Over many decades of reviewing journal articles, I have seen a range of quality in the presentation of scientific information. I wanted to share some lessons learned so that you can better communicate your science in journal articles. In Part 1, I addressed issues of formatting, titles and abstracts, and acronyms. Here in Part 2, I cover grammar and figures.
Poor grammar and writing style can be quite off-putting to reviewers when reading a paper. Here are some of my pet peeves, which I’m sure are shared by many of my fellow reviewers and editors.
Do not use parentheses to save space, such as “An increase (decrease) in evaporation reduces (enhances) soil moisture” or “The wind is accelerated (decelerated) over warmer (colder) sea areas.” These would be much easier to understand by writing them out, and the extra time it takes to read and understand more than cancels out the small saving in space. I don’t know how this practice started. I certainly was never taught to write this way in any writing class in school. Perhaps some people see it used and then copy it. But it needs to stop. I am all for being concise in communication but not at the expense of confusion.
It is common to use the phrase “note that” to introduce some sentences in a paper. But shouldn’t every sentence be noted? If not, why is a sentence in the paper in the first place? If some sentences should be noted, does this imply that others should not be? I have never found a situation where “note that” cannot just be deleted without changing the meaning.
Why use three words when one will do? Scientists can be guilty of unnecessary embellishment. For example, “it should also be noted that” can be changed to “also.” By so doing you eliminate the distraction and disruption of thought by its inclusion. You also make the paper a little shorter. “The fact that” can be substituted simply with “that”, “In order to” can just be “to” and “due to the fact that” is much simpler said as “because.”
“Etc.” is an abbreviation that conveys no information. It gives the impression of imprecision or laziness. It could be completely eliminated without harm to scientific communication. And using “etc.” at the end of a list that starts with “e.g.” is simply wrong because “e.g.” implies that items are being omitted from the list, so this is just repeating information, such as the wearing a belt and suspenders at the same time.
When writing numbers such as 0.15, do not write them as .15. The leading zero makes it clear that there is a decimal point. This applies to the text of the paper, as well as in figures.
The slash (/) is used variously to mean “or,” “and,” “and” or “or,” and “divided by,” sometimes combined in the same sentence. What it means is confusing, and so it should not be used. I suppose “and/or” is not ambiguous and means “and” or “or,” but in all other cases it does not take much more space to just write out what it means and slash the use of slashes.
In American English, single quotation marks are only correct when identifying speech by a person inside another speech (which is indicated by double quotation marks). Any time a name is quoted, it needs double quotation marks.
Finally, I would like to remind authors that “e.g.” and “i.e.” always need to be followed by a comma, and that the “al” in “et al.” always needs to be followed by a period.
Your science is not only communicated through words. Diagrams, charts, maps, tables and images can all help to explain your research methods and findings. But figures should be carefully selected and clearly presented. Here are my straight-forward recommendations for preparing good figures.
If you have multiple panels on one plot, or multiple figures of the same variable, use the same scale for all of them so they can be compared. This includes the axes and the shading. Take control of your coloring algorithm and make the shading the same for all panels. Determine the maximum and minimum values from all the plots, and use those as the limits for all the plots, even if each individual panel does not go to those extremes.
Also, if your plot has positive and negative numbers, make sure there is a strong contrast between them in colors. For example, use yellow-orange-red for positive numbers, and light-blue-dark blue-purple for negative numbers. Don’t use green at all, as it does not have a natural association with warm or cold (high or low, positive or negative).
Use a limited number of distinct colors for different values, and not a smooth variation, as some plotting software produces. With continuous colors, it is very difficult to look at a plot and determine the value plotted.
When you plot an annual cycle and your data are monthly, plot 13 points, from January to January or December to December, and connect them with 12 lines. That way, you will plot the entire cycle, starting and ending at the same point. If you only plot the points for January to December and connect them, you will miss the line from December to January, which sometimes is an important part of the information.
The same goes for diurnal cycles. If your data are hourly, plot 25 points, from midnight to midnight, and connect them with 24 lines, to give the complete diurnal cycle.
Be sure to always label each axis on a plot, including units. Although °C or K are the common units of temperature in our work, and are the proper Système International units, you cannot assume that the reader knows this. It is necessary to always give the units on the plot, and preferably in the caption, too. Similarly, for pressure use mb or hPa and list the unit on the plot.
Label every contour line and color shading on the plot or with a scaling bar. Multiple contours without labels, and just an indication in the caption of the interval between them is not sufficient to read the values off the plot.
If your x-axis is time, plot the actual dates and not “days from Jan. 1 (or another date),” “Julian day,” or “years from some date.” It should not be incumbent on the reader to do a calculation to determine the date.
The point of all these dos and don’ts is to help you to communicate your ideas clearly. If you make it easy for the reviewer to read and assess your work, you will have a better chance of a speedy and successful review. I look forward to editing and reviewing your clearly written papers in the future.
—Alan Robock, Editor, Reviews of Geophysics, and Department of Environmental Sciences, Rutgers University; email: [email protected]