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Scientific Writing Style

Scientific Writing Style

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Scientific Writing Style

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  1. Scientific Writing Style …with thanks to Chris Power

  2. These slides • Please note that these are the slides that I used in my lecture on 15 November 2013, but supplemented with some additional examples.

  3. Purpose • Previous lecture • Why we write • Today • How to write • ‘scientifically’

  4. Scientific writing • Everything you say must be backed by evidence • From the literature • ‘Tactile maps (Figure 1) can be an effective tool to aid route learning for people with visual disabilities [1, 8]’ • From your results • ‘As shown in Figure 4, road crossings were rated as the most important landmarks.’

  5. There is no place for opinion • ‘It was surprising to see that…’ • That is, your results did not support your hypothesis. • Too bad – but whether you were surprised or not is irrelevant. • ‘Nevertheless, I believe that…’ • Who cares what you believe? What can you prove?

  6. Finding your scientific voice • It is not a highly personal narrative “I studied different sources in the library. I attended the class on…” • It does not have to be very convoluted, full of complex terms “If skin deformation is a critical factor for roughness perception (Taylor and Lederman, 1975), then it would seem reasonable to argue that roughness perception in virtual reality might be more similar to roughness perception in the physical world via a probe, than via a bare finger.” 46-word sentence - I have to draw breath, that is not a good sign

  7. Sentences building to paragraphs ‘Skin deformation may be a critical factor for roughness perception (Taylor and Lederman, 1975). Roughness perception in the physical world is usually undertaken with the bare fingers and thus involves skin deformation; sometimes it may be undertaken with a probe or other device, and no skin deformation is involved. Therefore it is reasonable to argue that roughness perception in virtual reality, which inevitably uses a probe, is more similar to roughness perception in the physical world via a probe than via a bare finger.’

  8. Readability • Original sentence: FleschEase of Reading Index 33.4 • Re-write: Flesch47.8 These reading indices are not very good, but can occasionally be a useful tool

  9. Keep it as plain and simple as you can • ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler’ • Albert Einstein

  10. Keep it as plain and simple as you can • Try to find a way of writing that is somewhere in the middle, that you are comfortable with • A certain amount of use of the first person is fine • Keep sentences short always (break the argument down into its logical parts for the reader to understand) • Keep words short and simple as possible - except for technical terms

  11. Jargon • Jargon is fine – as long as you are using it with people who understand it • Doctor to medical staff versus doctor to patient • ‘Acceptable’ long or jargon words in HCI • multimodality, augmented reality, avatar, cognition, keystroke, Wizard of Oz • …although some of those might need at least a footnote • See later

  12. Do not go all literary, darling • Do not feel that you are expected to write in some very literary style • Do not vary terms for interest (see defining terms later) • ‘Volunteers acted as evaluators. The participants…’ • Do not suddenly vary topic • Do not intentionally create suspense

  13. Do not be too informal, either • Contractions such as don’t, can’t and wasn’t have no place in a formal document • do not, cannot and was not • They are a way of documenting the way we speak • - and signalling informality

  14. Precision and rigor! A scientific style is usually as precise as possible • Avoid vague terms ‘the web users tended to…’ • Make sure you know the meaning of complex words you use ( e.g. sequencing attribute grammar) • Avoid colloquial/culturally specific expressions • ‘training wheels interfaces …’ • ‘nailed his colours to the mast’

  15. Think about your reader(s)! • You need to persuade your reader that this is an important document/project and lead them through the information • The story • Do not discuss a concept for three pages and then define it - reader needs a definition at the beginning of a discussion of the concept • Provide introductory/bridging sentences/phrases • ‘The next section will introduce concepts of web accessibility and usability in order to establish the criteria for evaluations of websites by users.’

  16. Define terms (and abbrevs) and stick to them! • Early in your paper, define any technical terms you need to, set up abbreviations and then stick to them • In the case of technical terms, if you vary them, the reader may think you mean something different ‘web user’, ‘evaluator’, ‘participant’, ‘tester’ are these all the same lot of people?

  17. Abbreviations and acronyms Spell out all abbreviations and acronyms the first time you use them • Even ‘common’ ones ‘A long standing controversy within human-computer interaction (HCI) is…’ ‘The navigation device relies on GPS (the Global Positioning System).’

  18. Abbreviations and acronyms • Specifying an abbreviation (abbrev) and then not using it is just irritating for the reader - last thing you want • Make a list of abbreviations as you go along, at the end check that you have introduced them on the first instance of their use • Do not use too many abbreviations - again, think of the mental load on the poor reader • ‘This paper discusses the role of the training wheels interface (which we will refer to as TWI) in word processors’

  19. If there is disagreement about terminology, key concepts? • Do discuss different researchers’ definitions, concepts if appropriate • But make it clear where you stand - you are now an expert! ‘According to Jones (2001), web accessibility is… However, Smith (2004) defined web accessibility as… In this thesis, I will follow Jones…’ Or: ‘In this thesis, I will define accessibility as…’ Conceptual analysis and definition of new terms may well be an important part of your contribution to the field

  20. Politically correct interlude • If writing about human beings, use non-sexist terminology • Not: ‘The web user was shown a scale on which to rate the usability of each site. He was asked to study this…’ • Easy way out - use the plural! • But: ‘Web users were shown a scale on which to rate the usability of each site. They were …’ • If writing about particular groups of humans, personalize them • Not: ‘The elderly cannot see colours with the accuracy…’ • But ‘Many elderly people cannot see colours…’

  21. Political correctness • Language is powerful • It is easy to cause offense • So, try to avoid it • but not at the expense of clarity • e.g. what is a ‘visually challenged person’?

  22. How do I start? See Thimbleby, H (2008) Write now!, (in) Cairns. P & Cox, A. (eds.) Research Methods for Human-Computer Interaction, Cambridge University press, pp.196-211

  23. Using other people’s words • This might be something about plagiarism, but let us think of this in another way

  24. Using other people’s words • If you literally use the words of other authors, it is not your own voice, and will lead inevitably to a very uneven style - a bit from one author, a bit from another, or worse, a bit from X, a bit from you, a bit from Y • One thing you are being assessed on is the ability to explain other people’s work in your words

  25. Quotations • So… keep quotations fairly rare and keep them brief • Save them for really key points

  26. When to quote • Where the original author’s words are critical • Definitions • ‘Accessibility refers to the degree to which an interactive product is accessible by as many people as possible’ (Rogers et al. 2011, p.17) • When the author is a particular authority • ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler’ Albert Einstein • Einstein has great authority – and knew a lot about complexity versus simplicity (E=mc2)

  27. Headings • Use them (they help the reader), make them informative • “Background research” - not very informative! • “Previous research on web accessibility and usability” • (Some readers like only the standard headings like ‘Introduction’, ‘Methodology’) • BUT Do not assume the reader has read them on the way through • may seem odd, but it is definitely true

  28. Headings So, do not follow a heading Research on Web accessibility and usability with This area of research received little attention until the late 1990s. Must be: Web accessibility and usability received little research attention…

  29. Figure and tables • They can help a reader enormously • It is OK to use a figure/table from a published source, if it is acknowledged • usually in the caption • Each figure/table should have a clear, stand-alone caption • Each figure/table must be referred to in the text • otherwise how will the reader know when to study it?

  30. Designing figures and tables • Make sure they are sufficiently rich in information (would it be simpler to give some words?) • but not too cluttered • Are axes, objects all clear? • Zobel has a good section on good and poor design • • Give figures/tables to a colleague and ask them what they mean

  31. Example figure Figure 5. Auditory cues ranked by importance

  32. Allow (as much time as possible) for checking, proofing • Use spell checks, but remember they are dumb, dumb, dumb • Read yourself • out loud if at all possible • Have someone else proof read if possible • Remember, you will not fail an assessment for the odd spelling mistake, but you want your report to look as professional as possible

  33. Readability • Small grammatical errors are not a problem • But if they are so bad that they obscure the meaning, then they are

  34. Sources of information • ZobelWriting for Computer Science • Strunk and White - Elements of Style • For the specifics of constructions etc (if you are not confident) - Fowler’s Modern English Usage • Mander K. (1994) Writing for Humans • Thimbleby, H (2008) Write now!, (in) Cairns. P & Cox, A. (eds.) Research Methods for Human-Computer Interaction, Cambridge University press, pp.196-211 • Read literature critically for style - re-read papers, chapters that you found easy to read