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DEC 1

Tables: move columns closer and remove clutter

Filed on: December 1, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

An earlier post in this blog covered the alignment of individual columns, which is governed mainly by the contents of each column: if all cells in a column share the same unit of measurement, use right- or decimal-alignment, depending on whether the values are whole numbers or decimal fractions; if values within a column do not share a common unit, use left alignment.

However, to help readers, it is important to bring columns closer so that it is easier to read across a table. Remember that the text block and tables are different beasts: just because tables appear along with text, it is not necessary for them to have identical widths. A table of contents is a good example: typically, it has only two columns, one for titles of chapters and one for page numbers. Forcing the two apart by moving the right-hand column of page numbers to extreme right of the page only makes it harder to find the correct page number for a chapter.   Therefore, make tables more user-friendly by moving the columns fairly close together. The title of a table may run the full width of the text block, and may even continue on the next line, but that is no reason for the table to stretch itself to the same width.

Use space to reinforce relationships. For example, if one of the columns in a table is a reference column against which values in other columns are to be compared (maximum permissible limits, standard or average values, and so on), set it off from the rest by widening the gap between that column and rest of the columns.

Secondly, consider whether you really need all those lines (‘rules’ is the term typographers and designers use more often for the same thing): you can get rid of all vertical lines—you don’t really need them, do you? And in most cases, three horizontal lines are all you need: one at the top of the table to separate it from text, one at the bottom for the same reason, and one more – which should be the least obtrusive – to separate column headings from the column body.

Give your tables the lean look—they will work the harder for it.

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

NOV25

Looking at a page and reading it: the case for left-aligned text

Filed on: November 25, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | 1 comment

As a writer, when you format your text, do you want others to look at it, or do you want them to read it?

A page with crisp edges looks professional. To get that straight right-hand edge, you need to choose ‘Alignment: justified’ to make all lines of your text – except those that end paragraphs – of equal length. But have you ever wondered how the software does it?   A block of text is not like a wall built out of identical bricks but a mix of short and long words—nor does every line hold the same number of words. Yet, to make all lines toe the line as it were, the software changes the spacing between words for each line; if that is not enough, it will even force the letters of a word to stand wider apart than usual or push them closer to one another. The result? Uneven spacing between words and between letters, lines that are loose or tight, destroying or at best upsetting the rhythm of reading.

Readers are hardly conscious of the right-hand edge while reading but erratic word-spacing and letter-spacing can trip them up. Imagine what it would be like if you are going up a staircase with steps of unequal height—it is the same with the so-called justified alignment.

And if you give a word-processing program the liberty to break words when they end a line, chances are that those hyphens will be retained when the text is typeset and words that once ended lines of text no longer do so. And may even distract your readers with such gems as hyp-hens, deter-gents, and fun-ding.

In short, always choose left justification and switch off automatic hyphenation while formatting your paper for submission to a journal.

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

NOV21

References: filling in the missing bits (bibliographic sources)

Filed on: November 21, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Several posts in this blog have discussed different elements of a reference (names of authors, year of publication, volume number, and so on) and how to style them in the format prescribed by a given journal.

But what if you do not have all the details? This post offers some pointers  to sources of bibliographic information. However, remember that you are expected to have seen in original every single reference that you cite—and to record all its bibliographic details. It is only when the details you recorded are not enough that the suggestions made here will help you.

If the source is a book, you should consult catalogues of major academic libraries such as the Library of Congress and a network of major libraries in the UK including the British Library.

For papers published in journals, try Google first, and Google Scholar as required: if you know the title of the paper you are looking for, type the entire title in the search bar and enclose it within double quotes, as in “Comparison of wake models with data for offshore windfarms”. The double quotes will make the search engine look for the exact title. When you follow up the links, you will find that full publication details of the paper and its abstract are available, although full text of the paper may be available only to subscribers. Many journals and other periodicals have websites and it is possible to search for back volumes.

For papers presented at conferences, technical reports, and other such sources, search using all the information you have: author/s, year of publication, title, dates and title of the conference, serial number of a report, name of the conference organizer, and so on. At times, you may have to e-mail the publisher or the conference organizer for more details.

It is not difficult to locate e-mail addresses of academic authors: try approaching them for the missing details but always include the details you do have in your request.

Happy searching!

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

NOV18

Some good science books to read

Filed on: November 18, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

An earlier blog exhorted you to be a good reader if you want to be a good writer. Good writing is both a craft and an art, and watching master performers in action is always instructive.

But who are the masters? Although tastes in reading are subjective, that applies more to literary works; good science writing is primarily expository writing, and that is not as subjective.

Since 1988 or thereabouts, the Royal Society in Britain has been awarding prizes for best-written science books for the general public. Now known as the Royal Society prizes for science books, from 1990 to 2000 they were known as Rhône-Poulenc prizes and from 2001 to 2006, as Aventis prizes. The prize-winning books are models of expository writing and invariably make interesting reading. In 2008, the prize went to Six Degrees: our future on a hotter planet by Mark Lynas. In 2007, the winner was Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. For a full listing of all winners and the books that were shortlisted, see the Royal Society’s website. Happy reading!

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

NOV14

Tactics for explanatory writing, 2: use analogies

Filed on: November 14, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

An earlier blog discussed the use of examples in explanatory writing. However, when it comes to explaining how something works, analogies often work better. Take quantitative information, for instance: to chemists, such expressions as a 0.4% solution, a limit of 80 ppm, and 4 µg/litre are clear enough but to the general reader, they do not mean much—saying that a 0.4% solution is like dissolving a teaspoonful of sugar in a litre of water goes a long way in helping readers to get a better idea of the strength of the solution.

Analogies help by linking what is new to what is known, a common enough principle in teaching. To explain why seeds taken from a perfect fruit do not always grow into plants that give perfect fruit, you can point out that children are not replicas of their parents. Knowledge and information are abstract concepts but one way to explain the difference is to compare knowledge to proteins and information to amino acids: even when we eat foods rich in protein, the body has to break the proteins into amino acids and re-build the proteins from scratch—just as we access information but build knowledge inside our heads.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins presents excerpts of science writing at its best, and you will see how often good science writing uses the power of analogies.

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew. ]

NOV 7

Getting the references right, part 4: names of journals

Filed on: November 7, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Among the different kinds of source documents that researchers cite, the most frequent form is papers published in journals. Earlier blog posts have covered different elements or parts of a typical reference (year of publication and the volume number, issue number, and page numbers). However, the exact title or name of a journal – whether abbreviated or given in full – is probably the second most important element of a typical reference, next only to names of authors.

In rendering the name or title of a journal, the first question is whether the name should be abbreviated: Journal of Biological Chemistry or J Biol Chem? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.? Using journal names in full is a straightforward matter unless the journal is published in a language other than English (which requires a separate blog post).

If the title is abbreviated, how is it to be abbreviated? As with most matters related to references, there is no universally accepted system. The word journal, for example, can be abbreviated to just J or to Jnl. Single-word titles (Nature, Cell, and Euphytica, for example) are, however, always printed in full. Medical journals generally rely on PubMed or Index Medicus; biological journals, on the BIOSIS List of Serials; and chemical journals, on CASSI (Chemical Abstracts Service Source Index).

If the titles are abbreviated, should each abbreviated word end with a full stop or left ‘open’ (that is, without any punctuation)? Should it be Chem or Chem.? Abbreviations sometimes introduce ambiguity: is Trop Agric Tropical Agriculturist or Tropical Agriculture? In such cases, usually the place of publication is supplied for correct identification, as in Trop Agric (Colombo) or Trop Agric (Trinidad). Then there is typography, although most journals use italics for titles of journals, abbreviated or otherwise.

Perhaps the simplest advice to researchers is this: Examine a recent issue of the journal to which you plan to submit your paper and see how the journal handles references.

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew. ]

OCT31

Tables and figures: matching the numbers

Filed on: October 31, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

An earlier blog cautioned you about matching citations in text with the references listed at the end: every citation to have a reference; every reference, a citation; and no orphan reference without a citation.

Mismatched citations and references, however, are at best an inconvenience; missing tables and figures are far more serious: imagine being directed to Figure 9, say, and there being none.

As you revise your original manuscript in light of the suggestions and comments made by reviewers, you may end up deleting a figure or a table, or adding some, or even combining two figures into one or splitting a table into two. All these actions will throw the numbering out of sequence. You may have written something like “Figure 4 shows the mean temperatures attained by water in different models of the solar heater at 12 noon” but, because you deleted Figure 3, the revised version should read “Figure 3 shows the mean temperature . . .”.

It is best to use the Search or Find function of the word processing software to locate every occurrence of these two words (Table and Figure), highlight each, and cross-check with the actual tables and figures that are to be part of the manuscript.

And while you are about it, check how your target journal – the journal to which you plan to submit your manuscript – treats the words: is it Figure or Fig.? Are the captions to figures in sentence style or headline style? Do they end in a period? Is it Table or TABLE or Table? Attend to these details and your accepted paper will appear in print sooner.

["Publish and prosper" is a series of posts about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit papers to journals published in English. The series touches upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

OCT24

Respectively: a word to watch out for

Filed on: October 24, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | 2 comments

Using "respectively" to end-and to link-two lists may save space but may, sometimes, tax the reader. The sentence "The cultures of bacteria, fungi, and algae were incubated at 15 °C, 25 °C, and 35 °C, respectively" needs to be consciously decoded to pair bacteria with 15 °C, fungi with 25 °C, and algae with 35 °C, and all the while it may happen that some readers may be interested only in bacteria; some, in fungi; and others, in algae. It is therefore, sometimes, advisable to repeat the necessary information and reduce the cognitive load on readers than to use respectively and leave it to readers to make the correct pairing.

Remember that respectively takes two (or more) series and joins each member of one series to each corresponding member of another series: if there is only one series, respectively has no place in the sentence. The sentence "Platinum, gold, and silver are precious metals, respectively" is wrong, and makes readers wonder whether something is missing (perhaps each metal is precious to a different industry?), when, in fact, the writer has simply placed respectively at the end of a single series.

[This is part of the series, Nuances of English, that contains posts and hints that cover the teeny-weeny rather necessary trivialities of the English language that, at last count, numbered quite a lot.]

OCT 3

Priming your brain before writing

Filed on: October 3, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

If this blog were to offer tips to those who submit research papers to journals but whose first language is not English, should it only write about style, presentation, and formatting? Do you not think that there ought to be text first?

So, how do you get words onto paper or, more likely, onto the screen of your monitor? For researchers, the problem is not about finding a subject to write about: their own research work, the results of their experiments, the techniques they have developed, all these are ready topics. The problem lies in describing that work clearly and concisely.

One way to make words come to you more readily when you sit down to write is to prime your brain by talking about your research not only to other researchers but also to those who know little about the subject your work. If you do this for a day or two, or for at least a few hours, before you write, you will find that you are able to write faster as whole phrases and entire sentences seemingly appear in front of you. Try it today.

[This is a part of a series of posts, entitled Publish and Prosper, which talk about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit their papers to journals published in English. The series will touch upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]

SEP19

‘Asides’ or parenthetical additions: commas, brackets, or dashes?

Filed on: September 19, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

In writing to inform, all information is not equal: some of it is given as an aside—not essential, but interesting, useful, or "nice to know." How do you mark this kind of information? The most common, and least obtrusive, way is to enclose such information within a pair of commas, as in "Potassium cyanide, which has a characteristic bitter-almond smell, is a deadly poison." Grammarians call the additional information a "non-restrictive clause" and the pair "non-defining commas." But that is another post.

However, there are two other devices, namely enclosing the additional information within brackets (parentheses) or enclosing it—like this—with a pair of em dashes.

Now, how does one choose among the three alternatives? Well, the choice depends on the effect that you as a writer want to achieve or your assessment of the value of that additional information.

# Use commas when you do not want to disrupt the flow. A pair of commas encloses the additional information with least distraction: the extra info blends smoothly with the rest of the text.

# Use brackets when the information is purely incidental and unimportant but may help some readers. A typical use is to define a quantity in an alternative unit of measurement, as in "The car was traveling at 60 kilometers (roughly 37 miles) per hour."

# Use em dashes to emphasize or highlight the information, as in "It is possible—indeed very likely—that biotechnology will bring in prosperity for farmers."

 

[This is a part of a series of posts, entitled Publish and Prosper, which talk about tips for researchers whose first language is not English but who submit their papers to journals published in English. The series will touch upon not only writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style) but everything else relevant to publishing research papers that journal editors wish their authors knew.]