5 Grammar Mistakes Scientists Often Make in Publications

Sharing your work by way of publication is a key step in the research process. By being aware of some of the most common areas that cause scientists to lose readers, you can make your writing stronger, and you will find the process of publishing and sharing your research easier.

Five common mistakes that researchers often make in publications, grant proposals, and written presentations include: using the right verb tense, choosing the singular or plural form of the verb, ensuring a clear subject and verb in each sentence, choosing the right word, and correctly hyphenating phrases. Each are listed below with explanations and examples.

1. Verb tense shifts (past/present)

Use past tense to show what happened in an experiment or in a specific observation. Use present tense to show something that is known or ongoing (such as a mechanism). Then, be consistent with your usage throughout your document to prevent confusion.

Past Example:

Of the 500 subjects who were originally in the study, 385 were observed in a follow-up study.

Present Examples:

Childhood obesity is known to be one risk factor for adult obesity.

The mechanism for detecting pathogens is a complex immune system process.

2. Plural and singular verbs

Use a dictionary if necessary to determine if the word is a singular or plural form.  For example, “data,” which is a common word in scientific publications, is a plural word and therefore always takes the corresponding verb form.

Correct: The data show that rates of obesity have increased.

Incorrect: The data shows that rates of obesity have increased.

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3. Clear subject and verb

Subjects and verbs are the building blocks of writing. Be sure all sentences or independent clauses include the correct subject and verb.

Incorrect: The children’s parents completed questionnaires and were weighed weekly.

The above sentence implies that the children’s parents were weighed, but actually the children were the ones who were weighed.  Even though the sentence is technically grammatically correct, it does not convey the correct information because the subject is missing from the second clause.

Correct: The children’s parents completed questionnaires, and the children were weighed weekly.

4. Use the correct word

Writers often inadvertently use the wrong word, and this is something that spell-checking software or online grammar checkers do not pick up.

Some common misused words include:

There, their, they’re

There is a place, their is a possessive pronoun, and they’re is a contraction of they are . Be sure to check all locations where you have one of these words to make sure that you use the correct one to avoid confusion.

effect vs. affect

Usually, effect is a noun and affect is a verb. However, in scientific writing, “effect” is sometimes used as a verb to mean “to bring about change,” as in the following example:

The schools effected a change in behavior by scheduling more recess time.

5. Take care with hyphens

Noun-verb phrases that are used as adjectives should always be hyphenated.

Example: The rates of smoking-related deaths have decreased over time.

Adverb-verb phrases should not be hyphenated. Adverbs often end with “ly.”

Example: an easily established cause of death

Now that you are aware of the abovementioned mistakes, identify which ones you struggle with, and as you review your scientific article, focus on them before submitting your paper for publication. The reviewers and the editor will then spend their time focusing on your results rather than the English grammar in your manuscript. And, soon, writing clearly and accurately will be nearly second nature to you!

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About the Author:

Alyssa Colton Picture Dr. Alyssa Colton has a Ph.D. in English from the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY). She has taught and worked with students of all levels and backgrounds on writing skills for 20 years. She is a freelance writer and editor specializing in science, health, productivity and career development.

Topics : Grammar
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