March 1995 — Volume 1, Number 3
A Computer-Mediated Scientific Writing Program
Center for Biological Research
La Paz, Mexico
AbstractBiologists at the Center for Biological Research found ways to improve their scientific writing without the benefit of an English language program. By tapping Internet biology forums for comprehensible input, and using a computer-assisted retention strategy to profit from error correction, writing has begun to improve. Scientific dialogue on the Internet has helped this group realize that by writing more concise sentences, they could reduce the number of errors in their scientific papers without conceding academic authority.
IntroductionEnglish is the lingua franca of the scientific community today (I.S.I., 1995); with few exceptions, a biologist must write correctly in English to publish internationally. This contemporary reality forced the Centro de Investigaciones Biolo’gicas (CIB) in La Paz, Mexico, to look for ways to improve the English writing of its biologists, thereby empowering them in the competitive environment of scientific publishing.
The CIB supports 125 researchers and graduate students in aquaculture, ecology, marine biology, biotechnology, and marine pathology. For financial, logistical, and political reasons, there is no English language program at the CIB, yet English is critical to the Mexican scientist. When hired, a researcher is given a salary which is enough to live on, but only by publishing internationally, i.e., in English, will the salary double with the addition of “merit pay” provided by the National System of Researchers. Not only is there incentive on the part of scientists to publish in English, but the center is also funded according to its scientific production, as measured by articles published in international journals.
Despite the lack of a conventional EFL program, the CIB has access to vast amounts of scientific reading in English. The library can access most scientific journals through the DIALOG bibliographic service. Scientific abstracts are supplied through the Cambridge CD-ROM database service. Every researcher also has access to a computer with full Internet connection. [-1-]
My responsibility was to edit the manuscripts of CIB biologists to improve their chances of being published. It didn’t take long before I realized that writers were repeating the same errors frequently in subsequent papers, regardless of my corrections.
Comprehensible InputI began by looking at their reading. Since the biologists were constantly reading scientific articles in English, I hoped to see some positive effect on their writing as well. To establish a relationship between their reading and their writing, I asked the group to evaluate themselves (on a scale of 1-5) on their comprehension of each section of a scientific paper (Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, and Discussion). I rank-ordered from easiest to most difficult (based on my own experience with scientific text):
- Materials and Methods
- Discussion (or Results and discussion)
Not surprisingly, their ability to comprehend these sections corresponded with their ability to write them. The Materials and Methods section was the clearly the easiest section for both reading and writing. The discussion section was the least understood, suggesting it was probably written in a style that was above their linguistic competence.
The question then became: “How can we offer scientific discussion that is more comprehensible than that which is generally found in published scientific papers”? Our solution was to provide access to the scientific forums on the Internet where the discussion appeared to be written in a more comprehensible style. This was later confirmed by questionnaire which indicated that researchers clearly understood the scientific dialogue on network forums in biology.
In EST programs for non-native speakers of English, it is important to distinguish between scientific communication (that found in scientific journals) and scientific dialogue (such as that found in forums on the Internet). If we expect the writing of EFL scientists to improve as a result of comprehensible input, that input should indeed, be comprehensible. For this target group, much of what they were reading in journals appeared to be having little impact on their writing, possibly because it was far above their ability to comprehend.
To access scientific dialogue, we began by having the scientists subscribe to relevant Biological forums via e-mail. However, this proved to be frustrating to some researchers. On some [-2-] BioNet forums, a week could pass without a single message; others forums produced a flood of e-mail, but only a small percentage of it was relevant to their research.
Netnews was found to be a more satisfactory medium for a number of reasons:
- Newsreader software makes it easier to follow a thread (one or more postings with the same subject).
- News software recovers messages automatically after network interruptions, whereas subscribers can automatically be removed from e-mail lists during server/network malfunctions. This factor is particularly important in developing countries where network connections are often undependable.
- Messages are stored on a local server for a long period, (depending on the system policy and disk resources), making it easier to search through past postings. The CIB keeps BioNet messages for several months before they scroll off.
- News software organizes messages by topic and subtopic for easy browsing. In contrast, e-mail forums arrive in chronological order of posting and are mixed in with other forums and personal messages.
The software we use (TIN) was easy to learn and made it possible to search past messages for content and keywords.
This aspect of “searchability” was important to CIB scientists. They had specific interests they wanted to read about, and often complained of having to read through irrelevant material when they were subscribed to e-mail forums. Unfortunately, not all biology forums are echoed on NetNews, so some e-mail subscriptions were still necessary (aquaculture and site specific ecology groups). Presently, 77 BioNet forums are carried both as e-mail distribution lists and as Usenet newsgroups. Information about Bionet is available by sending an e-mail request for the FAQ to firstname.lastname@example.org or by anonymous FTP from net.bio.net [22.214.171.124] in pub/BIOSCI/doc/biosci.FAQ.
Error CorrectionMy second approach to improving scientific writing centered around error correction. Since I was already editing their papers, it seemed logical to capitalize on this effort by providing some way for writers to learn from their errors. My goal was to see the fruits of correction reflected in subsequent papers and to minimize [-3-] their dependence on my editing. My solution was to show writers how to use a “digital learning log”. Learning logs aren’t new to language teaching (Beni’tez, 1990), but using a computer to generate them is (hence the word digital’). Since all CIB biologists use word-processing software (mostly WordPerfect) for writing, I facilitated the creation of a learning log by developing a macro (an automated computer routine) to copy text from the original document to the learning log.
A digital learning log is a separate document generated by the word processing software. It contains the writer’s most common errors and corrections. The following desribes how we use it at the CIB:
- Writers submit their manuscripts for correction (paper copy).
- During editing, I mark the errors and indicate with a highlighter those errors which are important enough to be in their learning log, providing just enough context (I found that too much context makes the log become unwieldy.) The paper is returned to the writer.
- During revision, the writer comes to the first highlighted error, highlights it using the word-processing program, then invokes the macro with one keystroke. This macro instantly copies the error to the log and returns the writer to the paper. This copy/paste takes a fraction of a second.
- The writer then corrects the error in the manuscript according to my comments, and moves on to the next error. (During the revision process, the writer is hardly aware that a learning log is being used, since errors are quickly copied to another document which is not visible on the writer’s screen.)
- This sequence continues: a) highlight & copy the error to the log b) correct the error in the paper.
- After the manuscript is corrected and saved, the writer now turns to the learning log and corrects the errors from memory, rewriting the correct phrase directly below the error.
- The writer then verifies the correctness of the log by comparing it to the original manuscript, which has been previously corrected. [-4-]
- The log can be organized according to the writer’s own strategy. Comments and notes can be added, personalizing the log. Finally, the learning log is saved and printed.
This entire process, by itself, had little effect on the number of writing errors. However, when writers reviewed the log immediately prior to writing a new paper, the number of errors in their papers dropped significantly. Thus, by reviewing their most common errors prior to writing, they were reminded of their linguistic pitfalls and stimulated to take corrective measures while they were putting thought to paper. It seems in this case that anticipation of an error is an important part of correcting it before it appears in print.
CIB researchers found the learning log to be an enjoyable, self-paced activity. Several researchers commented that before using the learning log, they never felt they were actually learning from correction. Instructions for creating and using the learning log macro are available by sending the command GET LEARN LOG EST-L to LISTSERV@ASUVM.INRE.ASU.EDU (host of EST-L, Teachers of English for Science and Technology).
We also experimented briefly with grammar checkers. Pennington (1993) makes a strong case against using grammar checkers for ESL students. Our experience was also negative. Researchers felt deceived when this software flagged correct scientific constructions. The learning log proved to be far more valuable than the grammar checker as a autonomous writing strategy for reducing the number of writing errors.
DiscussionThe learning log showed immediate and positive results. From all indications this activity created a matalinguistic awareness that was helpful to our scientific writers.
Connecting CIB researchers to Biological forums has also shown promise, but in an unexpected way. Writers developed a marked appreciation for the simplicity and brevity that characterizes scientific dialogue. After years of reading the more verbose and formal style of scientific journals, they found it surprising that brief and clear communication could be so powerful, persuasive, and authoritative. This realization contrasted drastically with their culturally-determined bias for lengthy prose. Soon, CIB writers began to imitate the style they observed in the forums, and surprisingly, the number of errors in their writing dropped considerably.
Leaders in the field of scientific writing all agree that scientific communication should be clear and concise (Booth, 1993; Day, 1979, 1992; Woodford 1986). These authors also concur that [-5-] effective scientific writing comes straight to the point in as few words as possible. However, for many Mexican scientific writers, “coming straight to the point” is not considered scholarly. As editor, I found that most writing errors for this group were the consequence of attempting complex constructions without the linguistic competence to do so, resulting in sentences like the following:
It is important to emphasize the catalytics differences between crustacean proteinases and vertebrate proteinases such as shrimps chymotrypsins are not affected by some specific inhibitors for bovine chymotrypsin and crabs trypsins have differents calcium ion requirements, pH stability, lower isoelectric point and a wide range of molecular weights compared to vertebrate trypsins.
By trying to include so much information into one sentence, L2 writers often provide themselves more opportunity for grammatical error. After reading biological dialogue on the net, they saw how leaders in their field were very adept at expressing complex thoughts with clever economy.
It seems to matter little that the Internet forum style is in a different register than that of the scientific paper. For EFL students, the important realization was cultural: that native English speaking scientists do not sacrifice authority by writing simply. For EST students, skillful biological forum writers make better role models than journal writers because they tend to express themselves more clearly. Of course brevity can be exaggerated, but during revision, I found it much easier to help writers combine sentences than simplify them.
Examples of more concise writing are now beginning to appear on my desk at CIB, but it is still too soon to know how far this lesson in brevity will be reflected in the scientific articles of researchers or how much it will contribute to overall correctness.
SummaryWithout an EFL program, the CIB has had to rely on comprehensible input and error correction to improve writing skills. The learning log provided writers with a retention mechanism that reduced the number of errors almost immediately. Internet biological forums provided researchers with two missing elements in their linguistic development: scientific dialogue at their level of comprehension and exposure to clear and concise writing. Currently, we are exploring the World Wide Web as a source of even more scientific text that is both comprehensible and easily accessible. Clearly, the Internet is proving to be a formative macrocosm for the writing development of this target group. [-6-]
- Beni’tez, R. (1990). Using a learning log in an EFL writing class. English Teaching Forum 28:(3): 40.
- Booth, V. (1993). Communicating in science. Cambridge, R.I.: Cambridge University Press.
- Day, R. A. (1979). How to write and publish a scientific paper. Philadelphia: I.S.I Press.
- Day, R. A. (1992). Scientific English: A guide for scientists and other professionals. Phoenix: Oryx Press.
- I.S.I. (Institute for Scientific Information) (1995). Current contents (weekly), 3501 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA.
- Pennington, M. (1993). Computer-assisted writing on a principled basis: The case against computer-assisted text analysis for non-proficient writers. Language and Education 7(1): 43-59.
- Woodford, P. F. (Ed.) (1986). Scientific writing for graduate students. Bethesda, MD: Committee on Graduate Training in Scientific Writing, Council of Biology Editors, Inc.
Roy Bowers, Ph.D., is Editor and Academic Coordinator of the Graduate Studies Program at the Center for Biological Research in La Paz, B.C.S., Mexico. He is also the list-owner of EST-L (Teachers of English for Science and Technology).
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Editor’s Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work.