The contents of Module 1 Unit 1 to Module 3 Unit 3 emphasise the characteristics of ‘technical report writing and then, gradually, almost imperceptably, incorporate major elements of writing for publication in a scientific journal. This approach enables you to learn all that you need to know about technical report writing, as well as prepare you for writing a scientific paper, the ultimate goal of scientific research. It is now time for you to learn, formally, what it takes to write for publication in a scientific journal. You should also find this unit helpful in rewriting a technical report, or parts thereof, for publication in a scientific journal.
The unit is presented in five parts. Part one describes how a comprehensive -evolved,
definition of a scientific paper has and explains why it is important for you to get familiar with all aspects of the definition in order to appreciate the definitive transition from writing a technical report to writing a scientific paper. Part two shows you why good organisation is the key to writing a good scientific paper, while part three underlines the proper use of English at all stages of writing for publication. In part four, the significance of using abbreviations in scientific writing is explained, with particular emphasis on the demands of journals. Finally, in part five, aspects of the challenge facing African writers of science are discussed, in the hope that you will face up to them positively and rewardingly throughout your career. The usual Conclusion, Summary, References and TMAs complete the unit.
At the end of this unit, you should be able to:
- define clearly and comprehensively what constitutes a scientific paper
- distinguish writing a scientific paper from technical report writing
- explain the significance of good organisation in writing a scientific paper
- underline the proper use of English and abbreviations at all stages of writing
- demonstrate a clear understanding of the challenge facing the African scientist who aspires to publish in a scientific journal.
3.0 MAIN CONTENT
3.1 Definition of a Scientific Paper
A scientific paper is a written and published report describing original research results. The short definition must be qualified, however, by noting that a scientific paper must be written in accordance with over three centuries of a solid tradition of editorial practice, scientific ethics, and the interplay of printing and publishing procedures. Much of that tradition has already been explained to you in Module 1 Unit 1 to Module 3 Unit 3 of this course.
To properly define “scientific paper”, it is necessary to define the mechanism that creates a scientific paper, namely, valid publication. Abstracts, theses, dissertations, conference and technical reports, and many other types of scientific literature are published, but such publications do not normally meet the test of valid publication; they do not qualify as primary literature. Furthermore, and this is particularly significant from the African perspective, even if a scientific paper meets all of the other tests, it is not validly published if it is published in the wrong place. That is, a relatively poor research report, but one that meets the tests, is validly published if accepted and published in the right place (a primary journal, usually). On the contrary, a superbly prepared research report is not validly published if published in the wrong place. For example, most of the government report literature and conference literature, as well as house organs and other ephemeral publications, do not qualify as primary literature.
Many people have struggled with the definition of “valid publication”, from which is derived the definition of “scientific paper.” You will gain much insight, however, from the position taken by the Council of Biology Editors
(CBE), an authoritative professional organisation in biology, in dealing with the issue. The CBE arrived at the following definition, after long and careful deliberation:
- An acceptable primary scientific publication must be the first disclosure containing sufficient information to enable peers
- to assess observations,
- to repeat experiments, and
- to evaluate intellectual process; moreover, it must be susceptible to sensory perception, essentially permanent, available to the scientific community without restriction, and available for regular screening by one or more of the major recognised secondary services (e.g., Biological Abstracts, Chemical Abstracts, Index Medicus, Excerpta Medica, Bibliography of Agriculture, etc., in the United States and similar facilities in other countries).
At first reading, this definition may seem excessively complex, or at least verbose. It is doubtful, however, that an acceptable definition could be provided in appreciably fewer words. Because it is important that you understand what a scientific paper is and what it is not, you should exercise considerable patience as we walk our way through this definition to understand what it really means.
“An acceptable primary scientific publication” starts out as the defined substantive, but gives way to “the first disclosure”, which the rest of the paragraph defines. Certainly, first disclosure of new research data often takes place via oral presentation at a scientific meeting. But the thrust of the CBE statement is that disclosure is more than disgorgement by the author; effective first disclosure is accomplished only when the disclosure takes the form that allows the peers of the author (either now or in the future) to comprehend that which is disclosed.
Thus, sufficient information must be presented so that potential users of the data can (i) assess observations, (ii) repeat experiments, and (iii) evaluate intellectual processes (For example, are the author’s conclusions justified by the data?). Then the disclosure must be “susceptible to sensory perception.” This may seem an awkward phrase, because in normal practice it simply means publication. However, this definition provides for disclosure not just in terms of visual materials (printed journals, microfilm, microfiche) but also in nonprint, nonvisual forms. For example, “publication” in the form of audio cassettes, if that publication met the other tests provided in the definition, would constitute effective publication. Similarly, first disclosure by way of entry into a computer database or an electronic facility, such as a website would qualify, so long as all other criteria for a publication are met.
Regardless of the form 44 publication, that form must be essentially permanent, must be made available to the scientific community without restriction, and must be made available to the information retrieval services (Biological Abstracts, Chemical Abstracts, Index Medicus, Science Citation Index, etc.). Thus, publications such as newsletters and house organs, many of which are of value for their news and other featines, cannot be considered part of the primary literature of science.
You can restate the CBE definition in simpler but not more accurate terms as follows:
- A scientific paper is (i) the first publication of original research results, (ii) in a form whereby peers of the author can repeat the experiments and test the conclusions, and (iii) in a journal or other source document readily available within the scientific community.
- To understand this definition as comprehensively as possible, however, it is necessary to add an important caveat. In modern science (since about the 1930s), the part of the definition that refers to “peers of the author” is accepted as meaning prepublication peer review. Thus, by definition, scientific papers are published in peer-reviewed media. That is why most of the scientific community has been reluctant to accept much of the material published on the Internet as publications in the manner defined in this unit.
3.2 Organisation of a Scientific Paper
A scientific paper is a paper organised to meet the needs of valid publication. A scientific paper is, or should be, highly stylized, with distinctive and clearly evident component parts. Each scientific paper should have, in proper order, its Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion. In other words, the components you have already learned in respect of technical report writing (Module 2 Units 1 to 4) apply also to writing a scientific paper. Any other order will pose obstacles for the reader and yourself as the writer. Put in Peterson’s (1961) words, “Good organisation is the key to good writing.”
This order is so eminently logical that, increasingly, it is being used for many other types of expository writing as well. Whether you are writing an article about chemistry, archaeology, economics, or crime in urban areas. An effective way to proceed is to answer four questions in the following order: (i) What was the problem? Your answer is the Introduction. (ii) How did you study the problem? Your answer is the Materials and Methods. (iii) What did you find? Your answer is the :Results. (iv) What do these findings mean? Your answer is the Discussion. In addition, you have learned to cite and arrange References (Units 2 and 3) as a vital component of writing science.
Occasionally, you must organise even “laboratory” papers differently. If you used a number of methods to achieve directly related results, it might be desirable to combine the Materials and Methods with the Results into an integrated “Experimental” section of your paper. Rarely, the Results might be so complex or provide such contrasts that immediate discussion seems necessary. In which case, a combined Results and Discussion section might be desirable.
In descriptive areas of science, there is a wide variety of types of organisation. To determine how to organise such papers, and which general headings to use, you will need to refer to the Instructions to Authors of your target journal. If you are in doubt as to the journal, or if the journal publishes widely different kinds of papers, you can obtain general information from appropriate source books. For example, the several major
types of medical papers are described in detail by Huth (1982), and the many types of engineering papers and reports are outlined by Michaelson (1982).
The central point needs to be restated for emphasis: the well-written scientific paper should report its original data in an organised fashion and in an appropriate language, without undue emphasis on literary skill. A scientific paper is not “literature”; it is primarily a question of organisation. The writer of a scientific paper is not really an “author” in the literary sense. If the ingredients are properly organised, the paper will virtually write itself.
Finally, in this section, you need to bear in mind that today, the average scientist must examine the data reported in a very large number of papers in order to keep up with a field. Therefore, scientists and, of course, editors must demand a system of reporting data that is uniform, concise, and readily understandable. That is precisely why it was said: “A scientific paper is not designed to be read. It is designed to be published.” Although this was said in jest, there is much truth in it. And, actually, if the paper is designed to be published, it will also be in a prescribed form that can be read and its contents grasped quickly and easily by the reader. That is your responsibility to your colleagues in the scientific community every time you write a scientific paper.
3.3 Language of a Scientific Paper
Next to organisation, the second principal ingredient of a scientific paper should be appropriate language. If scientific knowledge is at least as important as any other knowledge, then it must be communicated effectively, clearly, in words of certain meaning. You, the budding scientist who wishes to succeed in this endeavour, must therefore be literate. David H. Truman, when he was Dean of Columbia College in the USA., put it well: “In the complexities of contemporary existence the specialist who is trained but uneducated, technically skilled but culturally incompetent, is a menace.” Don’t be a menace.
Although the ultimate goal of scientific research is publication, it has always been amazing to observe how many scientists neglect the responsibilities involved. A scientist will spend years of hard work to secure data, and then unconcernedly let much of their value be lost because of lack of interest in the communication process. The same scientist who will overcome tremendous obstacles to carry out a measurement to the fourth decimal place will literally go to sleep while a careless word processing hand changes micrograms per milliliter to milligrams per milliliter. There is no reason you should allow your work to suffer such embarrassment, if only you will pay due attention to the important details of your manuscript.
English need not be difficult. In scientific writing, a popular dictum is: “The best English is that which gives the sense in the fewest short words.” Literary tricks, metaphors and the like, divert attention from the message to the style. They should be used rarely, if at all, in scientific writing. You should always aim to communicate the message of your scientific research in plain, unardoned English.
3.4 Using Abbreviations in Scientific Writing
Many experienced journal editors loathe abbreviations. Some editors would prefer that they not be used at all, except for standard units of measurement and their Si (Systeme International) prefixes, abbreviations for which are allowed in all journals. In your own writing, you would be wise to keep abbreviations to a minimum. The editor will look more kindly to your paper, and the readers of your paper will bless you forever. It is always irritating when the reader comes across undefined and incomprehensible abbreviations in the literature. Just recall how annoyed you felt when you were faced with these conundrums, and it will not be too difficult for you to vow never again to pollute the scientific literature with an undefined abbreviation. The “how to” of using abbreviation is easy, because most journals use the same convention. When you plan to use an abbreviation, you introduce it by spelling out the word or term first, followed by the abbreviation within parentheses. The first sentence in the Introduction of a paper might read: “Bacterial plasmids, as autonomously replicating deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecules of modest size, are promising models for studying DNA replication and its control.”
The “when to” of using abbreviations is much more difficult. You should find the following guidelines helpful:
- Never use an abbreviation in the title of an article. Very few journals allow abbreviations in titles, and their use is strongly discouraged by the indexing and abstracting services. The major reason is that even the so-called “standard” abbreviations change over time.
- Abbreviations should almost never be used in the Abstract. Only if you use the same, a long one, and quite a number of times should you consider an abbreviation. If you use an abbreviation, you must define it at the first use in the Abstract. Remember that the Abstract
will stand alone in whichever abstracting publications cover the journal in your paper appears.
- In the text itself abbreviations used, always bearing in mind the reader’s primary interests. doing so, you are advised to consider the following procedures “good practice” to further the
interests of your readers and self-assessment in learning aspects of this unit:
3.5 The Challenge facing African Writers of Science
Science is universal. Therefore, its content and development must be the collective concern of scientists world-wide and be guided by universally agreed norms and standards. With the significant exception of Egypt, Africa has, hitherto, made almost negligible contributions to the corpus of scientific knowledge. The ‘African Renaissance Movement’ and similar initiatives seem designed to change this situation in the shortest possible time. Rapid human resource development in science and technology is a key element of such initiatives; enhancing your potential contributions to the world of science is an important objective for meeting the targets being set for the initiatives. What, then, is the nature of the challenge facing you as a budding African scientist?
Only three aspects of the challenge are outlined here for your consideration. They derive specially from the course, Technical Report Writing as presented in Units 1 to 4 above and are as follows: (i) Enhancing African Content in World Science, (ii) Halting the Dearth of African Journals, and (iii) Helping to Strengthen Science Ethics.
a. Enhancing African Content in World Science: Africa contributes less than 2 per cent of the world’s scientific literature in all formats; slightly less than this proportion represents the Region’s contribution to the Internet (Aiyepeku, 1997; 1998). Indeed, if the proportion contributed by South Africa were subtracted, the figure would he less than 1 per cent. Thus, African science is being practically marginalised, and the trend is to perpetuate rather than improve the situation. Your commitment to writing quality papers that would be acceptable for publication in the best journals in your subject area(s) would go some way in increasing the quantum of African content in world science.
b. Halting the Dearth of African Journals: Far too many African journals are launched with little thought about how they will be sustained. As a result, the mortality rate of African journals,
especially the science titles, is among the highest in the world. The net effect is that serious African scientists have little or no incentive to submit their manuscripts to African journals, thereby perpetrating a vicious circle. You can begin to apply what you have learned in this course to help bring about greater stability among African science journals.
c. Helping to Strengthen Science Ethics: Science is indivisible and its ethics should not be the object of regional differentiation either. African scientists must learn to submit their manuscripts to one
journal at a time; it is simply not ethical toSubmit simultaneously, a manuscript to two or more journals in the hope of getting it published in one of them. The image of African science is being
compromised as a result, and you can decide now never to have anything to do with such practice.
Writing for publication in a scientific journal is a distinctly different activity from writing a technical report although both activities have many features in common. The transition is a deliberate one; that is why so much attention has been devoted to providing you a comprehensive definition of the scientific paper, the ultimate objective of scientific writing. The definition also enables you to appreciate what it takes to convert a technical report, or parts thereof, into a manuscript for publication in a scientific journal.
A scientific paper is a paper organised to meet the needs of valid publication. If you take time to organise a good manuscript properly, it will virtually write itself and, therefore, virtually guarantee its acceptance for publication in a good journal. You must also pay due attention to the use of simple, correct English and ensure that you are fully in charge at every stage of manuscript preparation. In particular, do not allow careless compugraphic errors to compromise the quality of your paper. Because science uses a large number of technical and special terms, most of them have to be abbreviated in formal writing. It is your responsibility to know when and when not to use abbreviations, as well as how to use them.
Finally, you are invited to ponder three specific aspects of the special challenge facing every African scientist who aspires to contribute to the corpus scientific knowledge, via publication in a journal. Your attitude to the challenge should be a positive commitment to doing all you can to make the Africa Region a force to reckon with in the fast growing and fast changing world of science.
At the end of unit, you have learned to:
- define clearly and comprehensively what constitutes a scientific paper, the ultimate goal of scientific writing
- distinguish between writing a scientific paper and writing a technical report
- explain the significance of good organisation in writing a scientific paper
- underline the proper use of English and abbreviations at all stages of writing a scientific paper and
- demonstrate a clear understanding of the challenge facing the African scientist who aspires to publish in a scientific journal.
6.0 TUTOR-MARKED ASSIGNMENT
- Comprehensively describe the constituents of a scientific paper. ii. Briefly discuss the challenges facing African scientists willing to publish in scientific journals.