Scientists Must Write
eBook - ePub

Scientists Must Write

A Guide to Better Writing for Scientists, Engineers and Students

Robert Barrass

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  1. 224 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Scientists Must Write

A Guide to Better Writing for Scientists, Engineers and Students

Robert Barrass

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Good writing and communication skills are essential in many areas of science and engineering, to help observation, thinking and remembering, to organize work and to avoid stress. Written by a scientist for scientists, this book is much more than a textbook of English grammar – it is a valuable source of information for all aspects of writing in scientific and technical situations.

The only book focusing on the ways in which writing is important to the scientific community, this book assists readers on:

* how to write and choice of words
* using numbers and illustrations
* writing project reports, theses and papers for publication
* giving a short talk or presentation.

The new edition of Scientists Must Write has been fully revised and updated to take account of the changes in information and communications technology including word processing and information storage and retrieval; new appendices on punctuation, spelling and computers; and useful exercises to improve writing.

This popular guide will be of great use to undergraduates, postgraduates, professional scientists and engineers.

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1 Scientists must write

When asked why we must write, most scientists and engineers think first of the need to communicate. Communication is so important in science and engineering that it is easy to forget our other reasons for writing. We write as part of our day-to-day work: to help us to observe, to remember, to think, to plan and to organise, as well as to communicate. Above all, writing helps us to think and to express our thoughts – and anyone who writes badly is handicapped both when working alone and in dealing with others.
When we write to people we know, they can judge us by everything they know about us – by our writing and by our conversation, appearance and behaviour. But when we deal with people whom we have never met, they judge us in the only way they can: by the way we communicate – on the telephone and in writing. For example, an application for employment that is well presented, informative and clearly expressed, in grammatically correct English, will create an immediately favourable impression of the writer as being well educated, well organised and clear thinking.
Only by writing well can we give a good account of ourselves as students (writing in course work and examinations), as applicants for employment, and as employees (writing, for example, letters, memoranda, instructions, progress reports, articles and reviews, and papers for publication).
Some scientists and engineers recognise the importance of writing in their work. They take trouble with their writing, and write well. Some, because they are satisfied with their writing, write without considering the possibility of improvement. They, and others who know that they write badly, are mistaken if they believe that writing is not particularly important in science and engineering.
Many people must be encouraged in their belief that their writing is satisfactory by their success in school and college examinations, but most students would get higher marks in course work and in examinations if they were better able to put their thoughts into words. Only teachers and examiners know how many marks are lost by students who do not show clearly whether or not they understand their work. In schools, many of the most able students fail to show their ability; and so do many in colleges and universities. They need help with their writing more than further instruction in their chosen subjects.
The need for improvement is also demonstrated in the writing of working scientists and engineers, who presumably try to write well when preparing accounts of their work for publication. Yet many submit verbose and poorly expressed compositions, containing errors in punctuation and grammar, which editors must return for correction and major revision or for rewriting before they can reconsider them for publication. Furthermore, despite the efforts of editors, many published papers include verbose and ambiguous sentences which indicate that many educated people either do not think sufficiently about what they write or are unable to express their thoughts clearly and concisely (for examples, see Criticise other people’s writing, page, and Edit the work of others, page).
All scientists and engineers should accept that writing is part of their work, but the biggest difficulty facing anyone who would like to see an improvement in the general standard of scientific and technical writing is that most educated people are content with their writing. Indeed, although young scientists and engineers know that the study of mathematics is essential in providing a basis for their work, many may feel that English is more important for students of the arts and humanities. In fact, scientists and engineers spend much of their working lives writing with a pen or using a computer for word processing. Although arts students may have little need of mathematics, writing is important for all students and in all professions.
Unless scientists and engineers express their thoughts unambiguously, they will prepare records that, later, they cannot understand themselves – and write communications that others misinterpret. It does not matter in a novel if the author’s meaning is not absolutely clear; indeed, much may be left to the reader’s imagination. But scientists and engineers must express their thoughts clearly and simply – so that they cannot be misunderstood – because misunderstandings may cause other people wasted effort and result in costly mistakes, accidents and even loss of life.

Writing as part of science

The scientific method

Scientific research begins with a problem which may come from personal observation or from a consideration of work done by others. Problems are tackled by the method of investigation, in an attempt to obtain evidence related to a hypothesis. If the problem is stated as a question, then each hypothesis is a possible answer to the question or a possible explanation. The observations and measurements recorded during an investigation are data, and these are analysed and the results of analysis considered, and compared with results from other investigations. This leads to the bringing together of information from different sources, to synthesis, to the recognition of order (to classification), and to the making of generalisations (stated as norms, concepts, principles, theories and laws).
As one hypothesis is supported by new evidence and others are rejected, additional hypotheses may provide other possible explanations. Each hypothesis can be retained only for as long as it provides a satisfactory explanation for the observations accumulated on the subject. When a hypothesis is generally accepted by scientists working in the field it may be called a theory, and may lead to the statement of a principle or law which has value not only because it accounts for observations which have been made, but also because it allows them to predict what will happen in future observations and experiments.
Communication is involved at all stages in the application of the scientific method. The hypothesis upon which each investigation is based may come from personal observations, but each scientist should know of the observations and experiments of other scientists who are working on the same problem or in the same area of study. This helps to prevent unnecessary duplication of effort (but see page), and should also result in a contribution to knowledge by ensuring that new observations are related to what is already known.
Hypotheses, theories and laws must be modified or discarded if at any time they are found wanting, or if a better explanation is suggested for the accumulated observations on the subject. Even if scientists work alone, therefore, the scientific method makes science a co-operative venture and no work is complete until a report has been written.

The publication of research

The literature of science, a permanent record of the communication between scientists, is also the history of science: a record of the search for truth, of observations and opinions, of hypotheses that have been ignored or have been found wanting or have withstood the test of further observation and experiment. Science is a continuing endeavour in which the end of one investigation may be the starting point for another. Scientists must write, therefore, so that their discoveries may be known to others.
Their purpose is, in short, to make faithful Records, of all the Works of Nature, or Art, which can come within their reach: that so the present Age, and posterity, may be able to put a mark on the Errors, which have been strengthened by long prescription: to restore the Truths, that have lain neglected: to push on those, which are already known, to more various uses: and to make the way more passable, to what remains unreveal’d. This is the compass of their Design.
Thomas Sprat (1667) History of The Royal Society

The popularisation of science

Scientists must write formal accounts of their work for publication in journals which are read only by specialists, but which are accessible to scientists everywhere. Yet science is shaping our world, and whether they are pursuing knowledge for its own sake, or trying to solve practical problems, scientists must also write articles, reviews and books – about what they are doing and why, and about what other scientists are doing – for scientists working in other fields, for students of science, and for other interested people.
If we do not trouble to tell other people about science, or to discuss the impact of science on society, we should not be surprised if science and technology remain a closed book to many educated people, if the scientist is distrusted, if people do not appreciate the interdependence of pure and applied science, or if people expect too much of science.
In textbooks, scientists present science not only to tomorrow’s scientists, but also to those who will work and take decisions in other fields. The writer of textbooks, therefore, has a unique opportunity to interest and inform. If people do not take an interest in science while they are young, they are unlikely to do so later.
Writing good books for young people is one of the most important duties that each generation of scientists must perform. The younger the age-group the scientists write for the more important is their work, because young children are quick to decide which subjects are of interest and which are not. If they do not understand or are not interested by their first books on any subject, the opportunity to capture their interest may have been lost.
It is not enough to teach science to young scientists and engineering to young engineers; they must also be helped to develop the skills needed in both study and employment (see Table 1.1).

Developing essential skills

There is a certain irony in teaching students of science and engineering to use techniques and instruments that they may never use in their working lives, and yet not ensuring that they can express their thoughts clearly and simply in writing. This is something they will need to do every day as working scientists and engineers – and if they are promoted to management, they will spend more and more of their time communicating their thoughts in writing, in conversations on the telephone, and when speaking in meetings.

Table 1.1 Key skills needed in study and in any career as a scientist or engineer, manager or administrator

Those young people who, after qualifying as scientists and engineers, go directly into administration or start training for management will find that if they take trouble to improve their writing, they will produce work that is easier to read and understand. They will be more likely to consider the needs and feelings of others, and so they will be more effective as administrators or managers.
Teachers of science subjects in secondary, further and higher education can help to teach English, if they write well themselves, by telling young scientists why they need to write. Their students will not appreciate the importance of writing in all their school work if the teacher of English is the only one who corrects errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. And they will not know that the requirements in scientific and technical writing are quite different from the imaginative writing expected in some English essays.
Young scientists and engineers should understand, as early as possible in their studies, that if they write well, they will be better students, achieve higher grades in course work and examinations, and be more effective in their careers.
The power of rightly chosen words is great, whether these words are intended to inform, to entertain, or to move. But there is no short cut to better writing: we learn most by trying to express our thoughts in writing, as clearly and simply as we can, by considering the comments of our teachers and colleagues or the advice of editors, and by example – by reading good prose.

Improve your writing

The exercises under this heading, at the end of most chapters, may be undertaken by readers working alone or used by tutors as ideas for incorporation in their courses on scientific and technical writing.

What scientists and engineers write

As a basis for discussion, tutors may start a course on scientific or technical writing by asking their students to prepare a list of the kinds of writing undertaken by students and by working scientists and engineers.
As a class exercise, students can be given ten to fifteen minutes – working alone – to prepare their separate lists. Then the tutor can take suggestions from the class and list them on a board or flip chart for consideration by the whole class. This may take another ten or fifteen minutes; and it may be necessary to remind the class that many of the things written by non-scientists are also written by scientists and engineers. The list can then be reconsidered by students as they answer the question: ‘How does writing help scientists and engineers with their work?’ Students should keep the notes made in this class for reconsideration later in their course.


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