration and the reworking of knowledge. The reiteration of knowledge is the reporting of knowledge published by other authors in your own articles, in order, for example, to provide a theoretical frame of reference for your research. The reworking of knowledge is essentially connected to the shaping of new knowledge from your own research. Through references to the literature, scientific text is characterised by intertextuality, which can be described as a discussion between texts. These dialogues stimulate your thinking, help you to develop your stance and formulate your own unique contribution to the discipline. (Luukka, 2007; Kniivila, Lindblom-Ylanne & Mantynen, 2007.)
Scientific articles are limited to a certain length, which means that you are faced with a concrete challenge of meeting this limitation. You have to be able to recognise the essential aspects of a study and publicise these in accordance with the conventions of the discipline and the journal in question. The main focus of scientific text can be considered to be new knowledge (research findings) rather than reiterated knowledge (received knowledge). To separate essential from non-essential knowledge, you may need to be aware of when you are writing for yourself and when you are writing for others. While writing for yourself is informal, even creative, activity, writing for others relies on the communication of knowledge using formal conventions. (Valiverronen, 2007.) These two dimensions are a fundamental part of the process of writing scientific articles. You can lessen the anguish of creation by permitting yourself to write for yourself. In the process of writing, the creation and revision of text go hand in hand, in parallel with writing for oneself and writing for others.
An indispensible part of the writing process is the procurement of feedback. Ideally, a draft should be read by several readers so that the feedback includes a variety of perspectives. It is important that you also request positive and supportive feedback. As the feedback is received, the revision continues and lasts until the publication of the text.
Tools for writing
The University Library provides a wealth of resources in the form of books and electronic databases, such as guides for scientific writing in different disciplines, dictionaries, style guides (for example, APA, PMLA, Harvard). The staff are willing to help you find specific resources to meet your needs and provide training in, for example, the use of databases and programs such as RefWorks, a tool for online research management. In addition, through the Internet you now have access to a wide range of means of support for scientific writing. It can be helpful to study the genre conventions of your own discipline by building up small corpora of articles from your own field (Paltridge, 2001; Lee & Swales, 2006). This is now easy to achieve as a result of the availability of electronic versions of scientific journals, from which articles can be downloaded and electronically searched for particular phenomena or uses of language. To do this efficiently, you can make use of a readily available and reasonably priced concordancing program (for example, WordSmith Tools). With such a program, you can quickly examine your own selected corpus articles for such language features as likely vocabulary combinations (collocations) or broader contexts in which certain words are likely to occur. The free online web site, Just the Word, can also assist you in finding a word appropriate for a particular context. Numerous other tools exist online, and a select few of these are described below:
- com: This free tool suggests synonyms for search items.
- Visual Thesaurus: This reasonably priced tool maps out relationships between words in a visual mind map.
- Word Neighbors: This free online resource provides examples of how words are used in context.
- Grammarly: This reasonably priced tool checks the grammar of a text and provides explanations, as well as detecting text taken from other sources and suggesting appropriate word choices.
- Academic Writing in English: These resources comprise online handouts and interactive exercises specifically designed for writers of academic and scientific texts.
- Multimedia dictionaries, such as the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English with DVD-Rom.
- Roget’s Thesaurus: The paper version of the thesaurus may still be even more useful than online tools for finding synonyms and antonyms, and clarifying shades of meaning.
- Google / Google scholar: These sites can help you search for discipline-specific phrases and words, such as nouns and verbs, which tend to occur together. However, you must always be aware that these Internet sources may not always be the most reliable of models.