This page will describe the elements of scientific writing. It will highlight the differences between popular and peer reviewed materials, and help students identify, critically analyze, and appropriately cite such materials.
Remember, the content and the type of information is far more important than where you find it or the format.
Science is defined as a process that includes observation, modeling the universe, predicting causal effects, and performing repeatable tests to determine if the observed data fits the model. The results then lead to revised models, and determine "facts" under specific conditions.
Scientific models can be modified over time as new data is used to revise models. The important thing is to document the methodology in order to be able to repeat the experiment for confirmation of the results. Scientific knowledge is built over time, so momentary paradigms (scientific community beliefs) do change over time. There are mistakes reported as Errata, and misbehavior has been observed and punished. Engineering is applied science based upon tested principles and implementations.
Non-scientific observations and models can exist, but their predictions cannot be "proved" through measurable testing. These fields (astrology, philosophy, psychology) can speak about correlational links, but cannot declare scientific causal links.
Writing about science can be done in a number of ways, and one must be aware of the type of writing in order to determine validity.
Popular scientific writing contains material written to be understood by most people without a deep educational background in the sciences. The articles, usually found in popular magazines such as Scientific American or Sky and Telescope, often have color pictures. They are usually written by journalists, and the authors do not list their academic credentials as proof of expertise. The content is often an overview of a topic, and does not attempt to be comprehensive. There are rarely citations within the articles, and rarely does the article end with References to the literature. There may be Recommended Readings for finding out more about the topic, and these are frequently books on the topic.
Information found on the Internet through open searches: The web provides high quality information from professional associations, societies, and academic institutions. However, the web also contains sites which provide false, misleading, and outrageous content; and some sites appear authoritative but are really only presenting the portion of the material that supports their positions. Everything is written for a purpose, so be alert in order to identify misleading information. Beware of sensational "entertainment" pieces, slanted news from biased sources, and vanity press material with little factual basis. Readers must be very critical about the validity of these materials; always look for evidence of reliability such as author credentials, organizational credentials, balanced and reliable references that support the ideas and positions presented, and review the currency of the material used for support.
Popular magazine and newspaper articles may be found in Academic Search Complete by limiting results using the facets on the left to select "Magazines" .
Scientific writing is intended for other researchers in a field, and assumes a significant amount of prior knowledge in the field. Scientific manuscripts are frequently submitted for peer review (review for accuracy by other experts) before publication.
Scientific articles contain specific elements and characteristics:
Even though scientific articles have passed through a rigorous peer review process, one must be careful and critical when reading such documents. More current investigations and findings may update or invalidate earlier findings. (Remember to sort your results by date to have the most recent articles appear first.) Some articles contain errors and you may see errata (correction) reports or retractions. These initial reports of methods and findings are referred to as Primary Literature. Often other experts will submit follow-up Comments and /or Letters to the Editor.
On occasion, experts will write Review articles which provide a state-of-the-art update for a field. This synthesis of previous work can help new researchers in a field become familiar with the current trends, names, and theories in a discipline. These reviews of primary research reports are called Secondary Literature, and they have great value; but do not mistake them for the original Primary Research articles that contain the full details of experiments with the elements mentioned above.
Errors: Errors in analysis, samples, interpretations, or conclusions can be discovered and recorded after publication as Errata. These modifications to the original works are often included in search results and are entered as Errata links on the database or index article abstract page. Errata to "Coronal Alignment of the Lower Limb and the Incidence of Constitutional Varius Knee in Korean Females"
Improper Behavior: On occasion, some researchers have falsified data or conclusions. This can end a career and jeopardize the future of an organization. See the following example of falsifying lab note books, falsifying lab results, etc. Crucial Data Were Fabricated In Report Signed by Top Biologist. See the tutorial at the bottom of the page for additional information.
Trade publications are written for a specific audience, assume a deep understanding of the field, and generally provide updates on trends in an industry. They do not contain many references to prior research or citations to supporting information. While these industry newsletters are important for managers and researchers, they are not considered peer reviewed and should not be used as scholarly publications.
Searching for types of writing:
SCIENTIFIC (peer review) articles may be found in
POPULAR (magazine) articles may be found by limiting results using the facets on the left to select "Magazines".
Style Guides for citations and subject writing:
There are a variety of writing and citation styles used based upon your discipline. For details about citation standards see our Citation-Style Guides page.