08 July 2016

“Proper” technical writing?

I’ve been struggling with a frustrating manuscript revision this week.

First, the manuscript was turned back to me because of formatting. I think this was the first time that a journal didn’t send the article out for review just because I hadn’t followed their style guide. In fairness, I had not followed their style guide closely enough, but it wasn’t fixing the reference format that frustrated me.

What frustrated me was that I had submitted the paper months ago, and had been waiting for something to happen. The journal had sent it back for reformatting a couple of days after I submitted it.... but never sent me an email notification about it. I only found out because I logged into the manuscript handling system just before I was about to email the editor saying, “Hey, what’s going on?” I had wasted months waiting for a decision because of that lack of notification.

After I found this out, I talked to one of my colleagues who’d had a similar experience. A paper she’s submitted sat in the editorial system, with no notifying email, because the recommendation was not “Accept,” or “Reject,” but, “We think this paper would be more appropriate to our sister journal.”

The moral of that part of the story is to log in to the manuscript submission system after a week or so to check on your paper.

I made the changes and resubmitted it. It came back again fairly quickly – and I did get an email telling me about it this time – with another style request.

Please eliminate pronouns like ‘we’, ‘I’, ‘our study’, and ‘my study’ throughout your text. Proper technical writing should not use such phrases.

I had a Return of the Jedi flashback:

Han Solo: “Well, why don’t you use your divine influence and get us out of here?”
C-3P0: “I’m sorry, that just wouldn’t be proper.”
Han: “Proper?!”

First, that little detail about not using the first person is nowhere in the journal’s rather extensive style guide. I would have avoided it if you’d told me not to do that.

Second, the comment that using first person is not “proper technical writing” is annoying. Look, I’ll try to follow your journal’s style. But don’t tell me that using first person in a scientific paper isn’t “proper.” There’s no Académie française for scientific writing that determines what is and is not acceptable. There are just common community practices. There’s been articles (in higher ranked journals than yours, by the way) arguing that we should write like we speak. For instance, Gregory (1992) wrote:

With no guidance, scientists copy what they see, and we see thing like this: “The author is of the opinion that it is appropriate to write papers in the third person.” This is ridiculous. I am the author, not a third person.

The insistence that “data” must always be always a plural noun is another example of a stylistic preference that is confused with some sort of “proper” use. I used to believe this, but argument, analysis, and common use has softened my position. The example that convinced me was that we say, “Eight hours is too long to wait.” There’s a plural noun followed by a singular verb, and nobody bats an eyelash.

There is no ultimate authority of what “proper” technical writing is that someone can appeal to. I realize that people disagree about writing style. That’s fine. But asserting that something is wrong or improper is annoying when you can find examples of that style in many journals, and there is no ultimate authority to appeal to.

Update, 13 July 2016: People on Twitter (mostly) agree: first person is technical writing is not a horrible thing to be avoided at all costs.


Gregory MW. 1992. The infectiousness of pompous prose. Nature 360: 11-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/360011a0

External links

The data is in, Pt. 2


Mike Taylor said...

Oh, please, please! Either send your ms. straight back to them saying "I shall do no such thing"; or just withdraw the submission from this stupid journal and sent it to a sane one instead.

Karen Shashok said...

Agree. This journal does not deserve your time, your respect or your science.

Recent developments in journal editing were discussed at the European Association of Science Editors conference in Strasbourg in June. http://www.ease.org.uk/ease-events/13th-ease-conference-strasbourg-france/

Many talks focused on practices and competencies of researchers (as authors), journal editors (as gatekeepers), copyeditors and authors' editors (as actors who contribute to the quality of what gets published).

David Moher, in a talk titled "How guidelines can help reduce waste in research" about scientific journal editor core competencies, noted:

"Unlike airline pilots and many other professional groups, however, many medical editors operate their journals largely untrained and certainly uncertified.
This is not the optimal way to instil confidence in readers, provide value for money to funders, or ensure the public can trust the research record."