|Vol. 1. No. 3
A Computer-Mediated Scientific Writing Program
Center for Biological Research
La Paz, Mexico
Biologists 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.
English 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
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.
I 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):
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
- Materials and Methods
- Discussion (or Results and discussion)
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
The software we use (TIN) was easy to learn and made it possible to
search past messages for content and keywords.
- 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
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 email@example.com or by anonymous FTP from net.bio.net
[184.108.40.206] in pub/BIOSCI/doc/biosci.FAQ.
My 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:
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.
- Writers submit their manuscripts for correction (paper
- 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.
- 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.
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.
The 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
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.
Without 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
- 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):
- 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).
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.
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.