Writing for Science / Edition 1

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This exceptional book encompasses the entire range of writing skills that today’s experimental scientist may need to employ. Detailed chapters cover every type of science writing, from routine forms, such as laboratory notes, abstracts, and memoranda, to the more complex writing required in dissertations, journal articles, and grant proposals. Using numerous extended examples, the book offers students and professionals alike the thorough, practical advice they need to optimize the effectiveness of their written communications.

Robert Goldbort discusses how best to approach various writing tasks as well as how to deal with the everyday complexities that may get in the way of ideal practice—difficult collaborators, experiments gone wrong, funding rejections. He underscores the importance of an ethical approach to science and scientific communication and insists on the necessity of full disclosure.

For working scientists, those seeking employment in the sciences, students taking on writing assignments or oral presentations, and professionals who hope to publish or acquire funding, this volume is an essential resource.

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Editorial Reviews

Ken McAllister
“This book is compendious, professionally savvy, and insistent that writers of science be ruthlessly honest about their successes and failures. Its breadth and depth are impressive.”—Ken McAllister, University of Arizona
Mary Arthur
“Goldbort addresses writing across the entire enterprise of science. His book will be useful to students and faculty across a wide range of scientific disciplines.”—Mary Arthur, University of Kentucky
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300117936
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 846,224
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Goldbort is associate professor of English, Indiana State University. He lives in Terre Haute.

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Read an Excerpt


By Robert Goldbort
Yale University Press
Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11793-6

Chapter One

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master-that's all." -Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There


Scientific English is a number of things. It is a communication tool, a culture of writing, and a plain and readable manner of writing with specific compositional strategies and uses of language-all of which permit the community of scientific researchers to conduct its professional affairs. In desiring essentially to be masters of their own language, scientists rely on narrowly restricted uses of words. The linguist Leonard Bloomfield has explained the benefits of this scientific way of communicating: "The use of language in science is specialized and peculiar. In a brief speech the scientist manages to say things which in ordinary language would require a vast amount of talk. His hearers respond with great accuracy and uniformity. The range and exactitude of scientific prediction exceed any cleverness of everyday life: the scientist's use of language is strangely effective and powerful. Along with systematic observation, it is this peculiar use of language which distinguishes science from non-scientific behavior."

The primary purpose of this chapter is to delineate and illustrate the unique linguistic values that the scientific community places on the way it uses words for conducting its activities and achieving its goals. How do scientists use language? How does using English (or for that matter any other language) scientifically differ from other uses to which language may be put? The explanations in the first sections of this chapter on the professional, historical, and philosophical contexts that define scientific uses of language will be followed in the remaining sections by actual examples of scientific English in practice. Defining scientific English risks making hard and fast distinctions about the way language works or among the things that humans do with it. Therefore, making general pronouncements in an attempt to draw lines between kinds of uses of language is bound to be met, on one intellectual front or another, by resistance. Language study today is a complex field that utilizes multiple perspectives, including those of composition and rhetorical theory, communication, cognitive psychology, sociology, anthropology, and neurobiology.

All that said, there are nonetheless practical distinctions to be drawn. In practice, it is safe to say that a basic criterion for defining scientific uses of language is that of the user's intent. Scientists use language strictly and narrowly as a communication tool. This distinguishing intention of communication shapes the professional culture and compositional style of scientists as writers. The communication model of using language suggests that words are merely physical objects or mechanical tools. Applied to scientific language, this rather simplistic view limits the role of words to something like conveyor belts in automated factories, delivering to their readers units of objective information derived from and in the service of the equally objective methods of scientific inquiry. In contrast, non-scientific uses of language like those in the literary world give prominence to personal and subjective expression. In actuality, the use of scientific language has inherent biases and subjectivities that, however desirable it may be to eliminate them, are an inescapable dimension of the human presence in written texts. Here we have, then, the key distinguishing criterion: the priority that scientists as writers, as users of the English language, give to the objective information that words impart. This central priority of communicating information demands that scientists use the tool of language responsibly and effectively to serve a scientific purpose, with the aim of convincing their intended readers of that purpose's value. There is a wide range of documents that scientists can use for achieving this effect with their discourse.

The fundamental point to keep in mind is this: any attempt to understand scientists as writers must begin with the observation that their work and their documents depend vitally upon language. From note taking to publishing and teaching, language is the tool that gives sense to scientific activity. Whatever scientists do and observe, everything they come to know or to hypothesize, is mediated through language: "There is no real world that scientists know independently of the linguistic, graphic, and mathematical formulations by which they conceive it," one author on scientific writing has underscored. Without the resources of language, the scientific enterprise would not progress for long. The mathematician Jacob Bronowski asserted that "the method of science, the objectification of entities, abstract concepts, or artificial concepts like atoms, is in fact a direct continuation of the human process of language, and that it is right to think of science as being simply a highly formalized language." What does "a highly formalized language" mean? What are the specific and practical rules of scientific English? To understand what it means to use scientific English effectively-at the level of words, sentences, and paragraphs-it is helpful to understand what scientific English is in its broader contexts: What are its scope, aims, and linguistic qualities? What are the professional relationships among scientist-writers, their documents, and their intended readers? What is the historical origin of the scientific attitude toward language? It is only through the lens of the historical evolution of modern science's view of language that the effectiveness of today's scientist-writers can be gauged. Therefore, the specific practical examples given later in the chapter will make more sense in light of this modern linguistic evolution. The basic nature of scientific English can be illuminated within two basic contexts: first, as constituting a practical communication framework, a culture of writing, founded on certain professional aims and purposes, and second, as a utilitarian attitude that cultivates an ethic of plainness in the use of language for scientific ends.


The sense of scientific English as a tool for organized communication is not disconnected from the classical Greek and Roman philosophies of discourse that two millennia later have come to shape the way college English, especially report writing, is taught today. Expository writing in any discipline has roots in Aristotle's methods for supporting a thesis or in Cicero's way of dividing an oration that easily translates into the various parts of a research report. Therefore, much of traditional college English is also part of what defines scientific English. Also apparent, however, is that a relative newcomer to the academic world-Francis Bacon's experimental science-brought along new and scientifically plain ways of using language for new purposes in new documents for new readers. Scientific English, then, has its own professional culture of writing. Its historical evolution since Bacon actually has extended rather than rejected Aristotle's and Cicero's contributions to the effective use of language. The Baconian outlook became an irrepressible impetus toward the emergence of the ethic of mathematically plain scientific communication.

Given the prime motive of communication in the culture of scientific writing, several questions naturally follow: To communicate what? Why? To whom? In what forms and styles? The geneticist Bentley Glass observed that there are "at least five distinct obligations" shared by scientists in their professional communication:

publishing their methods and findings truthfully, clearly, and fully so that they can be verified and extended by fellow researchers;

disseminating their findings more widely through abstracting and indexing media;

writing critical reviews that synthesize current knowledge in their field;

sharing their knowledge and its practical implications with the public;

teaching what they know to future generations of scientists.

To Glass's list, one may add the writing of laboratory notes on research methods and outcomes, proposals of research to acquire grant funding, and daily on-the-job communication. Given all these goals, we can identify six basic kinds of purposes that researchers have when they write particular documents for particular readers in order to achieve those purposes effectively: recording and archiving, professional exposition or dissemination of research results, teaching, job duties, seeking financial resources, and informing citizens (Table 1.1). In scientific activity itself, the most immediately important uses of language occur in making a reliable and permanent record or archive of research methods, outcomes, and conclusions (see Chapter 2). The next professional purpose for researchers is to share their work with peers through publication. Beyond these prime archival responsibilities-which allow the profession to advance in the collaborative spirit it requires-scientists also must share their knowledge in various forms with a range of reader constituents. These interested readers range from students and fellow researchers to public officials and citizens. Each of the important purposes in scientific writing calls for a particular nuance in the basic manner of using scientific English, in how formal or detailed the communication may need to be. Aculture of writing also means a culture of readers. The particular choices that scientists make as writers must be guided by assumptions about their readers.

It is not enough, then, for effective and responsible scientist-writers to know their subject. They also must know a document's readers; for example, how much do they know about the subject? Is the document for a research supervisor, a journal, a public official? How should a document's technical formality and style be adjusted for its reader(s)? Do the writer's intentions match the reader's expectations? Consider any given document mentioned in Table 1.1 in light of this question: What would the reader expect? Scientists do write for their all-important and diverse readers with their range of expectations. The professional standards for doing science are reflected in the strict standards and practices for writing science. The modern scientific community's culture of writing also demands a unique sense of plain language. This sense of scientifically plain English is both a cause and an effect of the rise of the experimental sciences inspired by Francis Bacon's revolutionary new senses of human "knowledge," of "reality," and of "truth." One prefatory caveat: Although the historical evolution of the notion of modern scientific language as thoroughly objectified is well documented, today scientific language is more accurately seen as also having subjective elements-psychosocial and political-that may affect its ultimate truth value. Before considering that humanized dimension of scientific language, however, a broader sense of its history is necessary to explain its Baconian roots.


The truly monumental achievement of the so-called father of modern science, Francis Bacon, is twofold: First, he set human learning on a new course that resulted in what today we call modern science, which seeks to advance human understanding through observing and manipulating our natural and physical world. Sometimes we refer to this modern method of study as the "experimental" or "hard" or "exact" sciences-like biology, chemistry, and physics-with the primary sense of the word "research" as inquiry that goes on in a laboratory setting. Second, and just as important, Bacon set the new communication standard or ethic of linguistic plainness that empowered his new scientific program to achieve the grand success it has enjoyed to this day. In short, Bacon at once provided both the method and the language of modern science. What, then, is the linguistic revolution that brought us scientifically plain English? What does it mean to be scientifically plain? What are the specific qualities of plain writing that are expected in scientists' writing?


In Bacon's view, traditional or past uses of language-stilted, convoluted, clouded with subjective and flowery language-were no longer adequate for advancing human understanding. At the dawn of the seventeenth century, as he laid out a new and bold scientific enterprise, Bacon also chastised those who "hunt more after words ... than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment." With the rise of modern science, the dominance of the old attitude of taking pleasure in linguistic artistry and subjective thoughts for their own sake-as in literary writing-was displacedbytheBaconianethicoflinguisticutility:howeffectivelythewordsserve their readers in delivering "real" knowledge with clarity and exactness. Whereas the traditional linguistic style reveled in subjective ambiguity, the new one was to be utterly and objectively plain in the service of true learning. When Bacon's dream of a modern research institution became a reality in the Royal Society of London, the society's members officially resolved "to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men deliver'd so many things, almost in an equal number of words. They have exacted from all their members, a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness: bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness, as they can." Rather than a return to some golden era of "natural" writing, however, Bacon's was a new and future-oriented standard that reflected modern science's forward-looking way of thinking and learning. The essence of the pivotal linguistic revolution that accompanied the modern scientific revolution is the emergence of this new ethic of "mathematical plainness" that values things over words. This Baconian attitude toward language can be translated, or paraphrased, into the following current mantra of scientific plainness: "There should be little figurative language ... an economy of words ... intelligible, clear, and unequivocal meanings ... common words which are closer to material realities ... no emphasis upon or interest in the mode of expression for its own sake ... Rhetorical ornaments and sheer delight in language represent a pernicious misplacing of emphasis, and in the end destroy the solid and fruitful elements of knowledge." For scientists, writing that is worth reading has real things to offer in mathematically plain language. The utility of scientifically plain English lies in those two fundamental and interconnected features: first, that it has practical material to offer, and second, that it communicates that material plainly so it can be used by the reader.

The key shift in the rise of the new sciences with their new senses of knowledge and truth was in what was meant by "things." Baconian things were not the same as, say, the relatively subjective Aristotelian or Ciceronian things. According to Robert Adolph: "Bacon means by 'things' objective physical reality and its causes, existing before and after the writer's perception of them and independent of him. The Baconian writer, like his ideal researcher, submits his mind to these things, rather than constructing a mental edifice of his own according to some ideal pattern or looking within himself to relate the physical world to his own private concerns." Scientists as writers must offer objective knowledge to their readers in plain language. Scientifically plain writing is objective, simple, precise, concrete, direct, and unadorned, with straightforward constructions and the minimum number of words needed to deliver the document's material things to its readers. Of these pivotal changes in human history, it is rightly put that "no clearer proclamation could be desired of the victory of the new world-picture, the fact world, over the older worlds of traditional feeling. 'Truth' was the exclusive possession of the Real Philosophy." The new language of science focused not on psychological but rather on material reality. The Baconian attitude toward language largely defines the present culture of writing in the community of scientific researchers, wherein words are used in very specific, constrained, highly formalized, and generally impersonal ways that accord with scientific objectivity. The old emphasis on the writer and on artistic language has given way in the past four centuries to the modern scientific emphasis on words merely as neutral conveyors of information for the practical benefit of the reader.


Excerpted from Writing FOR SCIENCE by Robert Goldbort Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 SCIENTIFIC ENGLISH....................1
2 LABORATORY NOTES....................56
6 SCIENTIFIC VISUALS....................174
7 SCIENTIFIC PRESENTATIONS....................194
8 SCIENTIFIC DISSERTATIONS....................213
9 SCIENTIFIC JOURNAL ARTICLES....................240
10 SCIENTIFIC GRANT PROPOSALS....................271
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