Guidelines for Writing for Scientific Journals

 Revised January 12, 2013


            This article will be designed for writers of scientific English.  As a professional editor, I have edited more than 100 research papers this year.  This article has three purposes.  First, it provides non-native English speaking scientists with very specific guidelines on how to write for scientific journals.  Second, it provides those same guidelines to editors who work for me.  And third, it tells you in advance the types of things I will correct if I edit a research paper for you.

             The current version is only a start.  I expect to expand this article extensively in the coming weeks.

1) Follow journal guidelines

             This point cannot be emphasized enough.  If you are writing a scientific article, you should decide which journal you want to submit it to before you write the article.  Then, you should carefully follow the journal guidelines.  Why?  If you don't, the journal is likely to reject your paper and send you a note like this actual one I saw recently: "This paper is within the scope of [what our journal likes to publish]; however it has English language problems and does not meet journal's format requirements."  We will help to guide you through how to write good scientific English. For a research paper. 

2) Write concisely

             In the 1970s journals became more and more concerned about the use of space.  In my opinion, some have carried this concern to an extreme.  As one journal stated it, "saving a few words here and there in an article will often mean a full page can be saved."  The result is that authors should condense the language they use and and try to write concisely.  Look at the following examples and use them as ways to shorten the articles you write.  These examples come from actual edits.

Examples show the long and short versions:

    • red in color - red
    • in order to - to
    • in spite of - despite
    • intensity of light - light intensity
    • during the year of 2013 - in 2013
    • during the months of May to November - from May to November
    • utilized - used

4) Chinese (or Japanese) Fonts

            If you look at the font in a document and it says Simsun or MS Mincho you are looking at a Chinese or Japanese font, respectively. These fonts appear differently in print when compared to Times New Roman font or other typical English fonts. If you're writing a resume a research paper for publication you want to use only one font. Journals will be very quick to reject a research paper that is full of Simsun font punctuation or words.

            One major difference between Simsun fonts and other English fonts is the spacing used for punctuation. Chinese writers of English often assume that when they hit the period or comma key they are done. Chinese font punctuation included some extra space with the punctuation. As a result Chinese writers of English will often write like this:

           This paragraph has incorrect punctuation.The writer has left no space the end of a sentence.That is,they fail to use the space bar.Chinese teachers of English,students,and others often write like this.

           Alternatively,you may see writing that looks like this。 Or perhaps, if the Chinese writer describes cats、rats、mice、dogs、fleas、and people、 you may see something like this。 If you paste this into Microsoft Word and click the backwards P in the paragraph group under the home tab so that you can see spaces you'll find Chinese spaces are marked differently and use a different amount of space than English spaces and punctuation,it,it, might look like this (paste this into Microsoft Word and look at the difference。 They pay me the big bucks to fix things like this。

            My point? Eliminate Chinese fonts by highlighting a block of text and seeing if the font space goes blank in the home tab.

            P. S. if you computer is not set up to display Chinese fonts, you may only see question marks or squares for the above punctuation.  Open the control panels "regional settings and languages" option and added Chinese as an optional input language.  Now, when you hit "control - space bar" your input language will switch to Chinese (Chinese "simplified" for mainland China, "traditional" for Taiwan and others).  You'll have fun if you change your computer's default language to Chinese, like I did once just for fun!  I'd suggest NOT clicking the "Make this your default language" button unless you speak Chinese.  All your menus will switch from English to Chinese if you do that.


4) General Suggestions

             Unfortunately, I've not started to write this article yet!  But I do have a few general suggestions which will be useful to scientific writers of English as a non-native language.

            Here's a useful list of short suggestions for Chinese writers of English.  Or, as one book was nearly titled, "Everything you, as a Chinese writer of English, wanted to know but were afraid to ask."

1) And: Avoid starting sentences with "And" in formal writing.  It is considered an informal writing style.

2) Spacing: If you use double spaced lines, it is easier for me to edit.  Also, you should use an English font (Times New Roman) and not a Chinese font (Simsun).  Your journal probably lists this as a requirement.  A larger font is also preferred by editors.  Use used a 9 point font.  10-12 point is normal.

3) Writing style: My Chinese friends often neglect plural forms. In this case, you said "one of my friend" and it should be "one of my friends" because, hopefully, you have more than one friend.

4) Writing style: avoid using the word "that." It often has no real meaning.  Professional writers learn to delete it.

5) Writing style: British use, firstly, secondly, thirdly, etc.  American style, first, second, third, etc.  Americans never use firstly but may use secondly or thirdly.

6) Writing style: The phrase "In addition" is often used and is ok.  But for scientific writing, scientific journals try to shorter wording as much as possible.  "In addition" is replaced by "also."  Personally, I still like "in addition" but you have to think about who you are writing for!

7)  Writing style: I used to love to send a sentence with these two characters: ".  Why? The period ends the sentence!  Right?  Wrong!  End it this way: ."  That is, the period goes after the quotation mark.

8) Q words: Three easily confused words: quite, quit, quiet.

9) Plurals: again, remember you have more than one friend.  Say: one of my friends.  Do not say: one of my friend.

10) This is: Avoid starting a sentence with "There are" or "There is" or "This is" or "These are." It makes for boring writing.  I'll have more to say about "active voice" and "passive voice" later.

11) Please spell check anything you send to me before you send it.  Use your computer's spell check software.

12) Numbers: Most formal writing follows this rule.  Spell out the numerals 1, 2, 3, . . . 10 (or 12).  That is, spell one, two, three, etc., up to ten (or twelve).  This is good for business letters and formal scientific or other published articles.

13) Journals like to shorten text:  It saves them costs in publications.  Shorten these words: therefore, furthermore, in light of that.  Use short phrases like: so, and, also.  I've used these and other techniques (like removing the word "that" or removing passive voice) to shorten some documents by as much as 5%.

14) Indentation:  Use tabs to indent (not spaces or the document ruler).  Journals will require this!

15) next!