The Troublesome Jargons In Biology Papers You Could Easily Avoid

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Scientific communication is a core competency of scientific literacy, especially in biology, considering the various style guides that we need to follow, discipline-specific vocabulary, nomenclatures, and so on. Beyond a conceptual understanding, the language in life science research papers also requires thought. Of course, maintaining the formality of the language in a research manuscript is always a must. In practical immunology, there is no such thing as “give” when used in relation to dosage; we use “administer” to avoid an informal tone. However, this article will not be about using presumptuous terms such as “interesting to note” or “notably”––let the reader decide what is interesting––or technicalities when referring to recording measurements––never use “taken” or “made”––this is a list of the most common terms and expressions you are using wrong in your biology papers.

First things first, “data” is always a plural noun that agrees with a plural verb or pronoun, and it doesn’t have a size, so avoid “too little data” to discuss inadequate samples and use “too few data” in your research papers. Talking about data, there is always a temptation to make “significant” comparisons. In ecology research, we can say certain things with confidence (e.g., drought tends to increase wildfire risk), but can we really imply ecological significance without statistical significance? No, we can’t. When using “significant(ly),” it implies that you are talking statistically and warrants a statistical parameter, such as the (in)famous p-value; if you haven’t yet fallen in love with biostatistics, use alternatives such as “considerable/considerably” or “substantial(ly).” But if like me, you are into quantitative biology, you would never use “association” (the relationship between two variables) instead of “correlation” (the linear relationship between two variables) or vice versa in your research manuscript.

Word usage in scientific writing can make the difference between ambiguous statements and clarity and precision. A layperson (aka a non-biologist) may read the term “repressor” and think of restraint or even suppression. While in biochemistry we learn that this is a molecule (specifically, a protein) that binds to a particular region of DNA and prevents gene expression. Yet it is surprising that at times young researchers in the field of molecular biology still confuse “repressor” as the molecule itself and not the function of “repressing expression”—structure and function are different!

Mastering biological terms is not about translation or understanding the Latin or Greek roots of words. It is about the concept. In pharmacology research, “adverse events” occur when a medication is correctly administered but an unforeseen medical issue is observed, while “side effect” is a secondary milder effect that occurs because of drug therapy.

As the fluency of advanced language increases, so too does the number of lexical choice errors. There are nuances and subtleties of denotation and connotation––shades of meaning and of style––that are not as easy as it would be deciding whether to use “gazing” or “staring” to describe bird watching. Terminologies that may sound synonymous often have different meanings across subject areas1. Consider the following excerpt from a microbiology paper,

“The bacterial solution was adjusted to 1.0 McFarland turbidity standard2.”

Do you think “solution” is correct when talking about bacterial cells in your research paper? Going by its definition, a solution is made up of two components: a solvent and a solute. Microbial cells fit into neither of these terminologies as there’s no dissolution happening per se when a loopful of culture is inoculated in a tube-full of medium. The correct word choice to use in your research paper here should be “bacterial suspension.”

Good communication is essential in disseminating research within the scientific community. One such case is where the order of words will have social implications. Have you ever read a research paper where they keep referring to patients with a particular type of tumor as “cancer patients”? Because a cancer diagnosis is never good news, being referred to as such is a reminder of the health burden, hence the preferred descriptor is “people/person with cancer.” You can, therefore, refer to cancer treatment for a person, as opposed to defining the patient by the condition. This convention, known as “patient-first language,” is recommended by most high-impact journals. You should also use “patient” or “individual” or “study participant” (or even “volunteer,” if they were controls) to lend a humanized tone to your research paper.

On the technical side (and perhaps not the most interesting one), compound adjectives are formed by two words that jointly describe a noun, indicating a single unit. “A small-grain harvest” indicates a harvest of small grain and not a small harvest of grain.

On another yet important note, most life science journals encourage inclusive language in your research paper acknowledging diversity, promoting equal opportunities, conveying respect to all people, and sensitive to differences. Another not so obvious but common pitfall encountered is when coding “race” and “ethnicity” in your research. Ethnicity is a broad concept that includes race such as Austrian or Chinese–American as well as cultural variables such as country of origin, customs, and preferred language. Race refers to a class, such as Caucasian or African–American, defined by biological differences such as white or black skin3.

Having worked at a Center of Excellence for invasion biology, the next example is very close to my heart. Species have been moving around the globe for centuries. In fact, biological invasions were first recognized by Darwin, yet in botany and zoology research, the concepts of indigenous and endemic often fall into a gray area. Indigenous species can be found in a specific location and surrounding areas. Whereas endemic species are native species confined to a certain area because they are highly adapted to a particular niche––lions love the African plains and desert sands, but the Kalahari lions will never adapt to the icy conditions of Alaska! As an editor, I strive to find more opportunities to help you have your research papers ready for submission. Write frankly and directly, as honesty is the key in all walks of life, including your career. The Editage team offers a wide range of English Editing and Publication Support Services that help you identify these common pitfalls and move your research manuscript closer to publication.

References

[1] Majumder, K. 6 Types of word choice errors in scientific writing, Editage Insights https://www.editage.com/insights/6-types-of-word-choice-errors-in-scientific-writing (2022).

[2] Preparation of McFarland turbidity standards, Microbe Online https://microbeonline.com/preparation-mcfarland-turbidity-standards/#:~:text=McFarland%20turbidity%20standards%20are%20prepared,units%20(CFU%2Fml) (2022).

[3] van den Berghe, P.L. Race and ethnicity: a sociobiological perspective. Ethn. Racial Stud. 1, 401-411 (1978).

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