Served as

It’s difficult to find a book on scientific writing that doesn’t inveigh against weak verbs and nominalizations, and in previous posts, I’ve suggested ways to find them in your papers and eliminate them (here, here, and here). In this post, I want to point out another one: “served as,” as in

Metallic nickel served as a catalyst for the growth of carbon nanotubes.

In Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers, Mimi Zeiger advises that you put the key action of a sentence in the verb, but here the action is buried in the prepositional phrase “as a catalyst.” By eliminating “served as” and moving the action to the verb, we get a more direct, more concise sentence:

Metallic nickel catalyzed the growth of  carbon nanotubes.

Here are some additional examples, along with suggested revisions in italics:

An alkyne group served as an anchor for the fluorophore.

An alkyne group anchored the fluorophore.

Interspecific hybridization served as a stimulus for the evolution of new species.

Interspecific hybridization stimulated the evolution of new species.

Dr. Chandler served as the coordinator for the conference.

Dr. Chandler coordinated the conference.

The whole gastrocnemius served as the sample for analysis.

The whole gastrocnemius was analyzed.

Note, however, that it’s not always necessary, or even possible, to eliminate “served as”:

The serum cholesterol level served as a biomarker for the activity of 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A reductase inhibitors.

Here, because the verb “to biomark” doesn’t exist in English (at least not yet), we can’t change this to

The serum cholesterol level biomarked the activity of 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A reductase inhibitors.

For more on verbs in scientific writing, see the following sources: Robert A. Day, Scientific English: A Guide for Scientists and Other Professionals, 2nd ed. (Westport, CT: Oryx Press, 1995), pp. 35–36; David Lindsay, A Guide to Scientific Writing, 2nd ed. (Sydney: Longman, 1995), pp. 48–50; Maeve O’Connor, Writing Successfully in Science (London: E and FN Spon, 1999), pp. 102–103; Mimi Zeiger, Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000), pp. 23–26.

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