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A view from the coffee room…self-help book for scientific writing – do we need it?

Authors: Virve Koljonen M.D. PhD.
Department of Plastic surgery
Helsinki University and Helsinki University Hospital
Helsinki, Finland
Professor Virve Koljonen

I just love those self-help books! Two of my favourites apart from surgical literature are Simon Parke´s One-Minute Mystic – For those with only 59 seconds to spare, and Pessi Rautio´s  (my translation) Becoming a connoisseur of contemporary art in a quarter of an hour.

Self-help books, oh the simplicity and inspiration…. And the empowering titles! Not to mention the effortless access from your smartphone or bookshelf as printed, e-books or audiobooks, just when you need emotional support or are ready for your personal growth spurt. Well then, why don’t we have simple and short self-help books for scientific writing? If I get enough encouragement from you dear readers, I will write a self-help book that is to be called: Mastering the art of medical scientific writing in just 10 short minutes. Why short minutes you may ask.  Are there minutes that are of different lengths? Of course not, it just sounded better and suits this literary niche.

It has been said that research is not complete until it is published or “Science is not finished until it’s communicated” as Sir Mark Walport said in 20131; or “Nothing in science has any value to society if it is not communicated ” by Anne Roe; or “Publish or perish”2 by Case in 1928, I could go on and on, but I hope you get the idea, how important it is to do research and publish it.

Many argue that scientific writing is not literature per se. Well, I kinda agree and kinda don’t agree. The format of scientific writing is rigid, and most journals follow the IMRAD format, or its variations. IMRAD stands for Introduction, Methods, Results And Discussion, the system was developed to unify scientific writing in 1972 by the American National Standards Institute, and updated in 19793. However, there has been criticism on this format4, mostly because it does not reflect the chronological processes of the work. In the real literature, there are rigid formats, just think about haiku poems; three lines, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. Check.

Most of the scientific article writing  is  mechanical or technical, and a plethora of books have been published how to do  it right. Journals’ websites always include preparing your manuscript or a guide to authors to give guidance. From the technical point of view, I want to highlight some of the most common mistakes that one should avoid. Don’t ever present results in the Materials and Methods section. Don’t mix data and results, they are not synonymous. In the Results section always give data. Data are plural, and are objective findings; numerals or facts. In the Discussion section you can provide data and results, as long as they are not new. The Discussion should focus on interpretation of the data; what it means, how it fits in the context of your research and previous literature, and why is it important. And lastly, two technical things that make me cringe. First the misuse of parenthesis ( ), don’t use parenthesis to explain something. Parenthesis should be used only to give range, p-values or introduce abbreviation for the first time. The second is etc. Once I was reviewing an article that stated something like; the patient had a history of diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. So, don’t use etc. Ugh.

My go-to book when I need inspiration and guidance for actual writing is Umberto Eco How to write a thesis5. The title is boring and in Finnish translation much better – in my opinion – (again my own translation) Demonstration of learnedness, i.e. how to write a thesis. Learnedness or erudition is much more than technical writing. Anyone can write a pretty decent scientific article following instructions, but without insight and embracing the previous literature profoundly, the article may end up being – well just another scientific article. I was amazed to learn, that some 12% of medical articles are not cited6, like ever.  Of note, I am not drawing parallels between a poorly written article and the number of citations. I just leave this here and add that as of  June 2023 12.7% of my published articles have never been cited.  

I am plastic surgeon and not a real writer. Therefore, I try to remember not to channel Marcel Proust and stream of consciousness or E.E. Cummings and mauling sentences5.  Another great tip from Professor Eco is that don’t be afraid to write text that is typical for you, such as long and winding sentences, subordinate clauses, repetitive filler words, or text full of adjectives; but only in the first draft. As long as you chop sentences, remove unnecessary adjectives, filler words and transform subordinate clauses to main clauses in second or third round of writing. Somehow, I seem to like the word however in the  first draft, and  my text is full of howevers. I don’t mind, I just use ctrl+F and delete all the howevers. Before you know it,  the text begins to look a lot like scientific text.

The scientific language, at least in medicine, is English. The language in scientific articles is not your everyday English, no surprise here. We use jargon and metatext7-9.  A jargon is a jargon, is a jargon, and that is about all you need to know. Metatext on the other hand is engaging in interaction with the reader. Scientific article is not just fact listing, and this is where metatext comes handy. Phrases like: The aim of this study, Table 2 illustrates, To the best of our knowledge, Not surprisingly, Ours and previous literature points to, are used to communicate scientific knowledge9 respond, state the value, acknowledge, point and provide direction9. Finally, at the very end of the text, you should come to a Grande Finale; this is called To conclude, or just Conclusions. In this paragraph, you should tell the reader once again what you did. This is in case some of your readers were distracted. This paragraph is usually short, and should be short, because nobody wants to read the article again after the conclusion. To give you an example: To conclude, by following methodical instructions and having a curious mind, the craft of great scientific writing can be learned and eventually mastered.


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