Writing for the Sciences: ‘Allow as Much Time as Possible'

Date: February 20, 2014

Summary: Dr. Irina Smirnova is the director of the Ph.D. in Rehabilitation Science program at The University of Kansas Medical Center. In this interview, she focusses on some key aspects of scientific writing.

Interviewer: Andrés Rodríguez, Graduate Writing Specialist, The Writing Center at KUMCDr. Smirnova

Dr. Smirnova is a principal investigator in the Diabetes Research Lab focusing on the diabetic heart disease. She is working on cellular and molecular adaptations of the heart to conditions of diabetes. She teaches in three academic programs within Rehabilitation Science, including pathophysiology and pathobiology. Smirnova has won grants in several areas such as drug replacement therapy for the diabetic heart and strategies for nanoparticles and magnetic resonance imaging for type 1 diabetes. She has also authored and co-authored many scholarly articles in her fields.

Irina Smirnova is a powerhouse of ideas and activity whose passion for learning is unmistakable. A dedicated teacher and writer, she leads students by example. Last semester Dr. Smirnova invited the Writing Center to her pathobiology class because she believes in writing assistance not as occasional remediation but rather as ongoing learning. Recently, we asked her a few questions about her vision of writing for the sciences.

What quality do you consider most important in graduate student writing in your field?
Knowledge of and accuracy in presenting facts; clear writing; exactness in using terms; proper referencing.

What are some common misconceptions about scientific writing?
That it is similar to any type of writing-magazine articles, internet stories.... Scientific writing language is, most of the time, dryer. Some students tend to "beautify" the language in the scientific writing. For instance, they would use synonyms to avoid repeating the same term (which may be the most exact term for that case), and this would often change the meaning of what they are trying to say.

What are your pet-peeves when you read student writing?
Sloppy presentation; lack of attention to details; inconsistency in text formatting (different font, font size and spacing, several different abbreviations for the same term etc.), to name a few . . . and I am not even talking about the content here.

What mistakes (large or small) do you often encounter in student writing?
Using "flowery" sentences; trying to construct very complex and long sentences, probably, mistakenly thinking that the "complex" writing would look sophisticated and attest to a "higher level" thinking or research.

What general advice do you have for graduate students who want to write successfully in science courses?
Become familiar with the topic. Allow as much time for the writing as possible. Always have time to proofread your writing. You will be amazed what you will find and what you could correct yourself. Finally, plagiarism is a no-no under ANY circumstances.

Related Resources

Alan G. Gross, Joseph E. Harmon, Michael S. Reidy. Communicating Science: The Scientific Article from the 17th Century to the Present. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2009. (Rhetoric of Science and Technology Series)

John M. Swales and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills. 3rd ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.

Last modified: Sep 19, 2014