Scientific writing booklet

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General Guidelines title abstract rules for scientific writing


Using an Outline to Prepare Your Paper description of an outline value of the outline developing the outline


Word Usage in Scientific Writing




Active versus Passive Voice in Writing when to use active voice when to use passive voice active-passive exercise


Writing the Introduction


Writing the Methods


Writing the Results and Discussion results section numbers and statistics tables figures discussion section


Preparing the Reference Section examples of citation formats examples of reference formats


Answers to Active-Passive Exercise


Sources for Further Information websites book sources



A scientific paper is a written report describing original research results. The format of a scientific paper has been defined by centuries of developing tradition, editorial practice, scientific ethics and the interplay with printing and publishing services. A scientific paper should have, in proper order, a Title, Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion.


A title should be the fewest possible words that accurately describe the content of the paper. Omit all waste words such as "A study of ...", "Investigations of ...", "Observations on ...", etc. Indexing and abstracting services depend on the accuracy of the title, extracting from it keywords useful in cross-referencing and computer searching. An improperly titled paper may never reach the audience for which it was intended, so be specific. If the study is of a particular species, name it in the title. If the inferences made in the paper are limited to a particular region, then name the region in the title.


A well prepared abstract should enable the reader to identify the basic content of a document quickly and accurately, to determine its relevance to the reader's interests, and thus to decide whether to read the document in its entirety. The abstract should succinctly state the principal objectives and scope of the investigation where these are not obvious from the title. More importantly, the abstract should concisely summarize the results and principal conclusions. The abstract should not include details of the methods employed unless the study is methodological, i.e. primarily concerned with methods. The abstract must be brief, not exceeding 250 words or as otherwise defined by the journal. If the essential details of the paper can be conveyed in 100 words, do not use 200. Do not repeat information contained in the title. The abstract, together with the title, must be self-contained as it is often published separately from the paper in abstracting services. Omit all references to the literature and to tables or figures, and omit obscure abbreviations and acronyms even though they may be defined in main body of the paper.

Rules for Scientific Writing

  • Interest, inform, and persuade the reader

  • Write for your reader and write clearly

  • Eliminate unnecessary redundancy

  • Avoid digressions

  • Don't over explain and avoid overstatement

  • Avoid unnecessary qualifiers

  • Use consistent tenses

  • Use the precise word

  • Simpler words are preferred over complex words and use concrete words and examples

  • Simpler sentences are preferred over more complicated sentences

  • Use the active voice (except generally in methods)

  • Make sure the subject and verb agree

  • Use affirmative rather than negative constructions

  • Avoid use of the indefinite "this"

  • Use transitions

  • Cite sources as well as findings

  • Proofread your paper carefully; spell check does not catch everything; "there" is spelled correctly but not if you meant "their"

In general, the best writing is simple and direct. Writing that is simple and direct is most easily understood. It also tends to be the most forceful and memorable. Use no more words than necessary — and never use a complicated word if a simpler one will do just as well. Many people seem to feel that writing in a complicated way makes one sound serious, scholarly and authoritative. While this type of writing may sound serious, it is no more authoritative than writing that is simple and direct. Certainly, it is more difficult to understand. Often, it sounds pompous and overbearing. If your purpose is to be understood in a way that is both forceful and memorable, adopt a style that is simple and direct.


Description of an outline

An outline is:

  • A logical, general description

  • A schematic summary

  • An organizational pattern

  • A visual and conceptual design of your writing

An outline reflects logical thinking and clear classification.

Value of the Outline

  • Aids in the process of writing

  • Helps you organize your ideas

  • Provides a snapshot of each section of the paper will flow

  • Presents your material in a logical form

  • Shows the relationships among ideas in your writing

  • Constructs an ordered overview of your writing

  • Defines boundaries and groups

Developing the Outline

Before you begin:

  • Determine the purpose of your paper

  • Determine the audience you are writing for

  • Develop the thesis of your paper


  • Brainstorm: List all the ideas that you want to include in your paper

  • Summarize the question(s)/problem(s)

  • List the key points/elements pertaining to the question(s)/problem(s)

  • Organize: Group related ideas together; place each key point/element in a separate file

  • Order: Arrange material in subsections from general to specific or from abstract to concrete

  • Make sure the organizing scheme is clear and well-structured

  • Identify the important details that contribute to each key point/element

  • Label: Create main and sub headings

  • Note the sources pertaining to each detail


Any glossary of word usage assumes that what is acceptable for some uses may not be for others. Some terms and expressions are worn-out clichés and have outlived their usefulness; other expressions and terms, though not incorrect, are not precise. In reporting and recording research, try to be as accurate and precise in describing it as in doing it. Avoid the ambiguous and "faddish."

  • Use a US-English spelling checker.

  • Make sure you use words according to the precise meaning understood by the average person.

  • Ideally, you would check whether every word could be deleted or replaced by a better one.

  • • Aim for economy:

      1. o because instead of based on the fact that;

      2. o for or to instead of for the purpose of.

      3. o there were several subjects who completed…;

      4. o it is suggested that a relationship may exist…;

      5. o both alike; one and the same;

      6. o a total of n subjects;

      7. o four different groups;

      8. o absolutely essential;

      9. o found previously;

      10. o small in size;

      11. o in close proximity;

      12. o very close to zero;

      13. o much better;

      14. o period of time;

      15. o summarize briefly;

      16. o the reason is because;

      17. o also included;

      18. o except for.

      19. • Aim for precision:

      20. o patient or gymnast instead of subject;

      21. o concentration or frequency instead of level.

  • Don’t generalize unnecessarily. For example, don’t say some if you know of only one instance.

  • This on its own is an ambiguous antecedent. Use instead this test or this problem.

  • Avoid hype (hyperbole). Words like very and extremely are usually unnecessary.

  • Note these singular and plural forms: criterion, criteria; datum, data; medium, media; phenomenon, phenomena.

  • Don’t use however or its synonyms twice in one paragraph, because changing the direction of an argument twice in one paragraph may annoy readers.

  • Don’t use however more than once every 10 paragraphs. Try a thesaurus for synonyms.

  • Avoid the so-called non-human agent. For example, use the authors concluded that… rather than the study concluded that….

  • Avoid colloquialisms, such as steer clear of.

  • Avoid as such. Poor: The SCAT is a reliable test of state anxiety. As such, it is suitable for experimental studies. Better: The SCAT is a reliable test of state anxiety; it is therefore suitable for experimental studies.

  • Avoid her, his and any other sexist language, even if the subjects are clearly of one gender.

Above ("the above method," "mentioned above," etc.) -- Often, you are referring to something preceding, but not necessarily above; a loose reference, convenient for writers, but not for readers. Be specific. You know exactly what and where, but your readers may have to search (sometimes through much preceding material).

Affect, effect -- Affect is a verb and means to influence. Effect, as a verb, means to bring about; as a noun, effect means result.

All of, both of -- Just "all" or "both" will serve in most instances.

Alternate, alternative -- Be sure which you mean.

And (to begin a sentence) -- Quite proper. You have been told not to do this in grade school. But teacher's purpose was to keep you from using fragmentary sentences; either "and" or "but" may be used to begin complete sentences. And both are useful transitional words between related or contrasting statements.

Apparently (apparent) -- means obviously, clearly, plainly evident, but also means seemingly or ostensibly as well as observably. You know the meaning that you intend, but readers may not. Ambiguity results. Use obvious(ly), clear(ly), seeming(ly), evident(ly), observable or observably, to remove doubt.

Appear, appears -- Seem(s)? "He always appears on the scene, but never seems to know what to do." "Marley's ghost appeared but seemed harmless."

As -- Dialectal when used in place of that or whether; do not use as to mean because or inasmuch as.

At the present time, at this point in time -- Say "at present" or "now" if necessary at all.

Below -- See comment about above.

But (to begin a sentence) -- Go right ahead (see "And" and "However").

By means of -- Most often, just "by" will serve and save words.

Case -- Can be ambiguous, misleading, or ludicrous because of different connotations; e.g., "In the case of Scotch whiskey,...." Case also is a frequent offender in padded, drawn-out sentences. For "in this case," try "in this instance."

Compare with, compare to -- Compare with means to examine differences and similarities; compare to means to represent as similar. One may conclude that the music of Brahms compares to that of Beethoven, but to do that, one must first compare the music of Brahms with that of Beethoven.

Comprise -- Before misuse, comprise meant to contain, include, or encompass (not to constitute or compose) and still does, despite two now opposite meanings. Use and meanings now are so confused and mixed that "comprise" is best avoided altogether.

Correlated with, correlated to -- Although things may be related to one another, things are correlated with one another.

Different from, different than -- Different from! Also, one thing differs from another, although you may differ with your colleagues.

Due to -- Make sure that you don't mean because of. Due is an adjective modifier and must be directly related to a noun, not to a concept or series of ideas gleaned from the rest of a statement. "Due to the fact that..." is an attempt to weasel out.

During the course of, in the course of -- Just use "during" or "in."

Either....or, neither...nor -- Apply to no more than two items or categories. Similarly, former and latter refer only to the first and second of only two items or categories.

Experience(d) -- To experience something is sensory; inanimate, unsensing things (lakes, soils, enzymes, streambeds, farm fields, etc.) do not experience anything.

Following -- "After" is more precise if "after" is the meaning intended. "After [not following] the procession, the leader announced that the ceremony was over."

High(er), low(er) -- Much too often used, frequently ambiguously or imprecisely, for other words such as greater, lesser, larger, smaller, more, fewer; e.g., "Occurrences of higher concentrations were lower at higher levels of effluent outflow." One interpretation is that greater concentrations were fewer or less frequent as effluent volume(s) increased, but others also are possible.

However -- Place it more often within a sentence or major element rather than at the beginning or end. "But" serves better at the beginning.

Hyphening of compound or unit modifiers -- Often needed to clarify what is modifying what; e.g., a small-grain harvest (harvest of small grain) is different from a small grain harvest (small harvest of all grain), a fast acting dean isn't necessarily as effective as a fast-acting dean, a batch of (say, 20) 10-liter containers is different from a batch of 10 [1-] liter containers, and a man eating fish is very different from a man-eating fish! Grammatically, adjectives are noun modifiers, and the problem is when adjectives and nouns are used to modify other adjectives and nouns. Adverbs (usually with "ly" endings), however, are adjective modifiers.

In order to -- For brevity, just use "to".

Irregardless -- No, regardless. But irrespective might do.

It should be mentioned, noted, pointed out, emphasized, etc. -- Such preambles often add nothing but words. Just go ahead and say what is to be said.

It was found, determined, decided, felt, etc. -- Are you being evasive? Why not put it frankly and directly? (And how about that subjective "felt"?)

Less(er), few(er) -- "Less" refers to quantity; "fewer" to number.

Majority, vast majority -- See if most will do as well or better. Look up "vast."

Myself -- Not a substitute for me. "This paper has been reviewed by Dr. Smith and myself" and "The report enclosed was prepared by Dr. Jones and myself" are incorrect as is "Don't hesitate to call Dr. Doe or myself"; me would have been correct in all instances. (Use of I also would have been wrong in those examples.) Some correct uses of myself: I found the error myself. I myself saw it happen. I am not myself today. I cannot convince myself. I locked myself out of the car.

Partially, partly -- Compare the meanings (see also impartially). Partly is the better, simpler, and more precise word when partly is meant.

Percent, percentage -- Not the same; use percent only with a number.

Predominate, predominant --Predominate is a verb. Predominant is the adjective; as an adverb, predominantly (not "predominately").

Prefixes -- (mid, non, pre, pro, re, semi, un, etc.) -- Usually not hyphened in U.S. usage except before a proper name (pro-Iowa) or numerals (mid-60s) or when lack of a hyphen makes a word ambiguous or awkward. Recover a fumble, but perhaps re-cover a sofa. Preengineered is better hyphened as pre-engineered, one of the few exceptions so hyphened. Breaking pairs such as predoctoral and postdoctoral into pre- and post-doctoral "forces" hyphening of both otherwise unhyphened words.

Principle, principal -- They're different; make sure which you mean.

Prior to, previous to -- Use before, preceding, or ahead of. There are prior and subsequent events that occur before or after something else, but prior to is the same kind of atrocious use that attempts to substitute "subsequent to" for "after."

Proven -- Although a proven adjective, stick to proved for the past participle. "A proven guilty person must first have been proved guilty in court."

Provided, providing --Provided (usually followed by "that") = conjunction; providing = participle.

Reason why -- Omit why if reason is used as a noun. The reason is...; or, the reason is that...

Since -- has a time connotation; use "because" or "inasmuch as" when either is the intended meaning.

Small in size, rectangular in shape, blue in color, tenuous in nature, etc. -- Redundant.

That and which -- Two words that can help, when needed, to make intended meanings and relationships unmistakable, which is important in reporting scientific information. If the clause can be omitted without leaving the modified noun incomplete, use which and enclose the clause within commas or parentheses; otherwise, use that. Example: "The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage." But, "The lawn mower that is broken is in the garage; so is the lawn mower that works."...That is broken specifies the particular mower being discussed, whereas which is broken merely adds additional information to the sentence.

To be -- Frequently unnecessary. "The differences were [found] [to be] significant."

Varying -- Be careful to distinguish from various or differing. In saying that you used varying amounts or varying conditions, you are implying individually changing amounts or conditions rather than a selection of various or different ones.

Where -- Use when you mean where, but not for "in which," "for which," etc.

Which is, that were, who are, etc. -- Often not needed. For example, "the data that were related to age were analyzed first" means that the data related to age were analyzed first. Similarly, for "the site, which is located near Ames," try "the site, located near Ames" or "the site, near Ames." Rather than "all persons who were present voted," just say that "all persons present voted." Rephrasing sometimes can help. Instead of "a survey, which was conducted in 1974" or "a survey conducted in 1974," try "a 1974 survey."

While -- Preferably not if, while writing, you mean and, but, although, or whereas.

Remember that a research report should communicate and record information as accurately and concisely as possible. The purpose is to report, not to impress with elegance. Excess wordage, tortuous construction, unnecessary detail, duplication, repetition, third-person passive pseudo-objectivism, etc., obstruct rather than facilitate communication. It's the message that is important, not sheer numbers of words. Use precise words and expressions of unmistakable meaning; avoid the clouded, ambiguous, vague, and needlessly complex.


  • Make sure you write well-formed sentences, and keep their structure simple.

  • Use the first person (I or we tested six runners ) rather than the passive voice (Six runners were tested ). Similarly, say Smith reported instead of reported by Smith.

  • With comparatives (more than, less than), the than may need to be than that of or than with or than by etc. to clarify the meaning. Similarly, similar to may need to be similar to that of. Examples: The measure was more valid than that of Smith et al. (1994). We experienced fewer problems with the revised instrument than with the published version. The method was similar to that of an earlier study.

  • Don't use a long string of qualifiers in front of a noun: a modified test of cognitive function is better than a modified cognitive-function test.

  • Avoid grammatically questionable formal cliches, such as: Based on these results, it is concluded that and The results showed that

  • Use the past tense to report results (yours or others'). Use the present tense to discuss them. We have found that…; Smith (1989) reported a similar result. A simple explanation of these findings is that…

  • Avoid so-called misplaced modifiers: When sedentary, protein supplementation resulted in… Athletes were consulted when designing the questionnaire… If necessary, subjects were tested… Based on these results, we conclude… The next two examples are marginal: Using stable tracers, it is possible to measure… Given the importance of body mass, there has been little study of its effects… Note that a noun was verbed to verb something (e.g. an experiment was performed to test this hypothesis) is also technically incorrect but is used so widely that it has to be accepted. A noun was verbed (by) verbing… is also acceptable. The active voice would avoid these awkward expressions.

  • Put only, partly and mainly next to the word they modify: The test consists only of new items.

  • • The following rules are broken so frequently that I doubt whether they can be considered rules any more.

      1. o Which or that? Simple rule: Which always follows a comma (and a pause), but that never does. This study, which cost $10,000, was a success. The study that cost $10,000 was a success.

      2. o Owing to or due to? Simple rule: Owing to always has a comma, due to never does. The data were lost, owing to computer malfunction. The loss of data was due to computer malfunction.

  • An adverb is placed usually after the verb. Placing it before the verb creates a split infinitive (to boldly go… is acceptable if emphasizing go; if the emphasis is on boldly, to go boldly is better).

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