"A scientific experiment is not complete until the results have been published. Therefore, to do science, one must also write science."
~Robert A. Day, The ACS Style Guide
The ability to convey information effectively is a key element of the scientific process. Accurate record keeping and coherent dissemination of data ensure that scientific knowledge can be utilized in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Therefore, chemists also must be master communicators, able to demonstrate the validity of their experiments and, especially, their conclusions to a wide variety of audiences and in several different types of formats, including peer-reviewed journals, patent applications, and live presentations.
Writing assignments are most commonly encountered in upper division and laboratory courses. The assignments range from laboratory reports in various formats to term papers on chemistry-related topics. The SVSU chemistry curriculum incorporates writing assignments that reflect the diversity of writing encountered in the chemistry profession.
The sciences tend to value concise, pithy writing. The focus is on the information presented rather than on the presenter. Scientists are merely the observers of the phenomena and must remove themselves from the experiment. Thus, scientific literature often is written in the third person, using passive voice. Information presented in a scientific document must use scientifically appropriate terms and language. Vague, overly ornate language is to be avoided in favor of succinctly descriptive wording. Also, writers should not include editorial comments based on personal biases. For example, "The reaction produced a bright orange color that persisted for several minutes." is preferred over "To my delight, I saw a beautiful orange color reminiscent of a Hawaiian sunset in June. I was saddened by its disappearance after only a few minutes."
Since the scientific method relies on efforts to refute conclusions based on experimental evidence, scientific writing often is persuasive. Conclusions must be based on solid data collected and presented as evidence; stronger arguments are based on a stepwise trail of evidence without large leaps in logic. Often, the writer even attempts to refute his or her own conclusions in an attempt to strengthen the original argument!
It is important to note that the reliance on the scientific method of disproving a hypothesis stems from the assumption that nothing is provable; a hypothesis is accepted only when all reasonable alternatives have been disproved. Thus, scientific writers will use such phrases as "the data suggest…" or "the data seem to indicate…" rather than "the data prove…" when presenting their conclusions. However, it is acceptable to indicate that one's data "disprove" a hypothesis.
These criteria initially may seem to be rather strict and lead to writing that is dull and flat, even cold. However, this does not have to be the case. Good scientific writers are able to write within the guidelines while producing writing that flows and has a definite rhythm without being dry and "choppy."
Peer-reviewed publications provide the strongest supporting documentation in the sciences. Publication in these media requires a rigorous review process by well-established and respected (and often skeptical!) authorities in the area of interest. Some of the most respected chemistry journals are published by professional organizations such as the American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry, though there are many other prestigious journals published worldwide.
Care must be used when using websites, especially non-edited sites like Wikipedia, as references, since the material presented often is not reviewed externally and does not undergo rigorous scrutiny and verification procedures.
Conventions vary and often are publication-specific. However, the American Chemical Society (ACS) has developed a format that is very commonly used. These rules are published in The ACS Style Guide, copies of which are available in the SVSU library and in the Writing Center. In-text citations usually are included as consecutively-numbered superscripts, with references included in an end- or footnote format.
The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information, 3rd ed.; Coghill, A. M.; Garson, L. R., Eds.; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 2006.
James Polega, Jesse Place, and Erika Prince
Back to Why Writing Matters at SVSU
Back to Writing Center Home