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Disrupting the inheritance of poor writing habits:

A new approach to editing and teaching scientific writing in the life sciences

On 8 February 2015, the PubMed publication index – the largest in the life sciences – contained over 24.6 million records. About 500,000 new records are added each year. To stay abreast of this flood of information, researchers and policy makers may have to spend hours per day reading. Adding to this herculean task are the poor writing habits of many scientists. Individual disciplines in the life sciences have also become increasingly specialized, which means by definition that their “output” (papers, presentations) must also be understandable for non-specialist readers. Regrettably, academic writing has long been notorious for its tendency to use language to impress one’s peers rather than a tool for communicating to a broader readership. This problem has been widely acknowledged for decades, but journal editors continue to complain that many submissions are so poorly written that the point of the article is unclear. As stated by Amin Bredan, a scientist and journal editor, “Generations of editors, reviewers and readers have struggled to understand complex, exaggerated and often pompous prose that does little to enhance the reader's understanding…” According to Bredan, this ineffective approach is transmitted by senior scientists to junior ones, leading to the inheritance of poor writing habits.

Disrupting this inheritance obviously requires attention to the linguistic aspects of clear writing, which has been the traditional emphasis of most teachers of scientific writing. Nevertheless, the overall quality of writing in the life sciences has remained below par. I argue that a more effective approach is to begin with the “meta-structure” of a manuscript. These are the core components. If they are not clearly presented and solidly connected, making linguistic improvements at the sentence and paragraph level may do little to enhance the reader’s understanding. This approach not only makes the final linguistic editing easier, but peer reviewers can also focus on the actual scientific content of a manuscript instead of struggling to find the point.