Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

What are the most common mistakes in conveying a scientific message?

One of the first sentences I use in Programming classes comes from Steve Jobs

“If you’re afraid of failing, you won’t go very far.”
Steve Jobs

We crave for success in everything we do, but often built it on failure. Especially in science like Stuart Firestein explored in his excellent book on Failure. There are several ways you can fail when you do scientific work. A failed experiment. A failed result. Constantly failing in putting an algorithm to work. But there is a special kind of failure. When you fail to convey a message.

Once I submitted a paper for publication and the reviewer insisted I should alter parts of my work, and if I did, the paper would be wrong. So, I can look at this from the point of view the reviewer is wrong. And he was. But I failed too. Because the way I explained things was leading to misinterpretations.

From my experience as an author and reviewer, here are the most common mistakes we make leading us to fail in conveying a scientific message and how can we overcome them.

1. Suppose the other knows what we know

This is probably the most common mistake. I understand we are publishing as a piece of a puzzle in a certain topic, thus we should “repeat” what other have done, but make a critical assessment of the way authors join the pieces. However, we cannot suppose our readers know what we do. The probability a reader went through all the thought process we had is low. The solution is to think you’re writing to a student and even if you don’t go into details, at least you provide the ways to get there through references in the proper places. Also, this means you need a more pedagogical approach, and this is an excellent source of creative thinking.

2. Jumping explanations

We need to provide all the details of our results, what we observed, what was the behavior of a parameter as an effect of altering another. But if we focus on details, and their description, we forget about why we provide the results in the first place and jump explanations. More than describing a figure, you need to explain the behavior using the description. In Engineering we usually say explaining the physics.

3. Neglect visual content

In this age, visual message are one of the most important ways to communicate. This is no different in science. In fact, I believe it is more important than ever. Infographics is growing in science. For example, consider the novelty of graphical abstracts. There’s the saying that an image is worth a thousand words, and if we are more careful with our graphics and schemes, the message we want to convey becomes clearer. Inspire yourself in other papers containing graphics you like and try to adapt the design to your content.

QUESTION: Have you ever found creative ways to convey a message you’d like to share? Don’t be shy and share themes in the comments below.

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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