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May 15, 2011

Subtleties of Scientific Style by Matthew Stevens

One of the fundamental features of science is the furtherance of knowledge. Poor writing is an impediment to this. A good illustration of this point is a paper by Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty published in 1944 in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, which established that DNA was the substance that transmitted genetic information. Although it paved the way for James Watson and Francis Crick’s milestone paper in 1953 in Nature (171: 737–738) establishing the structure of DNA, it was not widely read or appreciated. Author Randy Moore has argued that the way it was written was the main reason for this (Journal of College Science Teaching 1994 November: 114–121). In comparison with Watson and Crick’s paper, it is (as Moore wrote) hesitant, extremely dense, verbose, highly detailed, abstract, impersonal and dull. We’ve all heard of Watson and Crick. Who has heard of Avery, MacLeod and McCarty?
—Matthew Stevens, Subtleties of Scientific Style, p. 46

I always took it for granted that academic papers had to be hard to read. (The reason usually cited is that the authors have to pack an enormous amount of information into the shortest space possible.) The introduction could conceivably be a work of art, but the methods and materials section with its centrifuging at 20,000 g and resuspending, that pretty much has to be a slog, right? Well, after seeing Stevens’s examples of how text can be improved by using the appropriate voice, putting steps in logical order, disentangling parallelism and rearranging sentences (to put subject and verb at the front of a long sentence, for example), I have new hope.

Subtleties of Scientific Style is a fairly short (85 pages), very readable book that doesn’t try to be a comprehensive style guide. Instead, Stevens assumes that his readers know the basics of editing, and he focuses on specific considerations for science writing. He starts with a discussion of substantive editing, and describes how to do a truly thorough editing job (involving seven passes). He then goes on to address various common errors in usage and content, and describes ways to improve expression and visual presentation. Finally, the appendices contain useful notes on Unicode and special characters.

If you’ve done any academic editing, you’re sure to recognize a lot of the problems he discusses: one of my favourites is the discussion of the word “respectively.” I too have had my brain twisted by authors who connected two lists of different length with “respectively.” (“Plants A and B were yellow and green, respectively”: OK. “Plants A, B, and C were yellow and green, respectively”: not OK.) I’ll be going back to this book again to refresh my memory and pick up new points.

Where to get it

The publisher is ScienceScape Editing, Thornleigh, Australia, but their website doesn’t seem to exist anymore. The book is available for download in PDF, and I believe it is the author’s intention to make the electronic copy available for free.

Updated versions of some links mentioned in the book

Some related links

Reviewed from the free PDF.

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