The Fridays – Clarity

clarityThe quality of coherence and intelligibility. Yes, this is very important. First of all, in scientific writing we need to be understood. This is important if your peers read your text, but maybe even more so if others read it. In other words: the reader needs to understand what you mean.

Of course the text needs to be written following the proper grammar rules, spelling should be perfect and writing hooks to draw the reader in and through the article or grant proposal are a given.

However, scientific writing is often taught at school and universities for a reason. Poetic freedom in the phrasing does not convey coherence and intelligibility, or clarity. Side by side the two next sentences are trying to convince the reader about a trend in the data:

  1. We [the authors] feel that deriving from graph 1 we can conclude that no trend is apparent.
  2. Analysis of graph 1 showed no trend [evaluated by method X].

We  can clearly see the difference, the graph should not be open for interpretation if it is used to make a statement or an argument. In science presenting any data for the public eye is definitely an invitation to interpret the data from the reader’s perspective. The text is there to weight it, agree, or counter with scientifically sound arguments. Scientific ‘truths’ change all the time due to better understanding of the underlying phenomena.


the message of any give scientific text is to make a clear what has happened, or in case of a grant application, how things will be done in the future. There should be no room for opinion nor should is be a slideshow of the data produced. The reader should ‘get’ what the author(s) message is.

The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought, but rather its actual communication – George Gopen, Judith Swan*.

From the quote above we may get a hint in the difference of a novel and a scientific article. A bit more difficult is an article written about a scientific article. Most often this is a statement or opinion about its message. I would argue that most articles about science news are not scientific in nature, but I am open for the discussion.

Now,  a scientific text is typically divided in following sections:

  • (an abstract)
  • The introduction – Background, state of the art, statement of what was done/aims.
  • Methods – How did we do this thingy/how will we do this thingy
  • Results – This is what we have observed and how much the data is worth within the context.
  • Discussion – (Sometimes mixed with the Result section) reflects the quality of the results and how the results compare to the state of the art and beyond.
  • Conclusion – This is what we found and this is what it means.
  • References

Grant applications may follow a similar scheme or more likely are presented in the form of a project plan/project work-flow. Of course you do not have results yet, but you will tell how you expect the future results will impact society/your research field/your aims/teaching/etc… There is also a tiny bit of room for your opinion, but be careful! It should be a logical statement that flows from the presentation, not your personal feeling about the topic: “give me money, because I think it is the most important research ever!” does not work. A discussion of a topic A, described in reference of problem B, which can be solved with a novel method C is a better argument, but I will get back to that another day.

I want to discuss from my point of view each section mentioned in the bullet-list above from a grant proposal point-of-view in the next blog posts. The reason for this is twofold: (a) I am writing a grant right now. It may clear my head and help in the writing, and (b) before you present data that you have done, you need money to do the work. So logically the article comes later. Also I need to get back to the lab…

*) Please find an excellent article by George Gopen and Judith Swan on the The Science of Scientific Writing to find more details on how to write more clearly if you are interested.


The Fridays – Part 1

32005daWriting. For some it is a nightmare. I hear it often from students at the lab. Similarly, a writers block for authors is a nightmare. Writing is the answer to both problems.

I know this sounds strange, but the best way to get out of a writer’s block is to write. Anything. The inspiration for the other thing will come back by itself.

So also goes my advice to students, my first supervisor gave me the same advice when I started my 9 month lab project for my bachelor thesis: “Start writing today”. I was surprised, “But I do not have any data yet!” A smile. “Then write the layout of your thesis, and fill it out along the way.” My PhD supervisor told me the same for the article that needed to be written, but where not all the data was in. “Just fill what we have, and make bullet-points of what you think we still need to do.” Clearly these people were more experienced than I am, so I listened (mostly) to their advice. The thesis and articles got done, with respectable merit, though looking back it could have been a lot better.

Start writing today

For compelling reasons I do not fully understand why I need to write and share my writing effort with others. I like the feed-back; as much as I enjoy stories of others, I like it when other like my stories. About these efforts I share some of my personal struggles and day-to-day insights on Mondays. What I like to do on Fridays is to write about writing I have to do to (indirectly) pay the bills.

Let me explain that briefly: I am a researcher and I am working in Academia. This means I need to write grants so I can do research. Out of these grants also comes my salary. Grants are easier to obtain if you show that you do things and know what you are doing. You are judged on how you write and your track-record. Only then comes the idea for the research into play. A track-record is a list of accomplishments: awards (including grants), conference talks, teaching if relevant, but above all: articles.

So in order to get paid I need to write grants, most often in collaboration with other people who also need money, and in order to get grants I need to write articles. Of course no articles without data. One other great piece of advice from my supervisor during my Master’s thesis work: “Get the data first.” It is one of my weaknesses, I like new challenges and new ideas. It takes discipline to finish a project and move to the next, especially when you know how to finish it.

make bullet-points

I think some of the lesson of during my studies and career as a researcher can be applied to daily writing as well. I am not good at making a frame work for my book, in other words Making the Bullet-Points. Yet in my articles and grant writing it is where I start. I do write to write more, as I explained earlier. Data collection for writing my book and lyrical poems “My Opaque Dreams” I do beforehand and on the fly. New insights and new twists in the story require research into topics on the spot. I do not have an eduction in Greek mythology, nor in Chinese culture. So I have to investigate, filter and write.

So therefore with this introduction I will leave you now this Friday and will next time try to write something about grant writing. I am currently perpetually writing a grant (a though one: for the EU) and at the same time editing a review article we are working on.

Get the data first

(I need to go to the lab now…)

Image is (c) the Upturned microscope under a licence