11 June 2014

Newbie mistakes in scientific writing

Inexperienced scientific writers, even ones who are quite good good at composition and structuring sentences, often give themselves away in their citations.

New scientific writers often shorten lists of three or more authors by writing “et al”, with no period at the end.

This is a newbie mistake. “et al.” is short for the Latin phrase, “et alia”, which translates as “and others.” It’s an abbreviation, so it always has a period at the end. Also, neither word is capitalized.

People write this wrong so often, I have often thought that we should replace the obscure “et al.” with an English phrase (“and others”, “and colleagues”) or symbol (“&o”?).

In biology, another newbie mistake is not italicizing species names, or capitalizing the second word in a species name.

Any other newbie mistakes in other fields? Leave your examples in the comments!

Picture by Anne on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

7 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

Inexperienced scientific writers, even ones who are quite good good at composition and structuring sentences, often give themselves away [...] Leave your examples in the comments!

How about repeating the word "good"?

Sorry, couldn't resist!

Mike Taylor said...

I've seen a few papers that use "and others" in place of "et al". I found it very disorienting, and came away thinking it's a bad idea. The problem is that even though "et al" started out as a translation of "an others", it now means something more specific: "and other authors of the same paper". When reading sentences like "As shown by Faulkes and others (2006), lobsters are very tasty", I find myself assuming that there were several papers that showed this, all by different authors. You don't have that ambiguity with "et al".

Mary Canady said...

Not treating the word data as plural, e.g. using "the data is" rather than "the data are."

Mike Taylor said...

The plurality of "data" is a contentious issue -- plenty of professional editors now either prefer "data is" or have no preference. So this may well not be the sign of a newbie writer, just of someone with a different preference from you.

John R. Vokey said...

using `eg.'', instead of the correct ``e.g.,''

writing ``cf.,'' instead of the correct ''cf.'' (i.e., no comma)

ecologicablog.com said...

Should et al. be written in italics? I usually do but other people don't...

Zen Faulkes said...

Most journals I’ve read do not italicize “et al.”

According to this page, Chicago Manual of Style recommends not italicizing. This page notes the journals are inconsistent in italicizing Latin, but that “et al.” usually is not.