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DEC23

What is the difference between almost and nearly?

Filed on: December 23, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

To know what a particular word means, we usually turn to a dictionary. The dictionary could be a general-purpose dictionary, such as the Oxford Dictionary of English [1], or a specialized dictionary if the word is technical and typical of a particular branch of knowledge (botany or economics or oncology or whatever). To choose the right word from a pair or a group of words with similar meaning, we may consult a dictionary of synonyms [2]. However, there are words that are so similar in their meaning that they are practically interchangeable-or are they? Almost and Nearly is one such pair, where dictionaries are no help. Here is how they are defined in the Oxford Dictionary of English

Almost: not quite, very nearly

Nearly: very close to, almost

Göran Kjellmer of Göteborg University decided to find out the difference by analyzing how the two words are used [2]. It turns out that the two words differ not in their meaning but in their collocation, which focuses on what neighbors a given word has, that is, what words are typically found next to a given word. And the difference turned out to be quite clear cut: the word almost is "characteristically followed by adverbs (almost certainly), adjectives (almost impossible), pronouns (almost anything), and prepositions (almost by definition), while the word nearly is equally characteristically followed by a number (nearly 200 people)."

Secondly, almost is never used with a negative: you could say "A is almost as good as B" or "A is nearly as good as B." However, "A is not almost as good as B" is not idiomatic-you need to say "A is not nearly as good as B."

[1] http://blog.editage.com/?q=oxford-dictionary-of-english-3rd-edition

[2] http://blog.editage.com/?q=differences-between-synonyms-some-reference-sources

[3] Kjellmer G. 2003. Synonymy and corpus work: on almost and nearly ICAME Journal 27: 19-27 <http://icame.uib.no/ij27/kjellmer.pdf>

 

["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.]

DEC10

Oxford Dictionary of English, 3rd edition (August 2010)

Filed on: December 10, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

If you are looking for an up to date, comprehensive, and yet handy English dictionary for advanced users, the 3rd edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE 3 for short) is for you. Although meant for native speakers of English, readers of this blog will find it useful, especially if they plan to submit their research papers to UK-based journals. This post mentions some noteworthy features of this dictionary.

Encyclopedic coverage  Most UK-based dictionaries maintain that dictionaries are for words and encyclopedias are for things. In practice, this policy means that you cannot expect to find names of people and places in a dictionary. The first edition of this dictionary changed that policy. The preface to the new edition specifically mentions that "entries for proper nouns have been revised . . . population figures have been researched, and where possible recent census figures are given." If you are not sure how to spell Schwarzenegger, for instance, you can look up the name in ODE 3.

International coverage  Recognizing the status of English as an international language, the publishers of ODE 3 engaged a panel of "World English" consultants to represent nine other "Englishes" (including Indian English and South African English).

Corpus-based coverage.   ODE 3 shows English as it is used today. The definitions and usage notes are based on the Oxford English Corpus, a database of more than two billion words, and a few other similar sources.

Reader-friendly arrangement of definitions  Language continues to evolve and meanings of words sometimes change. In defining the different senses of a word, ODE 3 gives the most common and current definition first. For example, the word control is first defined as "the power to influence or direct people's behaviour or the course of events"; this is followed by the second sense, namely, "a person or thing used as a standard of comparison for checking the results of a survey of experiment."

Usage notes  Definitions are useful in finding out what a word means. Usage notes, however, are useful in helping us learn how to use a newly learnt word correctly. ODE 3 offers usage notes when its editors consider that some guidance is needed. The usage note on due to, for instance, states that due to in the sense because of "is now common in all types of literature and is regarded as part of standard English"; however, I am not sure whether publishers of research journals will accept this advice.

Online access  Most single-volume dictionaries now come with a CD. ODE 3, however, limits itself to providing buyers online access for 12 months. The access includes updates; links to help on grammar, punctuation, spelling, and style; sample sentences to show words in use; and audio pronunciations.

 

["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.]

DEC 3

Describing "Treatments" and "Controls" in the methods section of a research paper

Filed on: December 3, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Science involves observing, measuring or counting, calculating, and then drawing valid conclusions. Experiments typically go beyond that, as they include deliberate interventions in the normal course of events while keeping other factors constant. For example, in testing a drug, some patients are given the drug whereas others are given a placebo. This practice allows the researcher to ascertain whether any differences in the results shown by the two types of patients are due to the drug or something else.

The subset that does not receive the intervention being investigated is known as the "control," and serves as a basis or standard against which the intervention or treatment is compared. This post discusses how best to describe this aspect of an experiment.

Describing treatments.  Three items of information must be supplied in describing treatments and controls: what was varied, the extent or details of the variation, and the basis for comparing.

Observe how the following examples are constructed.

"The treatments comprised dipping the seedlings in varying concentrations of the plant growth regulator gibberellic acid, namely, 100 ppm, 500 ppm, and 1000 ppm; seedlings dipped only in distilled water served as the control group."

"To ascertain whether high temperatures promote seed germination, seeds were soaked for 24 h in water maintained at 30 °C, 35 °C, 40 °C, 45 °C, and 50 °C before sowing; the germination percentage in these treatments was compared with that in seeds soaked for 24 h in water at 25 °C, which is the average soil temperature in the sowing season."

Both these examples provide all three items of information. Take the first example. What was varied? The concentration of gibberellic acid solution in which the seedlings were dipped. What were the different concentrations? 100 ppm, 500 ppm, and 1000 ppm. What were the differences compared with? With seedlings dipped in distilled water.

See for yourself how the second example answers similar questions. Also, whenever possible, explain why, as in "to ascertain whether high temperatures promote seed germination."

It should now be possible for you to describe your experimental set-up in this format wherever applicable.

 

["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.]

 

As an author of a research paper, you no doubt consider all figures that you may have included in your paper as essential parts of your paper. That is why you embed or insert them within the text of the paper. Reviewers also find this particularly convenient because it is easier for them to assess whether the figures are relevant, appropriate, and accurate when they are seen along with the text. The figures may be photos, diagrams, maps, graphs, slides from presentations, and so on. No matter what they are, you did not produce them with the same word-processing program such as Microsoft Word that you used to produce text—and this can sometimes cause problems when it comes to publishing the paper in a typical printed journal.

Follow the journal’s instructions about sending files.  Different journals may differ in how they want you to submit graphics files, which is simply another term to clarify that we are talking about files related to images and not text, whatever form that image may take.

Send figures also as separate files.  Although you have inserted all the figures within the text of your paper – and perhaps generated a PDF version of the paper – supply each figure as a separate file, either in one of the standard formats for images or in its original version (see below).

When submitting a paper for review, focus on content.   In general, journal instructions about graphics files are less exacting when a paper is being submitted for possible publication than they are when a paper has been accepted for publication and is in its final form. In other words, reviewers focus on what a figure shows, not on how it has been prepared: printers focus on how a figure has been prepared and whether it is in a form suitable for printing or needs some work to make it so.

When submitting a paper accepted for publication, focus on form. In preparing a paper for printing, the physical form of images is important, which includes such details as the exact size, resolution, method of expressing colours (CMYK or RBG, for example), and so on. The exact file format is also important and may be either one of the standard formats for images (eps, tiff, gif, etc.) or a format specific to a particular software package (cdr, psd, ai, etc.), as explained below.

 

Use a standard format for "finished"images. A standard format means a format that can be used by most platforms (Windows, Mac, Unix, etc.) and is not specific to the software package that was used to create the original images. Images submitted in any of the standard format will be used "as is," that is, without any changes. Ascertain what standard format the journal wants and send the files accordingly.

 

Use the original format for images to be edited.  Some journals may want to edit the images to make them conform to the journal’s exact requirement. If so, the standard format mentioned above is not convenient, and the journal will need the original file or source file, that is, the file that served as the source of the image embedded into the text of the paper. For example, if you prepared a diagram using CorelDraw, send a *.cdr file; if you used Adobe Illustrator, send a *.ai file; if Adobe Photoshop, send *.psd, and so on. These formats are also referred to as native formats or proprietary formats. Again, check the journal’s instruction to authors to see what formats the journal accepts.

A future post will deal with such matters as file size, file formats suitable for websites or other paperless forms of publication, sending photographs taken with digital cameras, and so on.

["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

Using "et al." while citing references in text: how many authors should you list

Filed on: November 18, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

It is rare for a single researcher to publish a paper all by herself or himself; most research papers have several or many authors, and the average number of authors for a paper keeps rising as science becomes increasingly collaborative. In citing such papers using the name-and-date system, also known as the Harvard system, a long string of names proves awkward—which is why most journals recommend the use of et al., which is Latin for et alii or et aliae and means “and others.”

Two earlier blog posts [1, 2] mentioned this in passing; this post explores the use of et al. in relation to the number of authors in some detail.

How many authors should a paper have before its citation is shortened by using et al.? Journals differ widely in this respect, and the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene avoids the usage altogether, no matter how long a citation may run to: “All authors must be listed; never use ‘et al.’ or the phrase ‘or others’ ”[3]. How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper [4] summarizes current practice as using et al. for more than three authors, a practice also favored by the Chicago Manual of Style [5], whereas Cambridge University Press, for its STM (science, technology, medicine) books, says: “Citations to works with three authors can either: (1) give all three names the first time, and thereafter use et al.; (2) give all three names for every citation; or (3) use et al. throughout” but “Citations to works with four or more authors should use et al. throughout” [6].

The American Psychological Association (APA) [7] has an even more elaborate system that uses three categories of papers: those with one or two authors, those with three to five authors, and those with six or more authors. For citations that fall into the second category, the APA suggests listing the first three names followed by et al. when the paper is cited for the first time. For the second and subsequent citations, it suggests shortening the citation to the name of the first author followed by et al. Papers with six or more authors are always cited giving the name of the first author followed by et al.

Therefore, it is best to style in-text citations after studying the instructions to authors of your target journal as well as its recent issue.

[1] http://blog.editage.com/?q=minor-variations-in-the-style-of-citing-references-authors-and-year

[2] http://blog.editage.com/?q=Citations-and-References

[3] http://www.ajtmh.org/misc/ifora.shtml

[4] Day R A and Gastel B. 2006. How to Write and Publish a Research Paper, 6th edn. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 320 pp.

[5] University of Chicago Press. 2010. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edn. 1026 pp.

[6] https://authornet.cambridge.org/information/productionguide/stm/text.asp

[7] American Psychological Association. 2009. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th edn. Washington, DC: APA Press. 272 pp.

["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 9

Start writing; it's the only way to remove the writer's block

Filed on: November 9, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Do you find it difficult to write research papers? If you do, you are not alone; most researchers find it difficult to write—and not always because they have to write in English, which may not be their first language. Think about it: Would you find it any easier to write in Japanese or Mandarin or German if any of these languages happens to be your first language? The point is that most researchers find it difficult to write up the results of their research in the form of a formal research paper for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. However, the more successful researchers get on with writing with some determination. A recent study [1] tried to find out what it is about writing that novice researchers find difficult and what can be done to overcome the difficulties.

The study identifies two problems and offers two solutions. The two problems are cognitive burden and the difficulty in separating content from structure; the solutions are (a) making writing a group activity with support from mentors and (b) breaking the task of writing a paper into smaller and better-defined tasks that follow from the structure of a typical paper.

Cognitive burden is the feeling of being overwhelmed: the idea that to write a research paper is not only a complex a task but also a task that is well beyond us. Novice researchers look at a published paper and, with a sinking heart, abandon the idea of even attempting to write something similar based on their research. This is the classic writer’s block, and the way to remove it is to start writing. Mountaineers look at the peak they are about to climb and what do they do? They start walking: one step, then another, then one more, and so on until, eventually and no doubt after a struggle, they make it to the top. It is the same with writing. In a book I recommended in an earlier post, Paul J Silvia [2] does a great job of demolishing the writer’s block: "Saying that you can’t write because of writer’s block is merely saying that you can’t write because you aren’t writing. It’s trivial. The cure for writer’s block . . . is writing . . . Just as aliens abduct only people who believe in alien abductions, writer’s block strikes only writers who believe in it." Silvia’s solution is to make a schedule and, at the appointed time, sit down to write.

The difficulty in separating content from structure is probably rooted in the rigid structure of a typical research paper, the so-called IMRaD structure—a difficulty made more severe because the novice writers were provided with templates and sub-templates, one for each major component of a typical paper. For example, the template for the introduction specified that it should have four distinct subsections, or text blocks: (1) a statement of the topic's significance, (2) a description of the information gap that the study addresses, (3) a literature review to support the claim of an information gap, and (4) the study objective. Each text block was represented by a title, a brief explanation of its role in the context of the manuscript, and previous examples of text blocks in the same category from peer-reviewed publications.

Although a good method to help novice researchers understand and absorb the structure of a research paper, I wonder whether such detailed instruction hampers expression by imposing the structure too rigidly: on the other hand, if novice writers, before writing, talk about the matter with which they expect to fill the above-mentioned text blocks, it might encourage the flow when they finally sit down to write.

Making writing a group activity with support from mentors is a very good way to encourage novice writers, a solution also endorsed by Paul Silvia, who devotes a whole chapter ("Starting your own agraphia group") to the idea in his book [2]. Shah, Shah, and Pietrobon’s study mentioned above [1] reports that novice writers welcomed the idea and that mentors also played a substantial role in "guiding, encouraging, and supporting novice researchers."

To end with a practical tip: set yourself a target and define it in terms of the number of words; say to yourself "I will not get up unless I have written at least 200 words for, say, the section on Introduction."

[1] http://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/fulltext/2009/04000/scientific_writing_of_novice_researchers__what.31.aspx#P8

[2] Silvia P J. 2007. How to Write a Lot: a practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 150 pp.

["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 9

Infinitive (to) or gerund (-ing) form: which is better?

Filed on: November 9, 2010 | Written by Editage | 2 comments

Which is better in the following sentences-infinitive or gerund? A detailed explanation will be much appreciated.

1-a: The beaker will be filled up to the mark with the mixture to prepare ABC solution. 1-b: The beaker will be filled up to the mark with the mixture for preparing ABC solution.

2-a: The area below the lower chest was palpated a few times with the thumb and forefinger to observe the muscle tone. 2-b: The area below the lower chest was palpated a few times with the thumb and forefinger for observing the muscle tone.

3-a: To determine the concentration, the acceptable range is set at 50.0%. 3-b: For determining the concentration, the acceptable range is set at 50.0%.

Actually, there is no thumb rule for the use of infinitives and gerunds in these constructions. Their use is primarily governed by the meaning of the sentence: if both infinitive and gerund forms convey the intended meaning, then either can be used. Now, let's analyze each of the examples you have provided to determine which form is more appropriate.

1-a. The beaker will be filled up to the mark with the mixture to prepare ABC solution. 1-b.The beaker will be filled up to the mark with the mixture for preparing ABC solution.

In these sentences, both gerund and infinitive forms convey the same meaning, i.e., the beaker is filled for the purpose of preparing the solution. Since there is no ambiguity in either sentence, both forms of the verb can be used.

Now, let's look at the second set of sentences.

2-a. The area between the lower chest was palpated a few times with the thumb and forefinger to observe the muscle tone. 2-b. The area between the lower chest was palpated a few times with the thumb and forefinger for observing the muscle tone.

These sentences have the same structure as the first set of sentences. Therefore, the gerund and infinitive forms have the same impact on their meaning. Both forms convey the intended meaning, and therefore, either can be used.

Let's move on to the third set of sentences.

3-a. To determine the concentration, the acceptable range is set at 50.0% 3-b. For determinng the concentration, the acceptable range is set at 50.0%.

The same rationale for using gerunds and infinitives can be applied here. However, in this set, the problem is not the choice between gerunds or infinitives, rather it is the way in which both have been used. Infinitive or gerund phrases, such as "To determine the concentration" or "For determining the concentration," are said to dangle if the sentences containing these phrases do not include the person or thing that performs the action implied. Dangling phrases are a common problem in sentences framed in the passive voice. Such sentences can be corrected by specifying the person or agent performing the action. For example, in this case, the sentences can be revised as follows:

3-a. To determine the concentration, we set the acceptable range at 50.0% 3-b. For determining the concentration, we set the acceptable range at 50.0%.

As you must have noticed by now, both sentences convey the intended meaning. Therefore, either can be used.

NOV 8

"Fill" patterns in graphs: decorative or functional?

Filed on: November 8, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Graphs are often referred to as pictures of numbers. Graphs capture the meaning behind a set of numbers and convey that meaning at a glance. As a researcher, you are no doubt familiar with bar charts, which are often used to compare sizes or frequencies of variables: daily calorie intake of people from different countries, for example, or average annual rainfall (millimeters) for different cities.

Since what matters in such charts is the height of each bar (or the length of each bar if the bars are horizontal), it should not matter whether the bars are "empty" (blank) or filled with different colors or patterns (dots, squares, straight lines, etc.). However, such fills are common in charts and serve to add visual interest as well as to make the chart more prominent, and this post is about choosing appropriate fills.

In component bar charts or stacked bar charts, fills are essential to distinguish between different components within a bar. For example, if the average intake of calories is divided into that obtained from proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, or if the annual rainfall is split across seasons, it is necessary to divide each bar into appropriate segments (one each for proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in the first example, and one each to represent a season in the second example above).

If the chart is to be reproduced in color, the choice is wide (although it is better to avoid too many colors and odd combinations of colors). If the chart is to be reproduced only in black and white, it is important to avoid shades or tints of grey (since the differences are usually lost when the chart is photocopied) and patterns that cause eye strain or optical illusions (horizontal and vertical lines for adjacent blocks, for example, or lines at 45° to the horizontal in one direction – north-east to south-west – next to those oriented south-east to north-west).

Lastly, when using bar charts, remember to keep the gap between a pair of bars narrower than the width of each bar. As a rule of thumb, do not make the gap wider than 40% of the width of a bar.

["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 8

Presenting statistical information effectively: two useful guides

Filed on: November 8, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Research nearly always involves measuring and counting: drawing inferences based on quantitative data is one of the distinguishing characteristics of science.  Although a couple of earlier posts in this blog have discussed some conventions of style while expressing numbers, this post is about two useful guides for the effective presentation of quantitative data, whether as tables or as charts.

Making data meaningful,1 published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, is in two parts, namely Part 1, A guide to writing stories about numbers (28 pages)1 and Part 2, A guide to presenting statistics (58 pages).

The two-part guide is "intended as a practical tool to help managers, statisticians and media relations officers use text, tables, graphics and other information to bring statistics to life using effective writing techniques" and is packed with examples that show how the guidelines explained in the book can change poor writing into clear and effective writing. More than a dozen experts—drawn from seven countries and two international organizations—collaborated in writing the guide, which, despite the range of contributors, speaks in a single voice—clear, practical, and authoritative.

User-friendly presentation of statistics,2 published by PARIS21 (Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century) and Statistics Norway, is meant not so much for individual researchers as for agencies that publish statistical information. Yet, I recommend it strongly because of three chapters, namely Chapter 2, Comparing numbers: making the numbers talk; Chapter 3, In columns and rows: constructing tables; and Chapter 4, From table to graph: why and how?

The theme of these chapters is expressed succinctly: "Statistics gives a numerical description of society by means of numbers put together in tables or graphs. The purpose of placing numbers together in this way is to compare them in order to uncover differences, correlations and trends. To compare numbers – after having made them as comparable as possible – is the central theme of all statistics. And user-friendliness means to present the numbers in a way that encourages and enables the users to make comparisons."

Readers of "Publish and Prosper" will find both the guides a rewarding reading.

1 www.unece.org/stats/documents/writing/

2 www.ssb.no/int/pres_stat/pres_stat.pdf

["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.]

OCT20

Why is proofreading important?

Filed on: October 20, 2010 | Written by | Add new comment

Have you ever come across a document that is fairly well-written but is riddled with a number of grammatical and typographical errors? Then you would surely know how these basic errors can drastically reduce the readability of a document.

Proofreading is the process of checking a written document, such as an e-mail, an essay, or an academic research paper, for correcting these basic errors. Proofreaders primarily focus on eliminating basic writing-related errors, including those in spelling, punctuation, grammar, spaces, font, style, and consistency. However, they do not restructure or rewrite the document in any way.

Almost all word-processing programs like MS Word have spell-checkers, which highlight spelling errors, repeated words, etc. However, a spell-checker has limitations: it cannot determine whether a particular word is correct in a given context or pick a freak typo (e.g., the use of "from" instead of "form"). This is where a specialist proofreader with good language skills and an eye for detail comes handy. A professional proofreader checks the manuscript for grammar and typographical errors and assesses it for consistency in technical terminology, page layout, and style. Thus, the author is spared the effort and time that is required to perform these basic checks and is not constrained by the limitations of word-processing software.

Proofreading is a very important part of writing, and for authors with good language skills, the services of a professional proofreader can ensure that the final document is error-free and suitable for submission or publication.

[Hemangi Palav is an Editor at Editage.]

OCT14

Lists of bullet points: capitalization

Filed on: October 14, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

In a list of bullet points, whether each item begins with a capital letter depends on the punctuation mark that comes before the item. A capital letter typically marks the beginning of a sentence. However, in lists of bullet points, the beginning of a point is also indicated by space and the item marker (whether a bullet, a number, or a letter). This is why capitalization of items that make up a list of bullet points is sometimes a matter of style.

Most often, the text that introduces such lists ends with a colon, as in "The value of soil for agriculture depends on the following factors:". If we take that only a full stop, a question mark, or an exclamation mark can mark the end of a sentence, it is only logical to begin the items that make up the list with small or lowercase letters because the sentence that began with "The value of soil" is yet to end.

However, many would consider this logic as being either too rigid or irrelevant, and it is very common to see lists of bullets points in which each item begins with a capital letter despite the colon that comes before the first point.

If each item in the list is a single word or runs to only two to three words, capitalizing the items seems excessive to me-since each item begins on a new line and is preceded by an item marker, capitals serve no useful function either.

If a list is introduced by a complete sentence, each bullet point needs to begin with a capital letter. This is why it is better to use a colon to introduce a list in which each item is a single word or consists of only two or three words. On the other hand, if each item in the list runs to many words, often with commas and even semicolons, it is best to introduce the list with a complete sentence and make each item in the list also a complete sentence or a group of complete sentences-in which case, each item will naturally begin with a capital letter.

When a list is introduced by an incomplete sentence, as in "Three main types of vegetative parts used for propagation are," leave the incomplete introduction "open" (no punctuation). Never use a capital letter to begin an item in such lists; instead, begin with a lowercase letter and end the last item with a full stop, thereby completing the sentence.

["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.]

OCT 6

Lists of bullet points: punctuation

Filed on: October 6, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Technical writing often includes lists of bullet points, and presentations almost always make use of such lists. Although lists are not common in research papers, it is important to know how to present such lists with appropriate punctuation and capitalization. An earlier post in this series described how to choose between bullets and numbers to introduce items that make up a list.

Punctuation and capitalization are related matters. This post deals with punctuation and the next post will deal with capitalization. A list typically contains an introductory sentence or phrase followed by items that make up the list. Appropriate punctuation depends on two factors: (1) whether the introduction is a complete sentence, an independent clause, or an incomplete sentence and (2) the structure of the items in the list.

"Properties of some important herbicides are given below." is an example of a complete sentence used for introducing items in the form of short paragraphs or single sentences, each about one herbicide. In such cases, the introductory sentence should end with a full stop (period). Each item in the list will end with a full stop.

"The value of soil for agriculture depends on the following factors:" is an example of an independent clause used for introducing a list of items that are phrases (nutrient content, acidity or alkalinity, moisture content, and physical properties). In such cases, each item in the list is best left "open," that is, without any punctuation, but the last item should end with a full stop, thereby completing the sentence that began with "The value of." The whole list is thus made up of only one sentence. However, if the items are longer, it is better to end each item with a comma; if the items are not only long but also contain commas, end each item with a semicolon.

"Three main types of vegetative parts used for propagation are" is an example of an incomplete sentence used for introducing a list of about half a dozen short items (cuttings, grafts, tubers, bulbs, suckers, and rhizomes). In such cases, the incomplete introduction is left open (no punctuation); each item in the list is also left open; and the last item ends with a full stop, thereby completing the sentence.

["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.]

SEP23

Use the present tense when referring to tables and figures

Filed on: September 23, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Research papers often include tables and figures. The tables and figures are numbered, and each table and figure must be referred to in text, as in “Data on germination percentage are given in Table 1.”  or “As can be seen in Figure 3, leaves of ‘Abc’ were larger than those of ‘Xyz.’”

Tables and figures are part of the paper and support the text of the paper, which is why you should use the present tense when referring to them. Although it is common to use the past tense when discussing the results of an experiment, as in “We found that students who recited the poem three times made fewer errors when they wrote it from memory . . .,” the simple present is the only appropriate tense to refer to the table that presents the data, as “Table 1 presents the data on the number of errors as affected by the number of times the poem was recited.” For the same reason, the present tense is also used when referring to other parts of a paper, as in “The implications of these results are discussed in Section 3.2.”

Incidentally, different journals differ in the exact form in which they print the word “Figure”: some journals abbreviate it to Fig. and some print it in full. Among those who used the abbreviated form, some print the number close to the dot and some insert a space (“Fig.2” versus “Fig. 2”). Most journals, however, capitalize the word (“Figure or Fig.” and not “figure” or “fig.”).

["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.]

SEP16

Learning how to write a lot

Filed on: September 16, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

In this age of competition, researchers must be productive not only in terms of their research but also in terms of the number of papers they publish based on that research. For the time being, let us ignore the third aspect, namely whether that research is published in journals with high impact factors.

Books on writing abound; we discussed a good example only recently (click here to read the post). Although The Craft of Scientific Communication shows you how to write better science by studying how successful researchers write, it does not tell you how to force yourself to write. This is where How to Write a Lot [1] scores: written specifically for researchers who write not because they want to write but because they must, this short book is full of practical advice dispensed with humour and understanding.

The key message of the book is simple: "Instead of finding time to write, allot time to write." In one stroke, Paul J Silvia demolishes the most common excuse for putting off writing, namely, lack of time. He similarly dismisses other excuses such as "I need to read a little more" or "I need a faster PC" or "I need inspiration." In hard-hitting and eminently sensible prose, Silvia shows how hollow these excuses are, even quoting the designer of a well-known brand of office chair: "I’m not sure there is a direct correlation between a piece of furniture and productivity." To those who say "If only I had a laser printer at home," Silvia points out that just as you cannot print money but have to earn it, you have to write a paper before you can print it out.

How much can you write? Silvia advises that you could begin by setting aside at least 4 hours a week for writing and mentions in passing that writing 200 words at a sitting is a reasonable target. At the same time, he tells you that Anthony Trollope, a prolific novelist of the 19th century, used to set himself a target of a thousand words an hour.

Come back to this blog after you have written something: after all, the blog is mostly about revising your writing.

[1] Silvia P J. 2007. How to Write a Lot: a practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 150 pp.

["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.]

SEP10

Learning how to write from successful scientists

Filed on: September 10, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | 1 comment

It is natural for researchers to be more willing to learn from other researchers than from copyeditors—I am therefore delighted to write about a book [1] on writing that draws all its examples from published papers by successful scientists. In the introductory chapter, titled "What this book does," Harmon and Gross say that their "book is meant as a guide for helping you attain that goal by learning from contemporary scientists who have reached the highest level of achievement in their profession."

This approach is then explained in a little more detail: "Our book offers something different. To start with, we base our chapters on how good scientists actually write—not how we think they ought to write. We do so by two principal means. First, our advice stems from our research into the development and structure of the scientific paper and on similar research by others. Second, throughout the book we illustrate our points by drawing upon copious examples extracted from actual documents by successful scientists working in many disciplines."

For those who want to learn to writer better English – readers of this blog – the book will prove rewarding indeed because it deals not just with the craft of scientific communication but with the process of writing research papers. In other words, the book shows you how to structure your paper and then how to build on that structure by getting down to writing at the sentence level. Throughout, the authors take the scientific approach. Indeed, the authors acknowledge their debt to "The Science of Scientific Writing," an article [2] in American Scientist by George Gopen and Judith Swan (1990), and to books by the late Joseph M Williams, because the advice in his books "stems from research in applied linguistics and cognitive science; they are based on how expert readers really read and how good writers really write." And because the Craft of Scientific Communication is meant for those who want to learn and practise that craft, the book contains exercises as well as answers to the exercises so that readers may compare their answers with those of the book’s authors.

In particular, one part of the book is devoted solely to writing style and presents a detailed analysis of standard scientific English to the level of words and phrases. The analysis is useful because it helps readers to pinpoint specific features of good scientific writing.

All in all, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to readers of this blog.  

[1] www.press.uchicago.edu/presssite/metadata.epl?isbn=978022631663

[2] www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/the-science-of-scientific-writing/1

["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.]

AUG31

Sensitivity in scientific writing

Filed on: August 31, 2010 | Written by | Add new comment

Scientific writing is all about being accurate, brief, and objective, and as editors or writers we should reduce the bias that creeps in from the use of insensitive language and flawed terminology. Remember that writing shapes thought, so use inclusive language when writing about the following subjects.

Disability  Use "people-first" language - emphasize the person and not the disability by placing the person-noun before the condition (for example, people with amnesia instead of amnesiacs, or people with disabilities instead of the disabled). Avoid emotionally charged or judgmental words such as cripple, victim, deformed, retarded, confined, suffer, and afflicted with (for example, avoid quadriplegic victim confined to a wheelchair and use person with quadriplegia who uses a wheelchair instead). Also, do not use skewed groupings such as Normal vs. Disabled.

Sex/gender  Sex refers to the biological make-up of a person (male/female), whereas gender refers to the social or behavioral role associated with a particular sex (man/woman), and this distinction should be made if required by the research study design. Gender terms such as he or men should not be used if actually referring to both men and women (not all nurses are women and not all doctors men, and only approximately 50% of humankind is mankind!). A sexist bias introduced by gendered pronouns such as he can be avoided by (1) using plural nouns or pronouns ( "As an engineering student, he..." to "As engineering students, they..."), (2) rephrasing ( "When an intern works with patients, she gains experience" to "Working with patients lends experience to interns"), or (3) replacing the pronoun with an  article or noun (e.g., "In the laboratory, he should..." to "In the laboratory, the technician should...").

Race  Race can be a predisposing factor for certain medical conditions, so accurate race and ethnic designations should be made if warranted and terms that may be perceived as negative avoided. Race indicates the heritage or biological features one is born with, and ethnicity the cultural traditions and behaviors that are learnt. Race and ethnic groups are proper nouns and should be capitalized. Both African-American (only for US citizens of African descent) and Black are acceptable; Asian has replaced Oriental; and both American Indian and Native American are acceptable. If possible, specify the countries of origin (for example, Korean, Japanese, or Indian for Asian). Non-White is an incorrect term; instead, specify all races not included under the category White.  

Age  In pediatric studies, age-groups such as infants, children, adolescents, and young adults are used, but age ranges vary by study and should be specified. Men and women are used for individuals 18 years and older. Elderly is not acceptable as a noun; use older persons or elderly people.

Sexual orientation  Sexual orientation is preferred to sexual preference in scientific reporting. Use lesbians and gay men instead of homosexuals, and include gender if not clear from context (for example, gay men and not just gay). Differentiate sexual behavior from sexual orientation, as some individuals engage in sexual activity with same-sex partners, but do not consider themselves gay or lesbian.

[Dr Vani Shankar works as a senior scientific editor at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.]

AUG25

The slippery slope of authorship

Filed on: August 25, 2010 | Written by | Add new comment

ICMJE, the International Council of Medical Journal Editors, asserts that only those who have made substantial intellectual contribution to a study qualify as authors. The Council lays down three criteria, namely substantial contribution to the study, a role in drafting or revising the article critically, and a share of responsibility in approving the final version [1]. Generally, an author takes public responsibility of the work.

Although many journals accept these criteria, it is hard to clearly define substantial intellectual contribution, which makes it difficult for journal editors caught in disputes over authorship to interpret the criterion. In fact, COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics, suggests the best way forward is to ask the institution(s) with which the authors are affiliated to investigate the matter and suspend the review process until the matter is resolved. While the issue of who qualifies to be an author was hotly debated at the conference of the European Association of Science Editors in 2009, the consensus was that journals should move toward contributorship rather than authorship [2]. For instance, The Lancet asks authors to provide details of the exact role and contribution of each author. However, even this is not a perfect system and is difficult for journal editors to police. At the end of the day, we have to trust the authors to do this themselves and be transparent about it.

Two other problems related to authorship are guest authors and ghost authors. A guest author is somebody who is an author not because of direct involvement in the study but because of his or her position in the institution or involvement in acquiring funds for the study. According to a recent post on the COPE website by Virginia Barbour, medical students are taught – or rather led to believe – early in their career that guest authorship is acceptable [3]. Clearly it is not! A study by Flannette and co-workers revealed that 21% of the papers published in 2006, and 19% in 2008, listed guest authors [4]. In some countries, especially in Asia, it is acceptable for the head of the department to be included as an author as a mark of respect, which is both a problem of culture and ignorance. There have been a few cases when a well-known academic has been approached to lend his or her credibility to a study funded by a commercial sponsor without any involvement in the actual study. When data are analysed post-publication and such a person asked to defend the study, they might deny any involvement in the study.

A ghost author, on the other hand, is somebody who helps researchers in writing the paper or even writes the entire paper but is seldom acknowledged, let alone considered for an authorship.  The proportion of ghost writers and guest authors reported by authors who publish in the Chinese Medical Journal is similar to those previously reported in general medical journals in the USA [5]. Many authors may be unaware of the authorship criteria defined by ICMJE, but the culture in many countries considers guest authorship as acceptable.  Although the proportion of guest authors has not changed significantly since 1996, that of ghost authors has declined significantly, as reported in a study of six general medical journals [6]. In the meantime, guest and ghost authors continue to be of concern to journal editors and institutions. A recent paper in PLoS Medicine showed that only 13 of 50 (26%) academic medical centers in the USA publicly prohibit their faculty from participating in ghost-writing [3].

Problems often come to light when authors disagree among themselves and contact the journal editor after a paper is published. COPE publishes several such cases along with helpful flowcharts on what journal editors can do. However, the deeper issue is the attitude to authorship in research institutions and differences about who qualifies as an author. The solution perhaps is to teach students early on in their research career about authorships and the pitfalls of guest and ghost authorships. COPE has developed some useful guidelines for students or young researchers, who often face this problem. Education, awareness, and ethical standards are the way forward. Authors should consider authorship a serious issue, and all those involved in a study should participate in deciding on who should qualify as the authors of papers based on that study.

References 

1.   Uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals: ethical considerations in the conduct and reporting of research: authorship and contributorship. http://www.icmje.org/ethical_1author.html

2.   D Sambunjak, R Hurley. Integrity in science communication: EASE conference report. European Science Editing 2009; 35(4): 99 http://www.ease.org.uk/artman2/uploads/1/ESE_nov09.pdf

3.   V Barbara. Medical students are taught early guest authorship is acceptable. http://publicationethics.org/blogs/medical-students-are-taught-early-guest-authorship-acceptable

4.   Flanagin A, Carey LA, Fontanarosa PB, et al. Prevalence of articles with honorary authors and ghost authors in peer-reviewed medical journals. JAMA 1998; 280:222-224. 

5.   Hao X, Qian S, You S, and Wang M. Ghost writers and honorary authorship: a survey from the Chinese Medical Journal. http://www.ama-assn.org/public/peer/abstracts_2009.html#6

6.   Wislar J, Flanagin A, Fontanarosa PB, DeAngelis CD. Prevalence of honorary and ghost authorship in 6 general medical journals, 2008. http://www.ama-assn.org/public/peer/abstracts_2009.html#7

[Shehnaz Ahmed is the Managing Editor of Rheumatology.]

AUG19

Online dictionaries: no one should be without one!

Filed on: August 19, 2010 | Written by | Add new comment

In an earlier post, I mentioned using advanced learners’ dictionaries. I cannot recommend these too highly, since they will give you information on grammar (countability, for instance), pronunciation, usage and spelling, among other things.

There are now six of these dictionaries available online free of charge. The first five use British English (but give US variants) and the last is an American English dictionary:

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Collins Cobuild Advanced Dictionary

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary

Which is my favourite? That’s a secret! They all have different features and links, and one layout might appeal to you more than another. I suggest you try them all and see which one you like best, then add it to your favourites list, so you’re never without a dictionary when you’re working online. Remember, they’re all available in hard copy too, with a CD-Rom, so you can buy one and keep it on your computer for when the Internet fails!

[Julia Miller works at the University of Adelaide and is a contributor to the Grammar Gang blog. The blog is the new electronic home for Purdue Unviersity's OWL (Online Writing Lab) Help Nest, a forum for discussing difficult questions about grammar, style, and usage.]

AUG13

English articles part 4: too many articles!

Filed on: August 13, 2010 | Written by | 1 comment

Our three posts so far have been about using articles in English. Many people don’t have articles in their first language, so the hardest things are deciding whether to use an article at all, and whether that article should be definite. Some people, however, do have articles in their first language, but use them very differently.

My knowledge of article use in other languages is limited to French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and a small amount of German, so this is where you can contribute to the comments section and help each other. You might also want to correct what I say, as I am a native speaker only of English.

My impression is that other languages use the definite article more. For instance, you might put an article in front of a country name: “la France,” “o Portugal.” Many languages also seem to use articles before abstract nouns, when we usually don’t in English. For example, French, Spanish, and Portuguese have articles in “l’amour,” “el amor,” and “o amor,” but I don’t think German uses an article here. (Since German and English are closely related this makes sense, though the rules can’t always be transferred directly.) Portuguese as spoken in Portugal generally seems to use lots of articles, even before possessives (“a minha tia”) and names (“o Nuno”). Can anyone tell me where that influence comes from?

On the other hand, you may not use an article in the same place in your language. In English, “I play the violin” (badly, in my case!), but in Portuguese “toco violino,” or in German “ich spiele Geige” with no article. American bloggers can tell me here whether “I play violin” without the article is acceptable in American English.

It seems, then, that there is great variation in the way we use articles. Do add your comments to the blog, as it would be really interesting to make comparisons and perhaps draw up a chart to help each other.

[Julia Miller works at the University of Adelaide and is a contributor to the Grammar Gang blog. The blog is the new electronic home for Purdue University's OWL (Online Writing Lab) Help Nest, a forum for discussing difficult questions about grammar, style, and usage.]

JUL27

English articles part 2: “a”

Filed on: July 27, 2010 | Written by | 2 comments

Last time in this blog we looked at that tricky word “the.” This time we’re going to look at the indefinite article “a.” We mentioned earlier that “the” is the definite article, and that deciding what is definite in English can be very difficult. “A” is not definite, so we use it when we are referring to something that is not specific.  Remember that we use “a” before a consonant sound, not just before a consonant, and we use “an” before a vowel sound. We can say a uniform because “uniform” starts with a consonant sound, even though the letter “u” is actually a vowel; we say an hour because the “h” here is silent.

In general, we use “a” the first time we refer to something which is singular and countable (i.e., there is only one of something, although the noun could be made plural if necessary). For example, if we say “I went to a lecture,” this is the first time we have mentioned the word “lecture,” so it is not specific. It is also a singular, countable noun. Therefore we use the word “a.” The next time we refer to the same lecture, however, it is now specific, so we say the lecture.

We use “a” in measurements or rates, such as twice a day or three litres an hour. We also use “a” the first time we mention something which is part of a larger entity, as in a slice of cake or a molecule of hydrogen. Job titles take “a” too: “She is a lawyer.”

You can see from these sentences that “a” is used slightly less than “the,” but it still is an important word. If you need more examples of article use, check an advanced learners’ dictionary, which not only tells you if a noun is countable or uncountable but also provides examples of usage. There are six advanced learners’ dictionaries available free online.

[Julia Miller works at the University of Adelaide and is a contributor to the Grammar Gang blog. The blog is the new electronic home for Purdue University's OWL (Online Writing Lab) Help Nest, a forum for discussing difficult questions about grammar, style, and usage.]

 

JUL22

English articles part 1: “the”

Filed on: July 22, 2010 | Written by | 2 comments

Did you know that “the” is the most used word in the English language? If you’re a non-native speaker of English, you will know that this tiny word causes some of the biggest headaches when you’re writing an academic paper. You will probably also know that “the” is known as the definite article.

What do we mean by “definiteness”? I think that is one of the hardest things for a non-native speaker to comprehend. “Definiteness” refers to shared knowledge. For example, if I say, “I went to a lecture. The lecture was about grammar,” then we know that “a lecture” and “the lecture” are the same thing. The first time I mention it I use “a,” because you do not know which lecture I am talking about; it could be any lecture. In the second sentence, though, the article has become definite, because we both know which lecture is being referred to. In another example, I could say, “I went to a concert on Saturday. The orchestra played beautifully.” Although we only mention the word “orchestra” once, we associate it with the concert I attended, and I assume you will understand which orchestra I am referring to, so I use the definite article again.

There are many other cases where I assume that we share the same knowledge. For example, there are some things, places or people that are unique: the earth; the equator; the Ganges; the Queen of England. In other cases, I may have used a superlative or an ordinal number: the best; the second. Many organizations also take “the”: the World Health Organisation; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (Notice here that when we refer to an organization by its acronym, then we don’t add “the”: NATO, UNESCO.) Often, the word “of” causes us to use a definite article: the use of this procedure; the completion of the survey; none of the people in the study. Decades, centuries and currencies also take “the”: the 1990s; the twentieth century; the dollar; the rupee.

One major problem is that what is definite in one culture or context may not be definite in another. If I say, “X is the prime minister,” you would need to know which country I’m talking about. The examples above, however, give some idea, and it really is worth working on your articles and checking example sentences online to see if you’ve got it right. Try feeding your sentence into a search engine, and see if similar patterns come up in texts by native speakers.

If you find articles difficult, don’t despair. Remember that your content is the most important thing. If you can get most of the articles right, though, you are well on your way to writing excellent English.

[Julia Miller works at the University of Adelaide and is a contributor to the Grammar Gang blog. The blog is the new electronic home for Purdue University's OWL (Online Writing Lab) Help Nest, a forum for discussing difficult questions about grammar, style, and usage.]

 

JUL16

Open access: a brief introduction

Filed on: July 16, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Publishing research papers in peer-reviewed journals is an industry in which researchers are both producers and consumers. Yet, it is an industry where the researchers are neither direct sellers nor direct buyers—and much of the debate on open access revolves around this apparent contradiction.

The fact that you are reading this blog suggests that you are a researcher who wishes to publish research papers. And it you are a researcher, you also regularly read papers published by your peers—researchers working in the same field as you are. When a journal publishes your paper, the journal does not pay you; in fact, some journals expect authors to pay the journals for publishing their papers. At the same time, if you want to read a paper that somebody else has written, very often you are required to pay for it, either indirectly (because your employer pays for access to journals, typically through the library) or directly, when you want to read a paper in the electronic form and cannot access the full paper unless you pay for it.

When most of the research is funded through public money or by funding agencies, and research papers are the product of that research, such products should be freely available. Which is what open access is all about; EPrints defines it as "free, immediate, permanent online access to the full text of research articles for anyone, webwide." <http://www.eprints.org/openaccess/>

To begin with, open access to published papers is provided either by journals that publish the papers or by institutional repositories, typically maintained by academic and publicly funded institutions that employ researchers. And one immediate benefit for researchers is that their work is available to a much wider readership, well beyond that with access to good libraries or with the funds to buy access.

I plan to write in more detail about the topic in future posts in this blog.

["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.]

JUL13

Poor English can limit the impact of research

Filed on: July 13, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

As mentioned in an earlier post in this blog, poor English can delay the publication of research. Even after a research paper is published, if it is written in poor English, the impact of the paper is reduced because the paper is less likely to be cited because fewer people – especially among those publishing in mainstream English-language journals – are likely to read it.

If English is not your first language, you may resent this unfair advantage held by those to whom English does not present a serious obstacle. Incidentally, do not assume that all native speakers of English can write faultless English: you only have to visit Paul Brian’s website, which confines itself to errors frequently seen in the writing of native speakers of English <http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/>. After all, how confident are you that whatever you write in your first language will be error-free?

The question is, are you willing to work on your English? To be able to write well in any one language, even when that language in question is your first language, is a skill. And like all skills, it can be mastered with practice combined with adequate instruction. To be able to write in your second language is a skill that needs constant development until you master it. On the other hand, you may conclude that you are better off spending your time on research than on learning English—after all, you can always engage a copyeditor to work on your paper.

["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.]

JUL 2

In citations in text, stick to surnames only

Filed on: July 2, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

In the Harvard system of citing references, which typically uses a combination of names of authors and the year of publication to refer to a source, the name is confined only to the surname or family name. For instance, “Gupta (2009) developed a new method to examine paints,” and not “Gupta A. C. (2009) developed a new method to examine paints.” Similarly, it is correct to say “A recent review (Wright 2010) concludes that . . .,” and not “A recent review (Patricia Wright 2010) concludes that...”

Sometimes, a person has two or more names besides a surname, in which case the full name is a combination of initials and the surname, as in J F Kennedy (for John Fitzgerald Kennedy). However, in citing the name in a research paper, this will be confined only to the surname—initials or forenames are not included (therefore, Kennedy 1962, for instance, and not J F Kennedy 1962 or John Kennedy 1962).

["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.]

JUN25

Poor English can delay the publication of research

Filed on: June 25, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

A recent article in New Scientist, a British weekly science magazine, mentions that poor English “is another factor that puts some scientists at a disadvantage. Rudolf Jaenisch at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the leading US-based researcher working on iPS cells, argues that some papers from Asia are so badly written that they are difficult to assess . . ." [New Scientist, 9 June 2010 www.newscientist.com/article/mg20627643.700]. The article, titled “Paper trail: Inside the stem cell wars,” explores why research papers from laboratories in the USA are published faster than those from other laboratories in the field of stem cell research.

Poor English includes not only outright errors of spelling, grammar, and punctuation but also faulty construction of sentences, unidiomatic expressions, and odd usage that is obtrusive enough to deflect a reviewer’s attention from the substance of the paper to its style. The fact that the manuscript under review is written by someone to whom English is not the first language is irrelevant to judging the scientific worth of the paper, but it may delay both the review and the subsequent editing of that manuscript. In the worst-case scenario, poor English makes it impossible for a reviewer to assess the paper.

It is for this reason that this blog deals with issues that are trivial individually but of some significance collectively. A few errors related to language are minor blemishes in a research paper, and reviewers might not even notice them, but too many errors are bound to reflect adversely on the research paper.

["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.]

 

JUN18

A number of and The number of

Filed on: June 18, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | 2 comments

It is natural to associate numbers with the plural form. When talking about more than one of something – days, samples, experiments, etc. – we tend to use the plural form of the verb, as in "the days were short," "the samples were dried," or "the experiments were repeated."

The expression "a number of" also belongs to the same category—it is always followed by the plural form, as in "a number of days passed" or "a number of people were present." Do not be misled by the indefinite article a in that expression: the expression is always used to indicate more than one of something and therefore takes a plural noun and a plural verb.

On the other hand, the expression "the number of" is different and always takes a plural noun followed by a singular verb because the expression is used to refer to the exact number that makes up a collection or a group. The expression emphasizes a precise quantity and is used when the exact number is more important than just the fact that there were many, as in "The number of plants in each plot was 25" or "The number of participants was greater in summer than in winter."

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

JUN11

Switching between built-in dictionaries of American and British English

Filed on: June 11, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | 1 comment

Some journals accept papers that use either American or British English—so long as the author is consistent. (It is not acceptable, for instance, to use color in some places and colour in other places.) However, there are journals that insist on only one of the two, and if you wish to submit a paper to a journal that insists on English (U.K.), for instance, when you are used to English (U.S.), you should know how to switch from one to the other before you launch a spell-check.

Microsoft Word comes with several versions of English, one of which – typically English (U.S.) – is used as default at the time of installation. To change that, proceed as follows. The steps are the same: at the last step, make the appropriate choice.

Word 2003  When the document that you want to spell-check is open, press Ctrl + A (or choose Select All from the Edit menu) and follow the sequence Tools > Language > Set Language and choose English (U.K.).

Word 2007  Select all text. Click on the Review tab, choose Set Language, and choose English (U.K.). Alternatively, follow the sequence Start > Programs > Microsoft Office > Microsoft Office Tools > Microsoft Office 2007 Language Settings and, in the lower half of the window that opens, choose the appropriate version as the primary editing language.

["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.]

JUN 4

The thousands-separator in large numbers

Filed on: June 4, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Scientific text often contains numbers, which are usually written as numerals (12 instead of twelve, for example). This post is not about choosing between the two forms (numerals or words), but about writing numerals that comprise 5 or more digits.

A commonly observed international convention is to use space to group such large numerals into thousands, as in 12 560 (not 12,560 or 12560). Examples of even larger numbers are as follows: 135 246, 2 864 975, and 52 234 567. Formal typesetting will use a suitably wide gap so that the groups are not too far apart. In word-processing, use the non-breaking space for the purpose (alt + 0160 in Windows) so that the entire figure is carried over to the next line if it happens to fall at the end of a line. The convention also holds for digits to the right of the decimal point.

Good accounting practice, however, suggests the use of commas instead of spaces to prevent fraudulent insertion of digits ($40,000 to prevent $40 000 being changed into $400000, for  instance)—a consideration irrelevant to academic publishing.

Such use of space as a thousands-separator assumes that the number represents a measurement or value: the style does not apply to numbers used as codes or identifiers, for instance, a ticket number or a passport number.

["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.]

MAY26

Numbered headings or formatted headings

Filed on: May 26, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

Research papers and technical reports have an elaborate structure, which is typically signaled by a system of headings and subheadings. Take the heading Materials and Methods, for instance. Depending on the topic of the paper, it may have such subheadings as Collection of samples, Storage, Physical analysis, and Chemical analysis. A heading such as Field survey may be subdivided by location, as in Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing, and further by age group (children, adults, and the elderly, for example).

The question is, how should these differences in levels of headings be signaled? Two approaches are common. In one, a system of numbers shows the level of each heading: major headings are numbered 1, 2, 3, and so on; subheadings are numbered 1.1, 1.2, . . . 3.1, 3.2, and so on; and sub-subheadings are numbered 1.1.1, 1.1.2 . . . 3.2.1, 3.2.2, and so on. In the other, the appearance of the headings and the space that surrounds them signal their relative importance: higher-level headings are more prominent (larger, bolder) and surrounded by larger white space; lower-level headings are less prominent and surrounded by smaller white space.

Each system has its advantages and disadvantages. The numbered system is simpler and unambiguous but offers little help to those who want to leaf through the pages. The numbered system also becomes unwieldy if there are, say, more than three levels. Also, the lower the heading, the longer the string of numbers attached to it, which, if anything, makes it more prominent.

If you are submitting a paper to a journal, use the system followed by your target journal. If not, the numbered system has the advantage that you do not have to change the format each time you submit the paper to a different journal. Overall, however, the system of signaling the level by appearance is what I would recommend: if you have used the option of pre-defined styles in formatting your paper, it should be easy enough to change the format to suit any 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.]

MAY20

Matching the opening and the closing of formal letters

Filed on: May 20, 2010 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

You may have solved the problem of deciding how to address your correspondent when you do not know whether you are writing to a woman or a man, by using a job-title (Dear Manager, for example), by not using a title or an honorific (Ms/Mr, etc.) but including both the given name and the family name (Dear John Doe), or by some other expedient. What next?

In the US, in formal correspondence, it is customary to use a colon after the salutation (as in Dear Mr Doe: or Dear Ms Doe:); in Britain, a comma is more common, and many choose to dispense with punctuation altogether.

In Britain, the way to end a letter is governed by its beginning: If the salutation (opening) is by name, the proper ending is Yours sincerely; if the salutation does not include a name, the proper ending is Yours faithfully. In the US, Sincerely or Sincerely yours is the most common form irrespective of the salutation. In both systems, a comma follows the complimentary close (as in Yours faithfully, or Sincerely,).

Please note that Yours is without the apostrophe and that the next word (whether it is sincerely or faithfully) does not start with a capital letter.

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