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Top 10 Basic Errors BioScience Writers
Corrects in Scientific Manuscripts

Release Date: December 28, 2012
Category: Scientific Writing

Although every manuscript has unique questions and findings, and our editors seek specific opportunities for improvement, we often encounter common issues in research manuscripts related to all fields. We identified the following 10 common errors we find when editing scientific manuscripts. We hope this list will help you polish your next manuscript!

  1. Typographical and spelling errors: always proofread your final paper and use your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checking function to catch as many typos as possible. Sometimes it is helpful to have a colleague proofread your paper just to find typing and spelling mistakes.
  2. Undefined abbreviations: unless an abbreviation is on your target journal’s list of standard abbreviations that do not require definition, include the definition of each abbreviation at first use in both the Abstract and the main text. Place the abbreviation in parentheses after the expanded term, then use the abbreviation exclusively throughout the rest of the manuscript. For example:

    • “MEF cells were maintained in Dulbecco’s modified Eagle’s medium (DMEM) supplemented with 10% fetal bovine serum (FBS) and 1% penicillin/streptomycin. U2OS cells were maintained in RPMI 1640 media with 10% FBS and 1% penicillin/streptomycin.”
  3. Improperly formatted abstracts: your abstract should conform to your target journal’s requirements as specified in the author instructions found on the journal’s website. Requirements for abstracts vary from journal to journal, but some common specifications include the following:

    • Structured abstracts with specified subheadings vs. unstructured abstracts
    • Abstract-only word limits, which may differ by hundreds of words among journals
    • Allowing or prohibiting abbreviations in the abstract
  4. Missing reference citations: if you describe a previous study, make sure to cite the appropriate reference for the study. If you describe more than one study (for example, by writing “Previous studies…”), make sure that you include the reference citations for all of the studies to which you are referring. Readers may be confused if you indicate that you are describing more than one study, but only cite a single reference.
  5. Using contractions: use complete phrases instead of contractions in scientific writing. For example:

    • “cannot” instead of “can’t”
    • “do not” instead of “don’t”
    • “will not” instead of “won’t”
  6. Incorrect verb tense: write each part of your scientific manuscript in the correct tense.

    • Introduction: combination of past and present tenses. Use present tense to describe what is currently known, including previously published findings now accepted as fact, and in hypotheses statements. Use past tense to describe the purpose for and approach taken in your current research. The following example sentence uses both verb tenses: “To determine whether drug A inhibits cancer cell proliferation, we treated several cancer cell lines with various concentrations of drug A.”
    • Materials and Methods: past tense (this is what you did).
    • Results: past tense (this is what you found).
    • Discussion/Conclusion: combination of past and present tenses. Use present tense when discussing published findings and in statements about what your results mean, but continue to use past tense when referring to the results of your study. The following example sentence uses both verb tenses: “We found that drug A effectively inhibited cancer cell proliferation, indicating that drug A is a promising candidate for use in future cancer treatment strategies.”
  7. Comparisons of unlike things: avoid comparing a result to a condition; instead, compare results at one condition to results at another condition. For example:

    • Incorrect: “The pattern of Chk1 staining was similar to our present study.” (directly compares staining to study)
    • Correct: “The pattern of Chk1 staining was similar to that observed in our present study.” (directly compares staining in one study to staining in another study)
  8. Inconsistent formatting: use the same unit abbreviations, heading and subheading capitalization, font and font size, paragraph spacing, and other formatting conventions consistently throughout your document.
  9. Missing or out-of-order figure and table citations: all figures and tables should be cited in the main text in numeric order. For example, Figure 1 must be cited in the text before Figure 2; Figures 1 and 2 must be cited before Figure 3, and so on.
  10. Un-italicized gene names: to clearly indicate whether you are referring to a gene or protein, use italicized text for gene names and plain text for protein names. For example:

    • SHH, Shh, shh (genes)
    • SHH, Shh, shh (proteins)

More Resources for Avoiding Basic Scientific Writing Errors

  • Indiana University Writing Tutorial Services. Proofreading for common surface errors.
    http://www.indiana.edu/~wts/pamphlets/proofing_grammar.shtml (accessed 27 Dec 2012).
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). General Writing Resources (Mechanics, Grammar, and Punctuation subsections).
    http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/ (accessed 27 Dec 2012).
  • University of Toronto University College Writing Centre. Writing in the sciences.
    http://www.utoronto.ca/ucwriting/science.html (accessed 27 Dec 2012).

Scientific Writing Workshops

If you are interested in improving your scientific communication skills, try our workshops! Our articles are based on the material from our scientific writing workshops, which cover these and many other topics more thoroughly, with more examples and discussion.

We offer on-site workshops for your event or organization, and also host workshops that individual participants can attend. Our on-site scientific writing workshops can range from 1-2 hours to several days in length. We can tailor the length to suit your needs, and we can deliver a writing workshop as a stand-alone activity or as part of scheduled meetings.

Our scientific writing workshops consistently receive high praise from participants including graduate students, post-docs, and faculty in diverse fields. Please see our scientific writing workshop page for details.

If you found this article helpful or if there is a topic you want us to address in a future article, please use our online comment submission form, or contact us directly. Your comments and suggestions are valuable! Click here to return to our scientific editing article library.