Moving One Step Ahead

Environment, Sustainability, Renewables, Conservation, Water Quality, Green Building — And How to Talk about it All!

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References, References, References

I cringe when I see that a scientific article I am about to work on has reams of references at the end. I suppose I should have the opposite reaction: lots of references mean a well-researched and documented submissions. Right? Unfortunately, that’s not quite the entire story. Lots of references typically mean lots of mistakes and lots of extra work for the person who has to clean them all  up (me!). To that end, I have included here some quick pointers on citing and including references in your scientific (or even other!) article.

  1. In-text citations. An in-text citation should be included for all references that are listed in the “References” section of your article. The reverse is also true: if you include an in-text citation, then make sure you include the full reference in the list. The format for the in-text citation should match the requirements of the style guide used by the publication or journal to which you are submitting your article. For example, ACS requires (author last name, year). Speaking of which…
  2. Style guides. Be sure to format your in-text citations and references in a way that is consistent with the style guide used by the publication or journal. There are many, many style guides out there, with varying levels of similarities and differences, APA, ACS, AP, Ecology, etc. Regardless of the style is used, know it, and use it, and double check your work afterward. And I highly recommend that you buy or borrow the book and refer to it often until the style has become comfortable and familiar to you.
  3. Zotero. Have you tried this tool yet? A great way to not only keep track of all your references but to organize them and … wait for it … even format them! It’s free, it’s fantastic, and it has hundreds of style guides to choose from just waiting to be applied to your reference list. Before you get too excited, Zotero is not perfect (did I mention it is free?), so you will have to go in and do some cleanup after importing. But overall, highly recommended.
  4. Reference list. Please make sure that each reference includes all required fields, typically all author names (et al. is not a substitute for the names of additional authors); title of publication; journal name (if a journal); publishing company and publishing company city, state (if a book); journal volume, issue, page numbers. Please alphabetize them, and sub-organize them in accordance with the style guide. For example, ACS requires all publications by a the same single author be listed first; followed by same author, with a single co-author; followed by same author with multiple additional authors — all listed chronologically within that author’s listings.
  5. Electronic resources. Most style guides have been updated recently enough to have addressed most issues you will run into with using websites and other electronic resources. Typically, if you are referencing a journal article that is accessed through an online database (i.e., Sciencedirect,, etc.) you would treat the journal article as a journal reference and not as an electronic reference.
  6. Google scholar. This fantastic tool is indispensable for double-checking references, filling in missing information, etc., in addition to its original use for conducting your initial research.

The biggest mistakes I see are related to not following the proper style guide including: incorrect format for author names; missing journal information; and capitalization problems for publication titles (some require initial caps; others first-word initial caps only). The best way to ensure that you’ve done a good job, is to review your references with as much attention as you give to the content of the article. They really are that important.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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The Beauty of Simplicity

One of the single most important rules in writing for a wider audience on a scientific topic, is simplicity. And when I say, simplicity, I do not mean “dumbing down” as I often hear. I mean creating a narrative that is accessible to a thoughtful person who is interested in the topic but does not have the depth of background. Unfortunately, simplicity can be elusive. Some quick tricks that may help are listed below:

  • Keep sentences short and to the point. If a sentence starts to run on too long, then break it up into two or more.
  • Try not to use words that are more complicated than necessary, requiring that your reader hunt down a dictionary with every other sentence.
  • Omit needless words that clutter the sentence. For example, “a number of” can be replaced with “several” or “many”.
  • Similar to above, omit empty phrases. For example, “As mentioned earlier…” or “It is interesting to note that…”
  • Use the active rather than passive voice whenever possible. Doing so will keep the writer more engaged. Plus, it’s just better.
  • If after several tries, you cannot make a sentence work, then scrap it and start over. Maybe even move on and come back to it later when you are thinking more clearly.
  • And, perhaps most important of all, if you don’t understand what it says, then neither will your reader.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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An Acronym for Everything

I find that I always do particularly well on any Jeopardy categories having to do with figuring out the full phrasing behind an acronym. There is a simple explanation for this (useful?) “skill” — I spend a good deal of my professional editing hours spelling out acronyms in articles, manuals, and other publications that I edit. Apparently engineers and scientists love their acronyms. And although acronyms can be useful when used judiciously to replace an overly long title, name, or process, overuse can be problematic for the reader. Overuse of acronyms can reduce comprehension and reading completion.

Most scientific journals require, at the very least, that all acronyms be spelled out on first use with the acronym following the spell out in parenthesis. All subsequent references can then use the acronym, unless the acronym falls at the beginning of a sentence; in which case, the full phrase/name/title should be used. I would, however, go a bit further and suggest that acronyms should be chosen and used carefully and avoided when possible even for journal articles. Acronyms may be appropriate for commonly used terms in that field (still following the rules above, of course). It’s important to remember, however, that the audience of that particular journal may be broader than the specific field for which the article is written. So careful choice of acronyms is important to avoid losing readers from other fields who may otherwise be interested.

For general news publications, however, virtually all acronyms should be avoided. Readers are unlikely remember what an acronym stands for later in an article after having been introduced to it for the first time at the start of that article. Common sense exceptions to this include acronyms for federal agencies or other proper names (for example, diseases) that are used frequently in the media, and, are thus familiar to the public.

Finally, it’s important to get the acronym right. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen a writer do the “right” thing by spelling the acronym out only to get it wrong. Usually by one word.

P.S. My other acronym-related skill is deciphering custom license plates, which are plentiful here in Virginia. I’m pretty sure there used to be a game show for that as well!

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor