10 writing tips for academic papers

I’m currently wrapping up a long review paper (>10k words) that should hopefully be published this September. As usual, as a non-native speaker, I ran into many common grammar and style mistakes. Luckily, I have next door a native speaker, and he’s patient enough to correct most of my mistake. He’s my first secret weapon. The second one is this little gem, called The Elements of Style (4th Edition), by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. This book is probably the best money I’ve ever spend on a book.

So without further ado, here are my top ten mistakes, that I’ve learned to correct thanks to my two secret weapons:

  1. You should place a comma after abbreviations like i.e., e.g., etc.
  2. If you enumerate several terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term. Example: “… bla bla bla  in materials science, chemistry, and life science”. Same if you enumerate with “or”.
  3. Put statements in positive forms. It is much stronger.
  4. Omit needless words. For some reason, we french people seem to be using a lot of these. So here you go, go and mercilessly chase expressions like “the reason why is that”, “the question as to whether”, etc.
  5. “Due to” is synonym to “attributable to”. Avoid using it for “owing to” or “because of”.
  6. “Interesting”. It might be interesting to you, but not to everyone else. Remove it. Just remove it.
  7. “Type” is not a synonym for “kind of”. So get it straight.
  8. “While”. Just stick to it if you can replace it with “during the time that”.
  9. Don’t say “very unique”. “unique” is good enough.
  10. Split infinitive: when you put an adverb between “to” and the verb. I used this form a lot and thought it was cool. Apparently it’s not. Don’t say: “to thoroughly investigate”, say: “to investigate thoroughly”.

This is just the top ten. The entire book is full of stuff  like this. Go and get it. And don’t lend it to anyone, you’d never get it back. Do you have another one? Share it in the comments.

On this #overlyhonestmethods thing

The #overlyhonestmethods hashtag is crazily popular since it started two days ago. Thousands of tweets are flying around, in a beautiful pluridisciplinary ballet. Scientists from all over the planet are cranking their witty jokes as fast as they can, in an interesting mix of behind-the-scenes insights and private jokes. If you’re a scientist yourself, you can often tell whether it’s a witty joke or a scientific confession. If you’re not, it can be a different story. Reading non-scientists tweets and a few comments on non-scientific sites, like here and there, I realized many people took this hashtag as a confession for scientists. That’s not exactly the case. First hint: scientist are humans too, and as incredible as it may sound, some have a solid sense of humor.

In every place I’ve been, people are working way too much. Scientists are passionate workaholics. Working around the clock. On weekends. At night because that’s the only time where the equipment is available. Skipping lunch. So yes, sometime we need to relieve some of the pressure. We get tired. Our caffeine intake is high, but it’s not because we don’t have anything better than hanging around that coffee table the whole day.

Some of these tweets revealed the frustration we all share, in particular regarding some weird conventions of the writing style or the trending topics.

@eperlste: We used jargon instead of plain English to prove that a decade of grad school and postdoc made us smart. #overlyhonestmethods

@biochembelle: We decided to use Technique Y because it’s new and sexy, plus hot and cool. And because we could. #overlyhonestmethods

@Bashir_Course9: method isn’t described here b/c this High Impact Report is 200 words. see Supplement Appendix L for vague description #overlyhonestmethods

@ProfLikeSubst: This paper represents just the sexiest stuff we could skim from the data. The carcass paper will be dumped somewhere #overlyhonestmethods

Science is also expensive, most of the time. And we have to adapt your dream experiment to the practical and financial reality of the lab. We often have to improvise. And no, we don’t have access to each and every article ever published. Paywalls are still a major source of grief for most of us, my tweet on open-access got >230 RT and >100 faves (and counting). I guess I struck a sensitive point, here. If it helps us get the message to the public, it’s all good news. A few major outlets mentioned it (here and here).

@KayLa_D_87: Compound Q was excluded from study, because it was expensive. #overlyhonestmethods

@talesfromlabs: Compound A was preferred to B because there was leftovers from post-doc who left three years ago. (also B costs $$$) #overlyhonestmethods

@paulcoxon: The beam shutter was held stable by an in-house built support made from BluTak & the top off an old Biro #overlyhonestmethods

I have my share of stories like this. When we are working on the beamline at the ESRF, we work around the clock. If our in-house setup is breaking at 3AM, we don’t go to bed and come back in the morning after a good night’s sleep. We fix it. With whatever we have laying around. Oh, and these in situ freezing experiments we did ? The molds were actually straws from orange juice packs. Perfect diameter, ideal thickness. Why bother ordering expensive technical ones ? The orange juice was actually really bad. And BlueTack is a scientist’s best friend.

Science is hard. Often frustrating. People are moving in and out, and it’s sometime difficult to keep track. It often start from a failed experiment or a mistake, and then it takes a long time to understand what’s going on, so that superstition can be invoked at some point, until we figure out why it’s working this way.

@JacquelynGill: The microbalance was so temperamental that an undergrad named it “Larry” in order to yell at it more effectively. #overlyhonestmethods

@AnneOsterrieder: We don’t know how this method was performed because the PhD student’s lab book is written in a foreign language. #overlyhonestmethods

@aivelo: I’m ready to surrender and write “For no apparent reasons, my method works with only half of the samples.” #overlyhonestmethods

@james_gilbert: Apparatus was placed on the 2nd shelf up, approx 1 foot left of the spider plant. Results were irreproducible elsewhere #overlyhonestmethods

@researchremix: Data are available upon request because then we can tidy the spreadsheet only if absolutely necessary #overlyhonestmethods

@AkshatRathi: It took 10 years of work to write this 6-page long paper, but you wouldn’t be able to guess that from reading it. #overlyhonestmethods

A large number of tweets also revolved around the never-ending chase for grants.

‏@multisensebrain: Our results have significant implications for that we are seeking grant funding for #overlyhonestmethods

@dbmoore: Our study used string theory, global warming, and big data because that’s where the grant money is #overlyhonestmethods

@peds_id_doc: We’re submitting this half-finished experiment for publication because we ran out of grant money. #overlyhonestmethods‏

@paulcoxon: This work was made possible by @EPSRC Grant #1234 & @eBay from where we scrounged parts to repair our ancient apparatus #overlyhonestmethods

Finally, some revealed some of the privilege we have. Working in funny locations. Whenever we want. Choosing the people we work with. And considering the many sacrifices we accept otherwise, I don’t feel spoiled doing it.

@Gomblemomble: This part of the experimental work was carried out in Western Australia, because my supervisor has a friend there. #OverlyhonestMethods

So shoud we be worried about the way science is done ? Were these last two days a massive confession of scientific misconduct ? Not really. Partially maybe, at least that’s my feeling.

@Crommunist: I’m just making up a lot of these. #OverlyHonestMethods

We, as scientists, all know it’s a messy business. And guess what, science is performed by humans. Alive. That sometime go to the restroom, enjoy their weekend at home and have babies. But somehow it works and we make progress overall.

@researchremix: The data is old because in between writing the first draft and doing the revisions I had a baby #overlyhonestmethods

What I read in 2012

Here is the raw list, with no particular order. Overall, I didn’t read a lot this year. I didn’t keep track of everything either, so a few are missing. I started reading a lot of popular science book, and really enjoyed it. I am planning to do the same this year. Any advice is welcome !

Non science books

  • Le signal, Ron Carlson
  • Les corrections, Jonathan Frenzen
  • La stratégie du choc : La montée d’un capitalisme du désastre, Naomi Klein
  • La Vie mode d’emploi, George Perec
  • Dernière nuit à Twisted River, John Irving
  • La réserve, Russell Banks
  • Armadillo, William Boyd
  • Catch 22, Joseph Heller
  • L’aveuglement. José Saramago
  • La théorie des cordes, José Carlos Somoza
  • Lointains hivers. Rigoni Stern
  • Paradis conjugal, Alice Ferney
  • La conjugation des imbeciles, John Kennedy Toole
  • Le bibliothécaire, Larry Beinhart
  • Un bon jour pour mourir, Jim Harrisson
  • L’île des chasseurs d’oiseaux, Peter May. My favorite of the year. Absolutely terrific. Much better than his other books.
  • La promesse de l’aube. Romain Gary
  • Le hussard sur le toit, Jean Giono

Science books

  • Critical mass, how one thing lead to another, Philip Ball. I love Philip Ball.
  • Life’s Matrix: A Biography of Water, Philip Ball. My favorite science book of the year.
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn. A classic.
  • Branches: Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts, Philip Ball. I love Philip Ball. Oh, did I already said it ?
  • Théorème vivant, Cédric Vilani. The making off of a Fields medal. Awesome.
  • Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, Michael Nielsen. An eye-opener for me.
  • Sur les épaules de Darwin: Les battements du temps, Jean Claude Ameisen. in French. If you enjoy the radio show, you’ll love the book. I already offered it twice.