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Scientific language has been criticized for being complicated, dry, explanatory, impersonal, formal, abstract and qualified. It is said that in scientific texts, matters speak for the authors, while the authors hide behind quotations. It is therefore a fact that scientific language affects our view of science and what is scientific. It modifies our ideas of scientists, their attitudes and their mutual relationships. However, the 'science' in a text is not in the abundance of qualifiers, definitions or abstractions, but in the logic of the methods and scientific work and the meanings which the scientific language constructs in the texts.
Language constructs meanings
1. The ideational meanings related to the contents express the contents of the text and signify, among other things, which scientific discipline the text belongs to. The meanings become evident e.g. in the vocabulary and the terms used in the text.
2. Interpersonal meanings related to authorial positions and attitudes show how certain or uncertain the author finds the arguments in his/her text, and how s/he wishes to draw attention to himself in the text.
3. Textual meanings and methods show what issues the author wants to give special emphasis in the text, and what sort of relations there are between the issues presented there.
The human side of the academia
The (unwritten) norms of courtesy of the scientific writing tradition include:
• Do not belittle others' work without justification.
• Do not glorify your own work without justification.
• Do not underrestimate your readers. (e.g. oversimplification)
• Do not present other people's findings as your own. (Plagiarism)
• Refer to and quote other people's studies. (Know your field!)
In academic communication, there is an inherent threat of losing face. The scientific community defines what science and information are, and the members of the community must assist in formulating these definitions. When writing a text, you must comment upon other people's studies and prepare for possible criticism. It is good to promote and market your own work and thinking, but this must be done without stepping on other people's toes and without appearing to make insubstantial claims.
Scientific texts typically contain different ways of mitigating the certainty of arguments presented, as well as subtle differences in the level of commitment. It must be kept in mind that scientific interpretations are not necessarily permanent, and even the author himself/herself can later change his mind about his own research. If the work has been done carefully and reported honestly, the findings themselves will not change. However, the interpretation of the results is linked to the current theories in the field in question and might be liable to change in time. A writer of a scientific article always makes himself vulnerable to criticism, but mitigation leaves him escape routes (might be, it would seem that, evidently, probably, maybe). In other words, it is not appropriate to present your results as the final word. Usually it is customary to present your own results, which are just now being evaluated, in a mitigated manner, especially if they are not in line with the results of previous studies conducted in the field. The results of other studies that already have withstood criticism are presented as more certain. It must be noted that facts presented with the help of tables and statistics are usually stated without mitigation.
The functions of referring to previous studies:
• To show your familiarity with previous studies.
• Courtesy towards other researchers.
• To show that the research follows the community principle and the copyright principles approved by the community.
• The bibliography can show which school or discipline the author belongs to and which researchers s/he particularly admires.
Scientific ideals in scientific texts
Scientific ideals in scientific texts include
Communality: the author constructs his/her presentation and thinking upon previous theories or in opposition to them and proportions his/her own results and observations to previous research results. In other words, scientific texts are intertextual - they refer to other texts. Different referencing methods include:
• summarizing: what we know, where we can start from, what is familiar and tested and what is new and unexplored.
• positioning one's own work among the abundance of available information and linking one's own studies to the larger scientific frame of reference of the scientific community.
• argumentative tasks: the author can use references to construct and support his/her own claims, make use of already-established information or show that his or her own point of view is different than that of other studies.
• sources must always be named.
Critical attitude and organized scepticism: the author must justify all his/her claims, observations and results, and these must be compared with previous information and either agree or disagree with it.
Ideal of objectivity and focusing on the matter at hand: the researcher should report his/her findings by observing them at a distance and by detaching himself from the work, and by writing down his objective, verifiable and measurable factual observations. This is evident in the use of the passive voice and paraphrasing. However, objectivity does not mean that referring to your should always be avoided mechanically. What ir important are fairness, openness, justifying your solutions and being frank about your own starting points.
So, what is scientific language like? What should it be like?
Writing is collaboration with the reader!
The goals of scientific writing are:
• legibility, understandability and memorability
• clarity, which is realized by functional and careful structuring of the text, using coherent sentence structures, unambiguous expressions, appropriate choices of words and exact concepts.
• freshness, durability
• sparking interest
• dialogue with the reader
Efficient scientific style is clear and simple, accurate and persuasive. Complicated, unclear expressions that are evidence of incomplete or indifferent thinking, unnecessarily abstract expression and playing with words equal betraying the reader's trust. It is said that unclear thinking begets unclear writing.
The basis of scientific language is good standard language and prose style. The text must not therefore contain linguistic errors, careless mistakes or stylistic deviation. Standard language refers to the national everydaylanguage, i.e. the common language of the entire linguistic community. It follows the norms of literary prose and does not contain expert terminology.
Good prose style is clear in the sense that thinking is straight and expressions simple. Sentences are legible and words are chosen carefully. Prose style text is illustrative. It engages the reader by using examples, parallels and opposites and by raising questions. In good prose style, the expressions are concise. It is grammatically flawless and the expressions are linguistically correct in every respect.
Scientific style appeals to intelligence, analysis and special knowledge. The text presents, analyses and makes arguments concerning the analyzed phenomenon from different sides. The researcher takes time to examine the subject and makes generalizations. The static, abstract and objective nature of the scientific point of view is reflected in the choices of words and the sentence structures. The text uses special terminology, i.e. terms typical to the field.
However, scientific texts strive to be easy to read and understand. The subject matter, structure and language are consistent, different parts are well linked and the sentences clear and easy to understand. Word choices can make the sentences clearer. Choosing as accurate expressions as possible makes the text uncomplicated. Accuracy and simplicity can be improved by avoiding unnecessary words, fashionable expressions and clichés, which are not wrong as such, but which are evidence of the simplification of language.
The terminology used in scientific texts should be as accurate as possible. Good terms are simple in structure, unambiguous and easy to use. A good term corresponds exactly with the concept it is meant to denote. Terms must not be too familiar-sounding, because familiarity makes them less unambiguous. Using widely and uniformly approved terms, and using them with consideration, makes the expressions more economical.
The research report is the researcher's interpretation of specific data and sources. Therefore the researcher is expected to be objective in terms of methodology and language alike. Methodological objectivity enables other researchers to repeat the study from the same premises. Linguistic objectivity refers to a detached attitude towards the matters at hand. The text is dispassionate, well-balanced, stylistically uniform and impersonal. The reader's attention should not be on the language, but the topic. Scientific texts should only contain neutral words; colloquial, loaded or old-fashioned words are not permitted. This enables undisturbed, neutral interpretation.
A text is interesting if
• it flows smoothly and is easy to read
• it has something to say (often formally fluent, seemingly smart text can be empty in terms of content) and
• it contains inventive expressions.
A text is skillfully written when
• it shows that the recipient has been taken into consideration
• it has illustrative details, which have been used efficiently
• it has rhythm and it shows that the author has mastered structural and formal issues
• it shows that the author has mastered correct grammar and spelling as well.
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