Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

How will scientific writing evolve in the future?

Recently I saw the movie Arrival (2016). What captured my attention was the relationship between language and the perception of time. I think this has some implications for the future of scientific writing.

Scientific writing - heptapod writing

I began investigating if there was any research on the topic and soon found several posts about a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. In this article, researchers found a relationship between language and how Swedish and Spanish people describe time. I could adapt the example to Portuguese and English. The English language perceives time as distance – “long time ago” -, while the Portuguese language perceives time as a quantity – “há muito tempo,” where “muito” translates as “much.” What caught my attention is the notion that language can shape our thinking. This idea led me to think about scientific writing.


Language and Thinking in Scientific Writing

Most of our scientific writing is in English. And research shows there is a relation between language and the way wiring and thinking in our brain occurs. Does this mean that scientific thinking is also shaped by the language we use in our scientific publications?

Given this relation, what if the author’s thinking, influenced by his native language, is being conditioned by the expressions available in English? Maybe we can understand now why the message in the movie about a universal language is interesting and pertinent. And I’m not thinking about mathematics since several scientific fields do not use math. Maybe there’s a universal language, and I’m thinking about one in particular.

Scientific writing - Infographics


I think that expressing our scientific results and explanations regarding infographics (example) is an evolutionary step forward toward a universal language in science. I’m not thinking only about graphics plotting our results (experimental, numerical, statistical, etc.), but the scientific novel idea graphically expressed. Think, for example, in Graphical Abstracts in some papers as the first step in this sense given by Elsevier together with the introduction of highlights.

Let’s get back to the example of time. It makes me wonder about ways to represent time. If an English person speaks of time as distance, a line, axis, arrow in a 2D paper is enough to express time. And a Portuguese would understand, but I wonder how we would represent time graphically in quantitative terms. The only idea coming to mind is a movie where things move slow or fast. With all the developments in digital publication, we already have that possibility. The problem is that films are not printable, but… who knows one day we might finally have papers like this.


Question: What’s your opinion about infographics as a step forward in the future of scientific writing?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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