Unclear, overly wordy scientific writing

I’m in the middle of reviewing a paper for a scientific journal. The paper is a good one—it offers valuable insight into the taxonomy of a particular group of animals, and I have no hesitation in recommending it for publication. But the authors will need to give it a good copy-edit and simplify much of the text. A big problem is that the writing style tends to be overly passive, overly wordy and indirect. I’ve had to re-read some sentences several times to understand what they were trying to say.

Here is an example of the kind of writing I am referring to: “This work should lead to greater clarity in taxonomy by making explicit any known research gaps and by ensuring that each species designation is arrived at through robust and defensible taxonomic protocols. Such clarity should provide the basis for greater efficacy in management and conservation.”

Clear as mud.

Is there a term for this style of writing?

Scientific writing. :slight_smile:

I’ve reviewed lots of papers (in the hundreds) and some people write better than others. But there is a big difference between scientific writing and say fiction writing.
For instance, in scientific writing you often start off a paragraph or section with a summary of what will be described, and then end with a summary. In fiction writing if you start with a summary your reader has no need of reading the rest of the paragraph.

In fiction writing actors do things, and so passive voice is frowned upon. In scientific writing you do not want to impute motivation to inanimate objects, so passive is often safer. So there are a lot more cases where passive is good, versus almost none in fiction.
Finally, in scientific writing you want to completely qualify all statements. My adviser challenge me whenever I wrote an absolute. This makes them wordy, true, but forces you to say only what the facts support. Less technical writing is less accurate but easier to read.

None of this means that you shouldn’t recommend that overly verbose sections be rewritten, especially if you have specific suggestions. But recognize the reasons for scientific writing.
The stuff I write in my column for a technical journal would never work when I write a paper for that journal, and vice versa. (Unless I’m satirizing scientific writing, that is.)

This. I thought it was pretty good, actually. Technical writing, like contract writing, often requires a precision that can only be achieved through verbosity. That said, I’d make a few minor changes:

"This work should lead to greater taxonomical clarity by highlighting any known research gaps and by ensuring that each species designation is justified by robust and defensible taxonomic protocols. Such clarity should facilitate greater efficacy in management and conservation.”

A few years ago, a PI offered me this classic book on writing. It has an entire chapter about (eliminating) this style of writing.

The title of this chapter is: “Clutter”

Since this is about a writing style, let’s move it to Cafe Society.

General Questions Moderator

“A big problem is that the writing style tends to be overly passive, overly wordy and indirect.”

As a person who does a lot of scientific writing, there are a lot of factors that contribute to this:

As others have already mentioned, scientific writing demands precision and detail. You have to say exactly what you did and how you did it, and exactly what the findings support, which usually requires a lot of words. Clarity and concision are great if you can swing it, but distinctly secondary considerations.

Passive voice is useful. For one thing, the “active agent” in most papers is always the same throughout (the authors), so without it there would be an endless stream of sentences of the form “We did X. Then, we did Y. We also did Z. We observed S and T. We concluded from these findings that Q. Therefore, we next did A and B.” Just for not-being-boring-ness, it helps to be able to change now and then to “Analysis of XYZ showed that ST, suggesting that Q. Confirming this, measurements of AB…”

For another thing, passive voice lets you emphasize the important bits, and also save some words (“Slides were incubated in PBS for one hour” is both more direct and one word shorter than “We incubated the slides in PBS for one hour”).

Research papers are generally written under length constraints and usually under considerable time pressure as well. The former tends to lead to messy sentences and paragraphs, as you try to jam together a bunch of related points to save on bridging and introductory words. The latter means you don’t have time to carefully craft your deathless prose. Repeatedly passing drafts back and forth between multiple collaborators is also not an ideal way to produce fluid writing. And when the word comes down from the editors that the paper has been provisionally accepted but they want it shorter so you have ten days to cut the text by 30%, without taking any data out, and make sure all collaborators get to review the document and approve the changes before submitting… well, making it read beautifully is not a top priority.

I (a writer who came out of journalism, advertising and public relations) had constant disagreements with both physical and social science types about this. Their defense basically came down to this:

  1. You don’t say anything that implies you configured the experiment to go one way or another. The experiment exists all by itself so that anyone can re-create it.

  2. You don’t say anything to imply you selected/manipulated/tweaked the data the experiment generates. The results simply are.

  3. After you’ve done all that, there isn’t much left that can be put in active voice.

I’ve written, reviewed, and edited many scientific papers and yes, their style (or lack of it) can be awful. I actually found the example in the OP to be perfectly clear.:slight_smile:

I’m eternally grateful to an editor who, at the start of my scientific career, virtually re-wrote one of my papers which I had written in what I supposed to be proper scientific style. He eliminated a lot of the more complex and stilted constructions I had used.

Passive voice is still used a lot in scientific publications, but it’s been increasingly acceptable to write in a more active voice and sometimes even to take a personal tone. There are, however, still some journals and editors that insist that everything be passive.

Once you have a reputation, you can get away with a lot of stuff that a new researcher is not going to want to try. For instance, you can be a lot more chatty in the introduction than in the results section.
For me passive voice is one of the smaller issues I have. I hate it when people define a term on page 2 and then use it for the first time on page 8 without a reminder. Some violate the picture is worth 1,000 words law - especially in the stuff I review which contain flowcharts of the algorithms - or should. People write excessive detail about steps without bothering to give a clear outline.
Then there are some where you have to guess the word that the writer really meant to use, which is different from the one he actually used.

Almost all publications have style guides which you will need to conform to before submitting the paper.

Here’s a general style guide for reference: A Style Guide for Scientific Research Papers (.pdf)

I used to work as a technical writer for a medical devices company; mostly creating process control documents. Trust me, the FDA style guide is a bitch.

FWIW, I find the example in the OP perfectly understandable and if it crossed my desk, I’d leave it as is.

Try reading any of the science or mathematics articles on Wikipedia.

Articles on Wikipedia are intended for general public consumption and the standard you would use to evaluate such articles is different for what you would evaluate in a scientific publication (e.g. simplicity and clarity over explicitness and completeness. Because submissions to a technical journal start with the assumption that the reader is familiar with not only the basic subject matter but also the domain-specific jargon used in the field they are often difficult to parse without that context, and as preciseness is valued over simplicity you will often find statements that seem overly verbose and qualified compared to how one would write in general correspondence. This isn’t any more wrong than the complex legal jargon found in contracts and legal briefs which is intended to specifically define the parameters of the requirement or argument even if it does make for esthetically unpleasant reading.

That being said, I have a couple of people whose work I have to copyedit as part of my job who are painfully verbose in their writing, often using terms incorrectly or redundantly. One does not need to write descriptions like, “turbulent, non-laminar flow in vortices” or “radiative heat transfer by emission of radiation from an emissive high temperature body to a receptive low temperature body” unless writing an introductory textbook for students who are being introduced to those terms for the first time, and even then the repetition does not add clarity. Nor is it necessary to add “respectively” when discussing two parallel quantities, or “As will be seen henceforth [sic] in analysis presented for the readers’ [sic] evaluation later in this report”. And I cannot seem to convince them that they should not present a table or figure in the body of the report prior to introducing it in the text, or put multiple full page size figures in the main body instead of in an appendix, nor to refer to references that “everybody knows” but aren’t in the reference list, or put items in the reference list that aren’t referenced in the paper.

However, I find the example in the o.p. to be adequately clear, if not quite the way I would word it. At a minimum, I’d remove weak statements like “should” and replace them with more affirmative wording, e.g. :This paper will clarify taxonomic definitions by identifying gaps in research to ensure that species designations are clearly indicated per taxonomic protocols. This will support more effective species management and conservation.


Then why are they incomprehensible?

I propose a translation as “Adam named all the animals and he didn’t need no fuckin’ Latin!”

This may help:

Scientific Jargon. by Dyrk Schingman, Oregon State University

Because they aren’t written to a particular standard of knowledge or clarity; they’re written by whomever has an interest a particular topic, and edited or not depending on anyone else’s interest in doing so. That being said, most articles on Wikipedia are entirely readable by anyone with cursory knowledge in that subject area. Many are incomplete or factually incorrect, but that isn’t a problem of writing; that is a problem of basic knowledge and peer review.


One could so far as to argue that a paper intended for publication in a scientific journal should be concerned with an overabundance of active writing more so than it should be concerned with passive writing.

In my (granted, not outright extensive, but certainly not limited either) experience with academia and scientific publications, usage of personal pronouns in scientific literature is considered idiosyncratic at best and outright frowned upon at worst - but I am not from the US and I suppose, even though they oughtn’t, that the standards for writing in scientific publications might differ across the Atlantic.


Another bit of scientific jargon:

Getting this to crystallize was an armorplated bitch.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” - Albert Einstein

I think clarity and concision are very important, secondary only to technical accuracy. Do not mistake clarity and concision for simplicity and brevity.