Scientific Communication: A brief guide

Abstract:

This brief guide to science communication includes some essentials in scientific writing, including tables and figures, some general writing tips, and a few words on writing a popular science article. It is designed to educate college students on how best to write, design, and publish their scientific materials.

Contents: 

Introduction. 0

Accurate, Brief and Clear. 0

Writing a Scientific Paper or Report. 1

Title. 1

Author or Authors. 1

Table of Contents. 1

Preface. 1

Abstract. 1

Introduction. 1

Literature Review.. 2

Materials and Methods. 2

Results. 2

Tables and Figures. 2

Discussion. 2

Conclusions. 2

Acknowledgements. 2

Reference List. 2

Attachments. 3

Tables and Figures. 3

Writing a Popular Science Article. 4

Some Writing Tips. 5

Copyright and Plagiarism.. 6

 

Introduction

Communication skills are vital in most professions for which university students are trained, and such skills are ranked highly by employers. It is important, therefore, to learn some essentials about science communication, such as scientific writing, popular science writing, oral presentation and poster presentation, and to take every opportunity to practice these skills. They are tools for life!  Training and practicing science communication should occur throughout the curriculum. You might attend lectures in techniques for communication and you might write and present assignments. You might also write, present and defend your BSc, MSc, or PhD thesis. Remember that research results will contribute to knowledge and development only if they are communicated effectively.  This brief guide to science communication will cover the essential topics of scientific writing, including tables and figures, some general writing tips, and also some information on writing a popular science article.

Accurate, Brief and Clear

Science communication means sharing knowledge and it is important that the audience grasp the message and understand what is said. The ABC of written or oral communication is that it should be accurate, brief and clear!  For effective communication, you cannot think only of your topic and the message you want to deliver, but you must also consider the frames of reference of your expected audience and the questions they might have concerning the topic, as demonstrated in Figure 1. When preparing to write or to present, therefore, ask yourself the questions:

  • Who?
  • Why?
  • What?
  • How?

For example:

  • Who do I address?
  • Why do I communicate this?
  • What do I emphasize?
  • How best do I deliver it?

Science communication takes many forms, such as papers in journals, reports, conference abstracts, review papers, theses, research proposals, popular science articles, oral presentations and posters. The various forms have a lot in common, but they also differ with regard to purpose and audience.

 

Writing a Scientific Paper or Report

Written documentation of research results requires precision. This includes providing a logical structure, distinguishing new results from old, citing original sources, differentiating and interpreting facts, and giving sufficient information for others to repeat or check what was done.  Scientific papers, reports and theses usually follow a standard format, with sections reflecting the research process. The main purpose of each section of a scientific paper or report, as well as some essential details,are summarized below.

Title

The title should be a description of the content of the report. Do your best to arouse the reader’s interest to read the paper. The title should be relevant, informative, specific and concise. Do your best to avoid uninformative words and phrases in your title.

Author or Authors

List all of the people who contributes intellectually to the document. If there were several authors, name them in order of their relative contribution to the document.

Table of Contents

The table of contents is used to list the contents of the document and the corresponding page numbers. A table of contents can be formatted automatically in most word processing documents. Include a table of contents in a report, but not in a scientific paper.

Preface

The preface includes any specific information or background necessary for a reader to understand the context of the document. For example, if the research being published is part of a larger project, or if certain responsibilities are being shared between authors, these types of information would be included in the preface. Normally a preface is included in a report, but not in a scientific paper.

Abstract

The abstract is a short summary of the paper or report. The abstract should stand alone, that is, it should be understood without the reader having to read the remaining text. You should not include references to the text, tables, or figures in the document, or to other literature. Emphasize the objective, the most important results, and the conclusions in this section as abstracts tend to be the most read section of a typical report or document. Abstracts might be followed by list of keywords reflecting the content of paper or report.

Introduction

An introduction is designed to inform the reader exactly why the topic is important and why the research is justified. Attempt to arouse the reader’s interest. Include the background, the importance of the topic, your hypothesis, and the objective of your research in the introduction. In a scientific paper, this section also usually includes a brief literature review along with references to sources.

Literature Review

This section includes a review of published research results. These results are important for discussing what is known and what is not known and shows the gap in knowledge on the subject. Include relevant and objective facts and always cite the sources of those facts. This section is usually split into smaller subsections.

Materials and Methods

Include materials and the methods you used in this section and any information that is relevant so that others can repeat what you did in order to verify your results. Describe methods not published before, but include references if these methods were published previously. This section is also usually split into subsections such as experimental design, animals, chemical analysis, statistical methods, etc. The section is not included in a review paper.

Results

This section highlights what you found in a specific, informative, structured, and clear way. You are presenting new knowledge to the world. Give large parts of results using tables and figures integrated in the text of the final publication. Include all important results, both favorable and unfavorable. Again, split this section into subsections.

Tables and Figures

This section consists of numbers in tabular form, graphs, or other illustrations. More information is provided in the next section.

Discussion

Discuss how you interpret your results and what your conclusions are in this section. Interpret your results clearly, concisely, and logically, but be careful not to repeat information from the results section. Discuss possible limitations of the research, compare your findings with the results of others, and relate your results to your original aim and hypothesis.

Conclusions

This section can be combined with the results section, but if that is the case, be sure to include your conclusions from the main research results, as well as possible implications, recommendations, or impact of your findings.

Acknowledgements

Thanks for specific contributions to the research or publication such as funding, supervision, field or lab assistance are to be included in this section. Alternatively you may include this information in the preface.

Reference List

Include any and all references here. Include all information so others can find the publications referred to which you refer. All citations in the text must be in the reference list and all references must be cited in the text.

Attachments

This section is for additional information that was too lengthy to include in the document. Attachments might be a questionnaire or derivation of formulas. Number each attachment and refer to it in main text. Attachments are often included in a report, but not normally in a scientific paper.

Tables and Figures

Research results to a large extent are presented in tables and figures. It is important, therefore, to know some essentials of this topic:

  • The same result should not be presented both in a table and in a figure or graph.
  • If specific numbers are important – present the data in a table.
  • If it is more important to show differences or trends, present the data in a graph.
  • Each table and figure should be self-contained. It should have no references to the text, to other tables or to figures in the document. If the table or figure shows data from another source, however, a reference to the source must always be given.
  • All tables and figures must be referred to in the text of the scientific document.
  • Each table must have a title or heading above the table that explains what the table shows. The title starts with the table number. The numbering of tables and figures is usually done in separate number series.
  • Each figure should have a caption below the figure that explains what the figure illustrates. The caption starts with a figure number.
  • Tables and figures are best read when placed in the text near to the comment that refers to them. In a manuscript delivered to a journal, however, tables and figures are usually separated from the text and placed at the end, but in the published paper they appear within the text.

Two examples of presenting data in a table are shown above. Figure 2 shows how the table should look and Figure 3 shows how it should not look. A reference is given when the table presents data from another source. The reference is given, either in brackets at the end of the table title, or under the table as in the examples. Note that only horizontal lines should be used, and that they indicate the top, bottom and head of the table.

For presentations and reports, it is sometimes clearer to present data in a graph. Bar charts based on the above data are shown below in Figure 4. In the chart on the left it is easier to see the height of the bars and their values on the Y-axis. The opposite is true in the chart on the right. It is difficult to see the exact height of the values.

Figure 4 – A comparison of bar charts

Use the appropriate type of graph:

  • Bar chart to compare items.
  • Line chart to show a trend over time or over levels of treatment.
  • Scatter chart, with or without lines, to show relationships between variables.
  • Pie chart to compare segments with the whole.

A graph is easier to read if the explanation of what each bar, line, or pie-segment represents is placed as close as possible to the item. In a line diagram, for example, place labels near or at the end of the lines, and in a pie chart place each label within or near its specific segment. Check that lines, bars, segments and text can be distinguished when printed in black and white, or when reduced. Avoid using markers on lines, unless you find them necessary.

Note that a figure is not always a graph; it might be a flow diagram, a photograph, a drawing, or some other type of illustration.

Writing a Popular Science Article

Research results often are communicated to audiences who are not specialists in your topic. When writing a popular science article it is important to:

  • Adapt to the knowledge and experiences of the expected readers.
  • Give an overview and put in context, give examples.
  • Simplify results, avoid giving too many details, and still be accurate.
  • Emphasize conclusions and possible implications.
  • Use illustrations and informative headings, and use language that is easily understood. Avoid jargon.

Before finalizing your article, it is often helpful to have a friend or colleague review your article and provide with honest feedback.

Some Writing Tips

Whether writing a scientific document or a popular science article, you should read the advice below on how to get started and how to improve your writing.

  • Make an outline of the contents to be included in the document. This facilitates splitting the writing into steps without losing the overview. The outline should show the order of the contents.
  • Start writing the sections you find easiest to write; usually the materials and methods and the results sections. Strive to get words down at first. The text doesn’t need to be perfect immediately. Revisions, spelling, and grammar checks are easy with word processing software. Before closing a writing session, write a few key words on what to write in the coming section. That will motivate you to get back to your writing so you can continue where you left off.
  • Place the most important idea early in the sentence, and also in the title of the document.
  • Make good transitions between sentences in a paragraph. Transition words and phrases include: in addition, furthermore, on the one hand, however, therefore, whereas, consequently. These transitions help the reader to see quickly how the sentence relates to the previous one. Another important issue is to make sure pronouns, such as it, this, that, or those, refer to the appropriate noun.
  • Don’t use more words than necessary. For example, use “consider” instead of “take into consideration”.
  • Use parallel construction. Make comparisons in the same order for different variables, such as “Adult weight was higher for breed A than for breed B, whereas birth weight was lower for breed A than for breed B”. Avoid using “respectively”, because it is more difficult to read because the reader has to go back in the sentence to get the information.
  • Commonly accepted abbreviations, such as “i.e., e.g., et al.”, are used without explanation, whereas any uncommon abbreviations must be defined when first used.  Abbreviations should be used only if really necessary.

Having written a draft, it is time to review and revise your text, tables and figures. Revising your text is an important part of your writing. A first step might be to read the text, paragraph by  paragraph, checking if what you wrote is what you really meant to say, if what is said is easy to  understand, if there are redundant words that could be eliminated, if some sentences are too long  and should be split, etc. A second step might be to check the contents: Is anything important missing? Could something be deleted or shortened? Is the source given where appropriate? Is the title relevant? Can the tables and figures be improved?

After this revision, you might read through the entire draft and check the text for “fluency and thread”, or coherence, i.e. that the different parts fit together; that transitions between sentences, paragraphs and sections are logical; and that there is no unnecessary repetition. A final check should include the agreement of citations in text (including tables and figures) and reference list.  Check also if editorial requirements have been fulfilled.

Copyright and Plagiarism

Accuracy is a key issue in science communication: accuracy includes clearly indicating which results and ideas are yours, and which belong to others. Using other peoples’ text, tables, figures or ideas, whether published and unpublished, without giving reference to the source, is plagiarism. Furthermore, the materials you use from others are usually protected by copyright. Copyright is established as soon as original materials are created in a form that could be copied. A copyright (©) notice might be placed on the work to identify the copyright holder, but the work normally is protected without it. Plagiarizing or infringing copyright can carry serious penalties. Efficient electronic search systems exist today to detect plagiarism.  The only accepted reason not to give a reference is if your information is common knowledge. But check to be sure. When in doubt, always give a reference.

Situation Reference Permission Comments
Text Paraphrasing Yes No Although you are quoting the original work, it is still necessary to cite your source.
Quoting Text Verbatim Yes No Surround text in quotation marks and give a reference. Seek permission from author if the quote is more than a few lines of text.
Tables/Figures that you have modified Yes Yes Give reference and seek permission from the original author.
Tables/Figures that you have not modified Yes No Give reference and indicate that it is not the original.
Ideas someone gave you in conversation Yes No Give reference according to the rules of personal communication.

Compiling the “present state of knowledge” is an important part of a scientific document, and it is the main part of a review paper. So, you cannot avoid writing or presenting what others have found. Therefore, you have to acknowledge the source by referencing it in the text, table, or figure, such as (Abebe & Lee, 2004), and by giving the complete citation in the list of references.  Moreover, showing that you have thoroughly reviewed and summarized what has been done and by whom it was written, will earn you credit in your chosen field. Some advice on referencing the source when compiling the work of others is given below in Table 1.

Table 1 – Examples of when to use references in a scientific document