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Lab Times

5-2016

page

21

Analysis

By contrast,

the modern scientific article looks

completely different. It has evolved a spe-

cialised language and prose style, adapt-

ed for efficient communication with oth-

er professionals engaged in similar re-

search. The impersonal style of these arti-

cles is designed to focus the reader’s mind

on the things of the laboratory and the nat-

ural world, rather than to draw attention

to the text itself or to its authors (see text

box “Science Language Characteristics” on

the right).

One consequence of the rise of this com-

pressed style of scientific writing is that it

has effectively alienated the general read-

er. This seems inevitable, since articles are

no longer written for enthusiastic ama-

teurs but are targeted at a highly special-

ised audience of professional researchers.

Furthermore, when modern scientists write

for journal publication, their aim is not to

achieve ‘literary uniqueness’ but rather ‘lit-

erate typicality’.

The master narrative

Nevertheless, modern scientific articles

are more than just written texts. They have

also evolved, to incorporate structural fea-

tures that complement and enhance the vis-

ibility of the contents, making it easier for

scientifically literate readers to find the in-

formation they want quickly and efficiently.

Gross highlights three of these – the “mas-

ter narrative”, the “master finding system”

and the visual component.

The master narrative represents “a

tribute to the efficacy of the experimental

method as a means of exploring nature”.

In effect, it is the familiar layout of pub-

lished experimental research re-

ports. This opens with a Title

and Abstract intended to mini-

mise the time and effort needed

to uncover the article’s central

theme, followed by an Intro-

duction that provides the read-

er with the authors’ scientific

context. The main body of the article gives

us the Methods used to acquire new facts;

the Results section shows us these facts and

the intellectual context of their acquisition.

Finally, the Discussion offers an explana-

tion for the new facts and a Conclusion re-

iterates the central facts and explanations,

and suggests possible future work to con-

firm or extend the original investigation.

Fast focus

Together with this master narrative, a

master finding system has evolved. In ef-

fect, this system compartmentalises the es-

sential features in articles through the use

of headings and sub-headings, tables and

figures integrated into the text with num-

bered captions describing their contents,

and citations that supply additional con-

text for statements at any point in the text.

One clear advantage of this system is that it

permits scientists to read articles selective-

ly rather than sequentially, “opportunisti-

cally scavenging” the various components

in search of useful bits of method, theory

and fact. With headings in place, scientists

who are not interested in methodological

details do not need to read the Methods sec-

tion. Alternatively, with the swarm of data

segregated into tables and figures, scien-

tists are able more easily to focus on them,

or on their commentary in the text, or to al-

ternate freely between the two.

Gross stresses that the visual compo-

nent is also a very important development

Science Language Characteristics

T

he rise of modern science since the 17

th

century has been accompanied by an in-

creasingly specialised use of language:

Style

– The style of scientific language has changed to increase the impression of

objectivity. There are fewer personal pronouns, an increased use of the passive voice, fewer

people verbs vs. matter/mathematical verbs, and more “hedging” expressions. Hedging ex-

pressions serve to limit the scope of one’s assertions, e.g. “This proves” vs. “This suggests”;

“it shows” vs. “it appears to show”. The average sentence length has become shorter. The

style has also changed towards greater cognitive complexity. There is a greater number of

so-called “noun phrases” (a group of words that acts like a noun in a sentence, e.g. gene

function, protein structure, cell signalling pathway), more function words between nouns

and a greater number of quantifying words, equations and other abbreviations.

Argument

- The arguments presented in scientific articles have increased in complex-

ity. There has been an increased concern for accuracy and precision as shown by the in-

creasing use of hedging expressions, and a shift from arguments based on words alone to

arguments based equally on words, tables and visuals.

Presentation

- changes in the language of scientific articles have also been accompa-

nied by radical changes in how it is presented. More efficient communication results from

using a ‘master system’ for finding and organising information. Titles contain the major

claims. Abstracts provide informative indications of main points. The article’s organisation

is revealed in headings and sub-headings. The written text is complemented by visual ele-

ments (graphics, figures, tables, equations) and citations to other articles whose contex-

tual relevance is clearly indicated in the text.

Sources:

- Alan G. Gross, Joseph E. Harmon, and Michael Reidy. ‘Communicating Science: The Scientific Article From

the 17

th

Century to the Present’. Oxford UP, 2002.

- Alan Gross. ‘What’s Right About Scientific Writing’.

The Scientist

6/12/99.

350 years ago, a scientific publication

read like this:

“To perform my late

promise to you, I shall without further

ceremony acquaint you, that in the

beginning of the Year 1666 (at which

time I applyed my self to the grind-

ing of Optick glasses of other figures

than Spherical,) I procured me a Tri-

angular Glass-Prisme, to try there-

with the celebrated Phenomena of

Colours.”