Mind your Language! A Very Brief Guide to Language Usage in Scientific Writing (1)

Mind your Language! A Very Brief Guide to Language Usage in Scientific Writing (1)

Author: Richard Threlfall

Have you ever struggled to write up your results into a publishable paper only to get it rejected? Richard Threlfall, Managing Editor, Asian Journal of Organic Chemistry, gives some insider tips on how to improve the language of your article.


Simplicity is Key

I’m going to start with a citation which really underlines the point behind taking care of what you write: D. Oppenheimer, Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 2006, 20, 139–156. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.1178

To save you scuttling off to the library website, this study, aptly titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”, showed that the perceived intelligence of authors is INVERSELY PROPORTIONAL to the complexity of the language used in a piece of writing. Yes, that’s right, use more complicated words and people may not think you are as clever as you say you are.

Perhaps this is a case of blinding with science, or maybe people think that gaps in knowledge are filled with clever words instead. Whatever the reason, explaining the most complicated of scientific principles in simple and understandable language is a valuable skill and all it really takes is a little bit of thought about the words you use to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
The scientific literature is awash with complicated words and sentence when simple ones would do just as well. Consider the following sentences from a hypothetical conclusion:

“Functionalized polythiophene compound 1 exhibits attractive electronic properties and shows fluorescence due to functionalized polythiophene 1 possessing a benzyl group at the C5 position. This synthetic methodology represents both a significant advance over previous reports of functionalized polythiophene compounds and opens new avenues towards developing novel photoexcitable oligomers.”

Although this is not a real example, it is a fair approximation of the content of many manuscripts that are published, even in the top science journals.

See if you can identify some improvements

There are at least 12 opportunities to simplify the wording if you think about the meanings and context of the words carefully. It is easy to make considerable improvements in a very short time.

Functionalized polythiophene (compound) 1 (exhibits) attractive electronic properties and (shows) fluorescence (due to) (functionalized polythiophene 1) possessing a benzyl group at the C5 position. This synthetic (methodology) (represents) (both) a (significant advance over previous reports) of (functionalized polythiophene compounds) and (opens a new avenue towards) developing (novel) photoexcitable oligomers.


Let’s take a look at the parts in brackets in order that they appear:

  • compound – stating the obvious, can be omitted.
  • exhibits – is this an art gallery or a chemical compound?
  • shows (fluorescence) – to who?
  • due to – only for concepts of time, where something is due to arrive, happen, and so on.
  • functionalized polythiophene 1 – unnecessary repetition is common and unnecessary repetition takes away the focus from the subject through unnecessary repetition.
  • possessing – avoid applying human traits to chemicals!
  • methodology – is the study or description of methods, not the method itself.
  • represents – only for things that are actually representative, for everything else, “is” works just as well.
  • both – usually unnecessary and does not add anything to the meaning of the sentence.
  • significant advance over previous reports – what advance? Be specific!
  • functionalized polythiophene compounds – unnecessary repetition again!
  • a opens new avenue towards – sounds grand, but non-specific metaphors generally do not add anything to the understanding of the concept.
  • novel – redundant – of course things that haven’t been developed yet are going to be novel! Another note on this word is that everything that is reported in a scientific journal should be novel, so it is not necessary to explicitly use it in your title/abstract/writing in general.

With these points in mind, can you come up with an “optimized” passage in time for part 2 next month?



  1. Carmen Jones

    This functionalized polythiophene has attractive electronic properties, as fluorescence of benzyl group at C5 position.

  2. Richard Threlfall

    @ Carmen Jones: This is exactly in the right direction – it keeps all the scientifically important parts and cuts away the rest of the unnecessary bits! Look out for my version in next month’s writing tips 🙂

  3. Christopher Lloyd

    A good article overall. So many people underestimate the importance of communication. A great discovery poorly communicated runs the risk of being ignored. However, to suggest that ”due to’ is only for matters relating to time is simply wrong. To quote Oxforddictionaries.com: Due to in the sense ‘because of’, as in he had to retire due to an injury, has been condemned as incorrect on the grounds that due is an adjective and should not be used as a preposition; owing to is often recommended as a better alternative. However, the prepositional use, first recorded at the end of the 19th century, is now common in all types of literature and is regarded as part of standard English.


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