For focus and clarity in a scientific text, reduce vague words

Scientific texts are often filled with words that make it seem like something important has happened, but we’re not sure exactly what.

We have characterized the role of protein X in signalling pathway Y.

Our results elucidate a mechanism for protein X’s involvement in membrane trafficking.

This paper establishes a new paradigm for the effect of protein X in the context of disease Z.

Protein X has a role, is involved, and has some kind of effect. In other words, we have no idea what it is actually doing.

Here are some words that frequently appear in papers and grants that make the writing feel more vague and less specific:

framework
mechanism
involves
facilitate
impacts
interaction
interesting
modulate
system
paradigm
plays a role
has an effect
characterize

Your species is interesting, you say? Great. Do you know anyone working on an uninteresting species? Instead of dropping in a vague ‘interesting’, tell us what you mean exactly. Special adaptations? Unusual genomic organization? Cute and fuzzy? Good to eat?

People in molecular biology tend to be a bit territorial about highly entrenched but vague words like “mechanism”. Some act as if throwing “mechanism” into the text here and there is the secret to getting your paper accepted. Those pesky reviewers are always asking for a mechanism, aren’t they??

Well, maybe, but writing “we’ve discovered the mechanism” without succinctly stating what the mechanism is isn’t very convincing. Compare these two:

1. Our results elucidate a mechanism for protein X’s involvement in membrane trafficking.

2. Our results show that protein X initiates a phosphorylation cascade that is required for

membrane trafficking.

In version 1, the reader now knows that X does…something to do with membrane trafficking. Number 2 communicates what you actually found, directly. We know it’s a mechanism for protein X- that’s obvious from the sentence.

There’s nothing wrong with using these terms once in a while when you do want to discuss things at a more general, vague level. Using them too often, though, makes your text seem evasive, fuzzy, and sometimes even oversold. If a reader doesn’t clearly understand what your mechanism is, beating them over the head with “We found the mechanism” won’t help convince them your work is great.

Replacing these terms with specific information almost always makes a sentence more concrete, easier to understand, and stronger. Consider this:

We have characterized the role of protein X in signalling pathway Y.

versus this:

We demonstrate that protein X activates signalling pathway Y.

and this:

This paper establishes a new paradigm for the effect of protein X in the context of disease Z.

versus this:

This paper establishes that point mutations in protein X cause aberrant cell-cell contacts, causing disease Z.

See the difference?

Patricia Gongal works with researchers to improve the structure, clarity, flow, and style of their scientific writing, and has lots of opinions about science and academia.

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