As an engineer, biologist, or other STEM professional, you might have to read a lot of peer-reviewed research articles to stay current with both the field and your own research. For these purposes, you may be inclined to search the articles for information that is relevant to your field of study: data, methods, results, and so on. However, writing a research article is much different in that you need to pay attention to aspects of not only your research but also your writing. One way to improve your own writing is to start paying attention to the writing that you read. That is to say, go beyond focusing on the data, methods, and results of those peer-reviewed research articles and also direct your focus to the writing structure of and language used the document. Below are a few tips that will help you do so.
In many ways, the introduction section of your article is the most important part of your document. The introduction section is where you will either pull readers in, or push them away. A well written and well structured introduction is invaluable when it comes to effective writing. There are, generally speaking, four main moves an effective introduction should make:
Move 1: What is the problem you are addressing? In other words, what is your paper about? Maybe you’re testing emissions in gas-fueled vehicles and electric vehicles and comparing the results, or perhaps you’re running a new climate model and reporting on your findings. Whatever the case may be, an effective writer will make it clear to their reader (audience) what the problem, or topic, of the paper is.
Move 2: Why is this problem important? This question is often referred to in academia as the “exigence” or “motivation” for the study. And, it can be a deceptively hard question to answer. It’s tempting to assume that your reader will intuite the importance of your paper; however, an effective researcher and writer will never leave this question up to the reader. Instead, be clear about the stakes of your research. If this problem or topic is worth researching and writing about, tell your reader why—explain to them how this problem matters to more than just yourself and your own curiosity.
Move 3: What have other scholars said about this topic of study? This part of the introduction section is knows as the literature review, and it serves several purposes. First, it gives credit to your peers, demonstrates to readers that you have done your due diligence in researching the topic, and builds your credibility in being an ethical and thorough researcher. Second, your literature review creates the conditions under which you will conduct your research. Your research can be compelling and necessary for the field, but it won’t go far if you can’t demonstrate how it builds on previous and current conversations and research in the field. Remember, journal articles should be one part of a longer conversation because your goal is to keep the conversation going, not end it.
Move 4: What are the goals of the research and how do you intend to reach those goals in the paper? This move is also known as signposting. A signpost is a direct and clear way to provide a roadmap for your reader. What will this paper cover? What is in store for the audience? A reader will be more apt to continue reading if they have a brief preview of what’s next. For instance, an effective introduction section may introduce the next section of the paper (for scientific articles that will often be the methods section) without going into much detail.
Credible, ethical researchers are careful with the sources they use. It may be tempting to read articles in terms of how they can support your argument or hypothesis; however, an effective researcher will allow other research to guide and inform their own research rather than decontextualize others’ research so it supports whatever argument they’re trying to make (doing so is known as confirmation bias). In terms of writing, you should choose only the strongest, most relevant information to quote directly; otherwise, you should be striving to paraphrase your sources. Paraphrasing helps both the writer and the reader because it requires the writer to know the informatin so well that they can explain it in their own words. If the writer can do this, chances are it will be more digestible for the reader. Additionally, sources should be used sparingly (only 20% of any paper should be direct quotes or paraphrases) and blended with your own words. There should never be a full sentence in an article that is only a direct quote, like this:
“In the future, both breadth and depth will be considered in the assessment method, and classification and verification studies will also be carried out for different types of highway projects to further improve the integrated assessment system” (Hou et. al, 2022).
Instead, you want to choose the part of the quote that is the most relevant to your own research and blend it in with either your argument or a paraphrase that demonstrates how the source informs your own research, like this:
In line with this study, other scholars asserted that both breadth and depth need to be included in future research as one way to “improve the integrated assessment system” (Hou et. al, 2022).
By blending direct quotations with your own voice and combining the quote with a paraphrase, like the second example above, the connection between your own research and the research of others will become more clear to both you and your reader. Your writing will also improve because the connection of your ideas are presented in a clear and consise manner.
(Full citation: Hou, Y., Qian, X., Zhang, R., Gu, F., & Feng, P. (2022). Study on an Integrated LCA-LCC Model for Assessment of Highway Engineering Technical Schemes. Buildings, 12(7), 1050.)
Scientific writing is inherently repetitive because the scientific method, which most STEM research uses, is intended for research projects to be tested and challenged over and over again. Because of this ongoing process, STEM researchers need to choose their words carefully when they analyze and interpret their results and draw conclusions from their research. The most effective, and most common, way to keep your research moving forward (and to build your credibility as a professional researcher) is to use hedging language. These are words or phrases that do not imply that a finding is definite or final, but rather opens the research up to ongoing testing and consideration. For example, words like “suggest” or “indicate” are appropriately cautious and should be used in lieu of “means” or “proves”: “These results indicate that . . .” If your findings are in disagreement with other studies, you might use the hedging phrase “are inconsistent with” rather than “prove wrong”: “Our results are inconsistent with the research found by Smith et al.” This language leaves opportunities open for you and your peers to continue the research, and it also shows humility and caution on the writer’s part, adding to their credibility as a respectable researcher and writer.
Paying attention to how an article is written (in addition to the content of the article) will help you become a better writer. The STEM Writing Institute (SWI) equips clients with tools they need to both evaluate and produce effective writing for all STEM genres, including journal articles. Register for an SWI workshop today.
Photo by Michael Burrows