Common scientific writing errors: twelve ways to annoy journal reviewers (and how to avoid these mistakes)

Imagine you’re sitting comfortably with a hot cup of tea.

You’re ready to start that new book you’ve wanted to read for a long time. Finally, you found some time away from work, exercise, kids, housework and all those other things that take up your day. Fantastic, this is such a treat! You open the first page and start to read…

“Once upon a”   DRIP   “time there was an”   DRIP   “enchanted castle in a”  DRIP   “land far, far away”   DRIP … DRIP … DRIP … DRIP.   You stop reading and look up.   DRIP   What is that sound?  Eventually, you realise the bathroom tap is dripping heavy drops of water into the sink.   DRIP … DRIP … DRIP.   It’s not noisy, but it’s very, very annoying. Your focus on the beautiful story becomes interrupted and you can’t concentrate until you stop the drip.

What has this got to do with scientific writing?

Not much, you might think. However, your supervisor or journal manuscript reviewer wants to focus on the story you tell about your research. They don’t want to be distracted by minor issues that become more and more annoying and reduce their interest in reading your work.

There’s no need to panic!

There are several common minor errors that frustrate readers and make your scientific writing less professional. These errors are easy to fix, just like tightening the tap to stop the drip. In this post, I’m going to provide a quick overview of the most common basic errors that our editors see in scientific manuscripts.

1. Check for spelling mistakes

This is obvious, yet it is surprising how many spelling mistakes our editors see in manuscripts. Firstly, use the spell check feature, making sure it is applied to all of the text in the file. Secondly, choose the correct language (e.g., US/American English or UK/British English) for your target journal or thesis guidelines.

2. Use short, simple sentences

Long, long sentences that continue to ramble and keep talking until the reader gets bored and confused are both unnecessary and frustrating and make the reader want to stop reading and work out what you are talking about before their head becomes sore and they have to lie down in the dark, and mean it is unlikely that your written message will be communicated effectively or understood by the person reading the page.

In other words, write short sentences. Concise phrases are much easier to understand. If in doubt, use two sentences instead of one.

3. Make text on graphs large enough to read

This may also seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many manuscripts contain graphs with tiny text. Think about what the text on your graphs will look like when they are printed on a journal page. Nobody wants to use a microscope to read the legends or labels! You don’t necessarily need to make the graph itself larger, but increase the font size of the labels instead.

4. Use simple group names

When naming groups and treatments, try to keep their names as close to the original treatments as possible. Avoid unspecific names like ‘test’ and ‘experimental’, and try not to use abbreviations and/or letters if words can be used instead. For example, ‘control’, ‘3 mM NaCl’, ‘5 mM NaCl’, and ‘5 mM NaCl + 3 mM Ca’ are much better (and informative) group names than ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, and ‘4’ or ‘C’ ‘low S’, ‘high S’ and ‘high S+C’. Make it easier for the reader to know which group you are talking about, rather than having to “translate” your results and figures.

5. Create tables using the Table tool

Create tables using the Table feature of word, rather than laying out the text using the spacebar. Tables will remain the same if the text is resized or moved, whereas the rows and columns in Tables made using spaces can become mis-aligned, making the table useless and confusing.

6. Report the same number of values after the decimal point

Sometimes, our scientific editors see tables and text with values like 42.35 m, 46.9 m, and 22 m. If these values belong to the same dataset and were measured to the same level of accuracy (significant figures/number of figures after the decimal point), then the values should be reported as 42.35 m, 46.90 m and 22.00 m. The zero / 0 values are as equally valid as the other numbers between one and nine.

7. Use full-stops for decimal points

Some countries, especially in Europe, use commas for the decimal point. However, you should always use a full-stop/period to indicate a decimal point. This prevents confusion between units or tens/decimal places and thousands/hundreds, especially as some journals use commas to indicate thousands. For example, 37,000 is thirty-seven thousand, whereas 37.000 is thirty-seven.

8. Refer to other sections by name or location

In the text above, I talked about using the spell check feature of word. True, but I could have been clearer by writing in the section entitled “Spelling mistakes”. Make it easy for your reader find the information by providing the specific location, section number, or page/line number. Don’t make them read through the whole paper to find that one little piece of important information.

9. Define abbreviations at first use

As a general rule, all abbreviations should be defined in full at first use in the abstract, and then again at first use in the main paper. I agree that most readers will know what standard abbreviations mean. However, it’s a good idea to think about readers and students unfamiliar with your area of research. Everyone (with some science knowledge) should be able understand your paper without having to stop to look up an abbreviation.

10. Format units correctly

Units should always be written in the singular form, for example, mL, cm, mM (not mLs, cms, mMs). This rule always applies, even if you are talking about 1, 10 or 100 mL.
There should always be a single space between the number and unit: for example, 2 µM, 3 cm and 5 mL (not 2µM, 3cm or 5mL). It’s easy to remember this rule if you imagine the text without abbreviations, because you would never write 2microliters, 3centimeters or 5millimoles.

11. Format P-values consistently

According to the AMA Manual of Style, all mathematical symbols should have a space on either side, for example 2  +  3  =  5, not 2+3=5. However, not every journal follows this rule, which is very confusing. Always look at a previous article from the journal you are submitting to, and find out which style they use. The most important point to remember is to be consistent: if you use P < 0.05, then don’t mix in other variations like p<0.05.

12. Western blot or western blot?

Southern blots were invented by Edwin Southern and as a proper name, ‘Southern’ should always be written with a capital “S”. Western, northern and eastern blots were developed after Southern blots, and were named after the other points on the compass. You can choose to use Western blot or western blot in your manuscripts, but always be consistent.

These all seem like minor errors, who cares anyway?

You might think most of these errors don’t affect the meaning of the text. Indeed, many people wouldn’t even notice these mistakes. However, applying these simple rules will make it easier for the reader or reviewer to understand your paper and make your scientific writing more professional. Avoid these small errors so your writing is easy to read and not filled with….  DRIP, DRIP, DRIP!

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