This time we’ll talk about abstracts. The first two sentences are arguably the most important. You need to quickly convey the purpose of your research as well as the context.
Here’s the first sentence in an abstract from a recent paper in Nature:
Although p53-mediated cell-cycle arrest, senescence and apoptosis serve as critical barriers to cancer development, emerging evidence suggests that the metabolic activities of p53 are also important.
The authors clearly set up the context of their research. First they list the typical actions of p53, but then they mention new research that points at other activities. In the second sentence of their abstract they concisely state how they explored these metabolic activities.
This lets the reader know right at the beginning of the abstract what their research builds on as well as what it accomplishes.
Do you know the difference between “insignificant” and “nonsignificant”?
“Insignificant” means “unimportant”, but “nonsignificant” refers to statistical significance. Something is nonsignificant if it isn’t statistically significant.
Here’s an example of each from different papers in the the New England Journal of Medicine.
“DNA assays can detect clinically insignificant infections”
This means that the infections didn’t harm patients. The infections were insignificant or didn’t matter.
“there was a nonsignificant trend toward an increased risk of cardiovascular death”
This means that there appeared to be increased risk, but it wasn’t statistically significant.
This time we’ll talk about how to write an effective title for your paper.
Tip 1: Avoid abbreviations.
Some acronyms, such as lncRNA, should obviously be used. However, if an abbreviation is new and not yet standardized it’s probably better to write the full name.
Tip 2: Keep it short.
Some studies have found that shorter titles are cited more often. As with most writing, try to be concise. Include the same details with fewer words.
Tip 3: Describe your research.
Try to include important key words relating to what you did and what you found. If you’re studying a biomarker, maybe mention the “prognostic potential” of that marker. Or, if you’re studying heart disease, mention what aspect of heart disease you looked at.
How do you know when to use past and present tense in scientific writing?
Verb tense in English can be hard to get right. When discussing what happened in your study, you should stick with the past tense. For example:
Overexpression of this gene weakened collagen formation.
“weakened” is past tense.
Facts and well-accepted research findings should appear in the present tense.
This family of proteins is composed of several closely-related proteins.
“is composed” is present tense.
Learning to use tense correctly is hard. To improve your skills, try looking for tense when you next read a paper. You’ll see wide use of the past tense, but try to find where the authors chose use the present tense.
The words “obtain” and “attain” sound similar, but have different meanings.
The word “obtain” means “to get”. You can obtain physical things like reagents or non-physical things like results. Here’s an example:
These results were obtained by chromatin immunoprecipitation.
That means that the researchers used chromatin immunoprecipitation to get these results.
The word “attain” means “to achieve”. Here’s an example:
Our simulation study attained similar performance to that of the compared methods.
This means that their simulation achieved similar performance.
To review: You obtain something when you get or receive it. You attain something when you achieve it as an objective.
Both “affect” and “effect” are common words in scientific writing. Do you know the difference?
This distinction is confusing because both affect and effect can sometimes be both a noun and a verb. However, most of the time you only see affect as a verb and effect as a noun.
An “effect” is a result. The verb “affect” means to have an influence on.
Let’s look at some examples from scientific writing.
Several types of bias might have affected the results of this study.
There the verb affect was used to say that the bias might have influenced or affected the study results.
Clinical trials have not demonstrated a consistent or convincing beneficial effect.
There “effect” was a noun. The author was describing the result or effect of clinical trials.
This time we will talk about the word “indeed”. “Indeed” is not very common in modern spoken English, but we still find it frequently used in scientific writing.
Authors use “indeed” to emphasize an example of what they just said. To clarify this, we will use an example discussing how many hours per week American doctors should work.
Being tired, of course, is something everyone understands. Indeed, a recent study showed that 80% of Americans surveyed would want to see a different doctor if they knew theirs had been working more than 24 consecutive hours. — DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsr1210160
The first sentence in the example has the general claim that most people understand being tired. The second sentence starts with “indeed” and then mentions another study confirming that general claim. Using “indeed” helps the reader know what to expect in the next sentence.
Today’s topic is prepositions. You already know many prepositions such as “of”, “in”, “for”, and “with”. These words help to clarify how other words relate to each other.
However, they are easy to confuse. There are no good rules for when to use each one, but native speakers notice immediately when the wrong preposition is used.
Here’s a trick to help you figure out which one is correct. If you are unsure whether to say “affiliated to” or “affiliated with”. Search for both in a English-language search engine and look at how many search results are returned for each. Whichever has more results is probably correct.
This trick does not work every time, but it is a helpful tool to have while writing.
This time we will talk about the words “a” and “the”. They are very simple words that are used in similar places, but to make your writing sound professional it is important to not confuse them.
The general rule is this: Use “the” when the exact thing is already known to the reader or there is only one thing you could be talking about. Otherwise you should use “a”.
I’ll go through some examples. In each pair of examples, one will use “the” and the other will use “a”.
Here is the first pair:
Here is the next pair of examples:
This time we’ll discuss an example from one of our papers. It’s a sentence that was changed by one of our editors. First, I’ll read the original sentence.
“D-dimer is a fibrin degradation product…”
This sentence appeared at the beginning of a paragraph in the Introduction. The editor realized that while this excerpt is correct, it might not be immediately clear to the reader what D-dimer is. Here’s what the editor changed it to:
“One such potential marker is D-dimer, a fibrin degradation product…”
At the beginning the editor added “One such potential marker”. Since the previous paragraph was discussing potential markers, adding this clause helps the reader understand how D-dimer relates.
Small additions like this can often help people understand your paper more easily.
This time we’ll talk about when to use the word “we” in scientific writing.
You should only use “we” when mentioning things your research group did or discovered. Here’s an example:
“we quantify microstructural changes and physiological tissue loading in humans.” - doi:10.1038/ncomms5855
There the authors directly discussed what they did, so they used “we”.
However, you should not use we to refer to people more broadly than your team. For example, in spoken English, it’s common to use the phrase “we think that”, but in scientific writing, it would be better to say “it is thought that” to avoid using “we”.
Continuing last week’s Quick Tip, I’m going to talk about another connecting word, “although”.
“Although” means that the second idea is an exception to or unexpected given the first.
Here’s an example from Nature:
“Although TRAF3 inactivation has been reported in haematological malignancies and nasopharyngeal carcinoma, to our knowledge this is the first evidence linking TRAF3 to HPV-associated carcinomas.” - doi:10.1038/nature14129
Other words and phrases that are similar to “although” include:
I’m going to discuss “connecting words”.
Connecting words come between two ideas and help explain how they relate to each other.
Here I have an example from the New England Journal of Medicine using the connecting word “though”. Pay attention to how that word tells the reader what to expect from the second idea.
the total number of beds in Ebola treatment centers far exceeded the number of patients reported each week, though there were substantial gaps in treatment capacity in some areas of all three countries
Here’s a brief list of connecting words that serve the same purpose as “though”: