STEM and Medical Writing: Clarity is Much More Important than Perfect Grammar

<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelscottlong/"><strong>Michael Scott Long</strong></a>
Michael Scott Long

STEM Writer and Editor, Washington, United States, Email: mslong79@gmail.com

I. STEM researchers often choose a useless editing service

Many STEM and medical writers’ first language is not English. This is a problem for many researchers, given that English is the standard language of nearly all widely circulated STEM and medical manuscripts.

Consequently, many researchers pay an editing company to improve the grammar of their manuscripts prior to submission to a journal. Cactus/Editage and Enago/Crimson are two popular editing companies; they are cheap and fast.

Unfortunately, these two companies are generally a waste of researchers’ money. Why? Although Cactus and Enago editors will probably mostly fix your manuscript’s grammar on a sentence level, this will not improve the chances that your manuscript will be accepted.

II. What STEM researchers need in an editing service

What researchers often need far more than a basic grammar edit is an edit for clarity. As long as academic researchers understand your writing and you clearly convey your message, perfect grammar is unnecessary.

A. Example of common STEM writing: In need of editing

To help illustrate this point, the following is a hypothetical science writing sample:

Millions are sickened and dead from COVID-19. Conquering the virus has befuddled scholars globally. Vaccine is months or maybe years in the future. Our lab uses machine learnings to spot likely targets of protein inhibitors for a long time. Therapy drugs are urgent. We hereby identify 25 targets according to hydrostatics, polar, etc. 6 are developed and tested to name not toxic covalent binders.

One can largely understand the overall message, but the writing is a bit confusing to read and interpret. Your writing should be completely clear prior to submission to a journal. A basic grammar edit, in itself, will not improve the clarity.

B.Example of a basic grammar edit: Not valuable

To help illustrate this point, the following is a grammar edit only — no edit for clarity. The sentence-level grammar is correct, but the writing is still not clear.

Millions have been sickened and killed by COVID-19. Conquering the virus has befuddled scholars globally. A vaccine is months or maybe years in the future. Our lab has used machine learning to spot likely targets of protein inhibitors for a long time. Therapy drugs are urgent. We hereby identify 25 targets in accordance with hydrostatics, polar, etc. We developed and tested 6 to identify nontoxic covalent binders.

These are my questions on the aforementioned grammar-level edit:

  1. As of this writing, millions have been sickened, but not quite a million killed.
  2. The sentence, “Conquering the virus…” is unnecessary and a distraction.
  3. Did you target the proteins themselves, or the inhibitors?
  4. “Polarity” is the correct term here; a “quick” edit often misses such errors.
  5. Did you identify 25 proteins, or 25 drugs?
  6. Did you identify six nontoxic covalent binders, or test six drugs to evaluate toxicity and covalent binding?

I have identified six clarity issues just within the first few sentences. Issues 3, 5, and 6 are major issues that —collectively — will very likely get your manuscript rejected. The writing needs a clarity edit far more than a grammar edit.

C.Example of a clarity edit: What STEM researchers need

To help illustrate this point, the following is a clarity edit only — no large-scale grammar edits.

Millions have been sickened or killed by COVID-19. Therapeutic drugs are urgent because a  vaccine is months or maybe years in the future. Our lab has long used machine learning to spot drugs that inhibit protein inhibitors. We hereby identify 25 COVID-19 drugs according to hydrostatics, polarity, etc. 6 of these drugs are nontoxic covalent binders.

Although the grammar is not perfect and I could further tighten the writing, the message is clear; I have fixed the aforementioned six issues. This writing is suitable for submission to most journals.

III. Checklist for STEM editing services

What should STEM researchers prioritize in an edit? I recommend an edit for clarity, commonly called a “developmental” or “substantive” edit. Expect all of the following:

  • Logical flow, from the sentence level to the entire document
  • Consolidated or expanded text, as appropriate — or specific recommendations to do so
  • Enhanced manuscript impact; e.g., a clear statement in the abstract as to why your research is important
  • Any necessary corrections to the science; e.g., converting rpm to g
  • Specific notes of where you need additional citations, if any
  • Especially in e.g., medical, genetics, and computational fields, a check that your results will be clearly parsed by text mining software

You should not expect an editor to give you a thorough peer review or to check your references. Specialist editors can do this, but because you are an expert in your field, you are usually a better judge than a STEM editor who does not specialize in your specific topic.

A thorough edit for grammar is still useful, but it is often a low priority, especially if your resources are limited. I recommend saving the expense of a grammar edit unless you are submitting to an especially high-impact journal that may be particularly demanding on this issue.

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2 thoughts on “STEM and Medical Writing: Clarity is Much More Important than Perfect Grammar”

  1. What a wonderful read!
    Thank you Michael for writing this brilliant piece with an appropriate example.
    Good job Scienceblurb. Looking forward to many more such articles.

    Reply

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