In a review article I was reading recently to get some background information for an editing job, I encountered a sentence that I couldn’t decipher even after having read it several times. It serves as  a good example of how omitting words can lead readers down the garden path to a misinterpretation, or several possible misinterpretations. Here’s the sentence:

The cytosol contains enzymes that channel reducing equivalents from NADPH to small thiol-containing species and thiol/disulfide oxidoreductase enzymes (e.g., glutathione and thioredoxin) to reverse disulfide formation and other oxidative modifications of proteins.

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My postgraduate training was rather narrowly focused on synthetic organic chemistry, but in my 20 years as a science editor, I’ve often been called upon to edit material outside this specific area of expertise. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about, for example, environmental chemistry and materials science simply by frequently editing papers in those fields. However, the relatively recent advent of podcasts, MOOCs (massively open online courses), and webcasts has allowed me to more systematically expand my knowledge of, and keep current in, other areas of interest to me—such as nanotechnology, bioinformatics, biochemistry/chemical biology, cell biology, immunology, virology, and statistics. By familiarizing myself with the basic concepts and standard terminology in these fields, I’ve been able to speed up my editing, ask more-informed questions, and provide more value to my clients.

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When you submit a paper to a scientific journal,  you want the editor and the referees to focus on the science not the writing, which should transmit your meaning without attracting attention to itself. Correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling are important, of course, but your writing should also sound natural to native speakers.  One way to achieve this is to avoid subtle errors in word usage. One that I frequently encounter in my ESL editing is the use of “concerning” as an adjective:

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Scientific papers tend to contain lots of abbreviations—acronyms, initialisms,* gene symbols and protein designations, element and isotope symbols, chemical formulas, and so on—and authors sometimes have difficulty choosing the correct indefinite article (“a” or “an”) to use with  abbreviations. The general rule is that the choice depends on how the abbreviation would be pronounced if read aloud: if the pronunciation starts with a vowel sound, use “an,” and if it starts with a consonant sound, use “a.” Let’s look at some examples:

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“As a result” is often used as a conjunctive adverbial phrase to indicate cause-and-effect relationships; in this sense, it is synonymous with “therefore,” “hence,” “consequently,” “as a consequence,” and “accordingly.” Here are some sentences in which “as a result” is used in this way.

The molecule has bulky substituents in the ortho positions; as a result, the eclipsed rotamer is energetically disfavored.

The fact that eclipsed rotamer is energetically disfavored is a consequence of the steric bulk of the substituents.

The diphenyl phosphine oxide group is electron withdrawing, and as a result, the central carbon of the allene is electron deficient.

The electron deficiency is a consequence of the presence of the electron-withdrawing group.

In the course of my ESL editing, I often encounter what seems to me a nonstandard use of “as a result,” in which the phrase is used prepositionally to connect a sentence or clause describing an experiment and a second sentence or clause describing the outcome of that experiment. The usage seems particularly common  in papers written by authors whose native language is Japanese. Here’s an example:

We investigated the photocatalytic degradation of 17β-estradiol in water and concurrently evaluated the estrogenic activity of the treated water. As a result, 17β-estradiol was totally mineralized to CO2 in a TiO2 suspension under UV irradiation for 3 h.

Some readers will momentarily misinterpret “as a result” as implying that the mineralization was a consequence of, was caused by, the investigation and evaluation. However, the author is actually using “as a result” simply to indicate that the subsequent text describes a result (a finding) of the experiment. That is, “17β-estradiol was totally mineralized to CO2…” constitutes a result of the experiment. The sentence opening could be thought of as an elided form of “As a result of this experiment, we found that…”

Here’s another example:

Serial dilution tests of the JCAbl antibody were performed on the three tissues. As a result, JCAbl reacted with JCV-IMR32 cells and PML tissues at all the dilutions.

Here, again, the authors do not mean that the reaction of the antibody with the tissues was caused by, was a consequence of, the serial dilutions tests. Rather, they mean that the observed result of the experiments was that the antibody reacted with the specified tissues at all dilutions.

I wouldn’t call this use of “as a result” a serious error, but as I pointed out, some readers will find it momentarily distracting. In my opinion, the best revision is simply to replace “as a result” with “we found that”:

We investigated the photocatalytic degradation of 17β-estradiol in water and concurrently evaluated the estrogenic activity of the treated water. We found that 17β-estradiol was totally mineralized to CO2 in a TiO2 suspension under UV irradiation for 3 h.

But you could also revise to any of the following:

We investigated the photocatalytic degradation of 17β-estradiol in water….The results of these experiments indicated that 17β-estradiol was totally mineralized to CO2 in a TiO2 suspension under UV irradiation for 3 h.

When we investigated the photocatalytic degradation of 17β-estradiol in water…, we found that that 17β-estradiol was totally mineralized to CO2 in a TiO2 suspension under UV irradiation for 3 h.

Investigation of the photocatalytic degradation of 17β-estradiol in water and concurrent evaluation of the estrogenic activity of the treated water indicated that 17β-estradiol was totally mineralized to CO2 in a TiO2 suspension under UV irradiation for 3 h.

If anyone can verify that this is an artifact of the Japanese language, I’d be interested to hear about it.

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What’s the difference between studying a subject extensively and studying it intensively, between doing extensive research and intensive research? It seems like a simple enough question, one that could easily be answered by consulting a dictionary. I consulted four: Merriam-Webster Unabridged (3rd ed), The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed), and The American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed) .* Here’s what I found:

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Is improving your scientific writing among your goals for the new year? If so, you might start by revisiting the five most-read posts on The Scientist’s English for 2012:

1. Adverb placement 

2. Dangling infinitives

3. Shortening your paper or abstract

4. Illogical comparisons

5. Implied antecedents for “those” and that” 

I look forward to providing more tips in 2013. In the meantime, I’d like to direct you to a wonderful series of articles on scientific writing, published in 2010 in the journal Clinical Chemistry: “The Clinical Chemistry Guide to Scientific Writing.” The great thing for ESL authors is that these articles—which cover all the components of a typical scientific paper, including figures and tables—have been translated into Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese. For additional online information about scientific writing, visit the links in the sidebar on the right, under “Scientific Writing Advice.”

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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.

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The conjunction “or” can be used not only to indicate two or more alternatives but also to indicate synonymous or equivalent expressions. When used for the latter purpose, “or” can be translated as “also referred to as,” “defined as,” or “in other words,” and sentences containing such an appositional “or” are punctuated differently than sentences in which “or” separates alternatives. Let’s look at some examples.

Infrared spectroscopy or electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy can be used to follow the kinetics of radical decay.

Here “or” is used to indicate two alternative techniques—infrared spectroscopy and electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy—either of which can be used to follow the decay kinetics.  In this type of sentence, “or” separates the two parts of a compound subject, and no additional punctuation is required. What about the following, apparently similar sentence?

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In the scientific manuscripts I edit, certain deviations from the generally accepted typographical conventions for mathematical text crop up frequently enough that I thought I would discuss a few of them in this post. First, let’s look at some of the basic conventions:

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