Formal Writing in Physics and Astronomy

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All professional scientists (and most other graduates) will have to be able to write coherently in a number of different styles. Academic research papers, internal reports in a company, development proposals, correspondence, and financial justifications are just some of the forms of writing that come to mind.   Part of the degree course here should contain guidance and practice in this important skill.

The information that we provide here is based on materials presented in our JH module "Transferable Skills for Physicists".  These students have whole-class, small-group, and individual work on scientific communication.  Some of this material is being made openly available to all students, including particularly those doing final year project reports.

When writing any piece of work you should be asking who is the intended audience, what is the message you are trying to put across, and what is the style in which the writing is required.  Books, journals, funding agencies, etc may have different needs in terms of assumed knowledge, formatting, etc.  They will all likely have similar needs in terms of the use of technical English, referencing, diagrams, etc.  Depending on what you are writing, you are advised to read some journal papers, books, or general interest material such as that in Physics Today or Physics World.  You should also look carefully at the specifications laid down by those asking for your writing.  If you have any questions, please ask your supervisor or the member of staff who is asking for the work.

There are various books available on scientific writing.  In the J F Allen library we have, for example

  • N Murray and G Hughes, Writing up your university assignments and research projects, McGraw Hill, 2008
  • A Wilson, Handbook of Science Communication, IOPP, 1998
  • M Davis, Scientific Papers and Presentations, Academic Press, 1997
  • A Northedge et al, The Sciences Good Study Guide, Open University, 1997
  • H Glasman-Deal, Science research writing for non-native speakers of English, Imperial College Press, 2010

For a physics-educated audience a general review might usefully match the style of the articles in Physics Today. You are advised to read a few such articles from this magazine in our library or online.  Depending on your interests, you may wish to look at one or more of the following published reviews:-


Doing the Reading and Research

You are likely to be making use of material from journals and from books.  When doing this reading it is useful to take notes not just about the science, but also where you have read this science.  This makes it much easier to find that information again if needed, and also allows you to give proper referencing in the report.  You will have to ask yourself how much reading is needed, and how well you understand what is being read about.  You should aim to be on top of all the relevant science before coming to write your piece, but you need not necessarily know everything there is to know about everything in each paper.  You will have to judge what things it is important for you to understand fully.  It is probably fair to say that unless you understand the relevant material well, it is very difficult to tell a coherent story without being tempted to copy the work of others to the level where plagiarism may be an issue.  It may be that it would be helpful to discuss parts of your understanding, or questions about it, with your supervisor.  Please use archival sources such as journals and books as well as any general websites that you may choose to consult. 

If you are writing up your project work, you will also have been doing research in the area, and this is something that you should be discussing on a regular basis with your project supervisor.  You may wish to cast your mind back to the formal reports on experiments that you wrote in earlier years, and think about what you were told then, and what feedback you had on that work.  Those who have done PH3014 should consider what they found there, and what feedback hey had on their work.


Structuring the Writing

When starting on a piece of writing you will need to know who is the intended audience of your work, in order that you can write at an appropriate level.  You will need to know on what subject you are writing, and do the relevant reading or research to find material.  You will need to know how much space you have (or how many words you are allowed), and what is the style you have to follow.  You are also likely to have deadlines to meet.  If project studnets have questions about any aspect of your review essay or project report, please do ask your project supervisor. They are there to answer your questions. The same is true for other pieces of written work and the person or people who have asked for those.

Our students have done some formal writing in second year physics, and have had feedback on that -think back to what you did then and what suggestions you got from the feedback. Those who have done honours lab reports, and those who have done Transferable Skills for Physicists should likewise look back at what they did and what feedback they got from written assignments there.

Think about how you are going to present your "story" to your audience.  In scientific writing it is often useful to have an introduction, a structured development of the topic, conclusions, and references, in that order.  What are the main things you wish to put across?  Are there competing theories to weigh up? How does your work contribute to the literature? 

Your main development of the topic may well split up into various sections, possibly ranging from material expected to be familiar to the reader to stuff that is new.  It is normally sensible to keep each of these sections to some extent self-contained, rather than writing for example ten sections on methods followed by ten sections on experimental results, etc. 

Before starting the writing it is likely to be useful to plan out your piece. It may be useful to start with the main section headings, and then under each of those have a series of bullet points that you will later expand to give your arguments. Those writing project review essays and reports may find it useful to discuss this document with their supervisor, going to them with a list of questions that you may have about your structure.

The amount of use of equations will depend on your topic area.  Most project reports will have a substantial theory section, but reports from theoretical physicists will typically have a large amount of theoretical development.  Most project reports will benefit from the use of diagrams and illustrations that are relevant to the text.


Items more specific to Project Reports

Please look again at the instructions that you have been given for the content and style of the project reports. 

Although much of the scientific literature is in the third person, eg "This was done", when you are writing a report on the research or development that you have done it is entirely acceptable to use the first person.  If you have done something clever in the lab or in a theoretical derivation, it seems reasonable to let people know that you were the person who achieved this.  Examples might be:-

"Due to the high levels of light scattering I decided to put an interference filter in front of the photodiode, and this resulted in a factor of ten increase of signal to noise." 

"My project supervisor and I determined that this function was not well behaved as psi tended to 3, so we decided to ...."


English Language

A well structured piece of writing with good use of English makes it easier for others to take on board your ideas or what you have done.  Please bear in mind that the main purpose of your scientific writing is to educate, not to entertain. However, a well written piece of work that explains and discusses the science involved can also be enjoyable to read.  Please consider who is your audience, what they should know already, and what they expect to see in a piece of writing that you have been asked to do. 

An interesting set of pages on common errors in the use of American English is available from Washington State University. 

Please use the spell-checker (UK version) on the word processor to check your article.   But you also need your own intelligence to get rid of problems such as those in the following examples of student work

  • "..semiconductors such as Geranium and Silicon.."
  • "Remarkable advances over the last decade have aloud scientists ..."
  • "..a very exiting and promising future."

A few grammatical and typographical reminders are below.  Parts of this piece were originally written by Prof Andrew Cameron for the benefit of those submitting PH3014 proposals for telescope time.  However, much of what is here is also good food for thought for physicists, wherever they are writing.  Prof Cameron noted that  "I have been on several international telescope allocation committees, and have been distinctly unimpressed  by proposals containing the common writing errors [including some of those] below. A proposal has to be interesting, readable, and free of linguistic bloopers.

  1. Every sentence must contain at least one verb.
  2. Do not use a comma or a semicolon instead of starting a new sentence. If you really feel that splitting one long sentence into two short ones doesn't look right, consider linking them with "and" or "but".  It is usually the case that a long sentence would be more easily read as two or more shorter sentences.
  3. In general, try to think of punctuation as a set of breathing instructions for somebody trying to read your paper aloud.  In fact, try reading your own paper aloud before giving it to someone else to read. You'll spot missing words and other issues very quickly this way.
  4. If you use "it" or "its" in a sentence then this is a way of referring to the noun that was last used.  Consider this sentence from a piece of student work "Our ancestors would gaze up to the heavens during a thunderstorm, fearing that they had incurred the wrath of their lord, having no notion of its nature or origin".  In this case "its" would refer back to "lord", which is probably not what he author intended.  Some might argue that "lord" could not be an "it", but then that would meant that "the wrath" becomes what is referred to, which again is probably not what was intended.  If a sentence has multiple uses of "it" then the meanings can easily get lost.
  5. Poor spelling and grammar can make it very difficult for your readers to grasp whether your scientific ideas make sense or not.  Heed the advice of your spell-checker. Most word-processing applications on Macintoshes (TextEdit, TeXShop, MS-Word), Windows PCs (MS-Word) and even Linux (OpenOffice, I think) underline your spelling mistakes in red as soon as you make them. Sometimes these spell-checkers don't recognise technical terms, and if they are not set up correctly, they may try to force you into writing US English. But why should I have to spend my valuable time underlining common spelling mistakes manually in red pen on a piece of paper when your unpaid silicon slave has  already done it for you and you haven't bothered to fix them?  Beware, however, that the spell checker is unlikely to pick up cases where you have used the wrong word, for example "Germanium" and "Geranium".  You need to do your own human checking as well.
  6. Don't misuse apostrophes. You should not use an apostrophe to form the plural of a noun.  I may have "One hundred atoms".  Active galactic nuclei are AGNs, not AGN's. An apostrophe is used to denote something belonging to the noun in question. "An AGN's dusty torus belongs to the AGN" -  in this case the apostrophe is used correctly.
  7. Here's an important "odd" one about apostrophes.  Learn the distinction between "it's" and "its". It's correct to write that an AGN's dusty torus hides its nucleus. Got it? "It's" means "it is" and has an apostrophe. Something belonging to "it" is denoted by "its" and does NOT have an apostrophe.  Think of "his" and "its"; neither has an apostrophe.  Since contractions such as "it's" are not recommended for formal writing, it is probably a reasonably safe rule of thumb never to have "it's" in your writing.
  8. Many English nouns in common scientific and everyday use have been borrowed from Latin and Greek. You have to use their singular and plural forms correctly if you don't want your writing to make you look ignorant. Don't confuse a single phenomenon with a set of phenomena. The same rule governs the use of "criterion" (singular) and "criteria" (plural). A star has a spectrum, while a cluster of  them may have many different spectra. One mathematical function may have a single maximum or minimum, while another may have many maxima or minima. A single supernova can outshine a whole galaxy, which is part of the reason why supernovae make good standard candles over cosmological distances. There are others, but these are the ones I see misused most often.
  9. Avoid beginning a sentence with a conjunction, for example "and", "but", "or" or "however".
  10. Don't write "however" when "but" would work. It is, however, acceptable to use "however" when you mean something like "on the other hand" -- as in this sentence.
  11. Here is some more Latin. Any astronomer has to be able to work out that the brightest star in the constellation Taurus is called alpha Tauri, or that the first hot Jupiter was discovered orbiting 51 Pegasi. In other words, you need to learn the genitive forms of the Latin names of the 88 constellations in the sky, or at least know where to look them up. In the old days there was a useful table somewhere in Norton's Star Atlas. Nowadays there is Google. Do a search on "constellation genitive" and heed the advice given at any of the web sites that appear. The Wikipedia entry on star names is as good a guide as any.
  12. "To affect" is a verb. The Doppler effect is used to find planets and terrorize motorists. Some people would like to effect a change in the law on the latter, but this is straying into dangerously technical territory.
  13. Know the difference between "complement" and "compliment".  If I suggest that your writing is good I am complimenting you, but if I refer to the other side of the argument it is the complementary argument.  Think of complementary angles, they are not praising people.
  14. Some common spelling errors - "seperate" when it should be "separate", "independant" when it should be "independent".  My ability to align a laser is dependent on my manual dexterity, but my son is my dependant at least until he leaves school. 
  15. Don't confuse "to imply" and "to infer". If you infer (deduce) from the fact that I showed you this article that I am implying (insinuating) that I think your writing style could do with a makeover, you might be right.
  16. Don't confuse "loose" with "lose". If you let your wheel-nuts work loose, you'll lose the wheel sooner or later.
  17. The past tense of "to lead" is "led". Captain Scott led an ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Lead is a toxic heavy metal.
  18. Some guardians of the English language now agree that it is acceptable to boldly split infinitives.  Others disagree, and object to seeing a word splitting up the infinitive "to split".
  19. Hyphens can change the meanings of sets of words.  Consider "Queen Julia swore in her new cabinet" and "Queen Julia swore-in her new cabinet", and think about the change from some rude words in a wardrobe to a formal meeting of government officers.
  20. You would write "five metres" with a space between the two words, so you should also have a space in "5 m". 
  21. There are various conventions associated with the capitalisation.  When proper names are used as an adjective then the capital remains, as in Fermi Dirac statistics, but a new class of things (nouns) named after a proper name, such as fermions, does not keep the capital letter.  Beware however of things like the Higgs boson, where the Higgs keeps its capital as this is an adjective describing the thing.  Units of measure are not capitalised, even if they are named after a person and even if the abbreviation has a capital, for example we may write 3.0 W, but three watts.  The same is true for elements, where we have curium with symbol Cm for example. The physics department at Illinois has additional useful information on capitalisation.



References and Plagiarism

If you are using published (or otherwise) ideas or information (eg text or images), you must credit the author for them specifically.  You are additionally reminded that copying and pasting chunks of material from web-based sources into your article is a serious form of plagiarism, which will when detected be punished.   Note that if you do wish to use text verbatim from a source, that is fine as long as it is obvious that it is a quotation.  For this to be the case the text should be enclosed in inverted commas and the source acknowledged beside it.  In many instances you will be submitting your work to the Turnitin tool, which will compare your text with a wide range of published sources and work from other students.  You should check that you have understood the University rules on good academic practice, and that the words you are using are yours unless specifically stated and enclosed in quotation marks.

As noted above, you are expected to reference your sources.  While most physics-specific literature uses numbered references in the text, some astronomy literature uses the Harvard (name, year) system (see below).

If, for example, you state that "iron complexes are important in the survival of rice crops4", you should cite a reference such as that shown to indicate where the reader can get the information to verify this statement.  If you find much of your material more generally from say a couple of books or review papers, you can include these by some introductory statement such as "..and a number of good reviews5,6,7 are available on this topic".  You are normally expected to use material from a number of sources in your writing..  It would usualy be appropriate to reference both primary and secondary sources of information.  Although it may not be against the University's regulations on academic misconduct to make up your work as a series of acknowledged quotes from other papers, this would be assessed as showing little evidence of academic input on your part, and would get a very low mark.   Please note the difference between a bibliography and a specific reference list. 

Internet resources are becoming increasingly useful. However, by their very nature they may be non-permanent, and may not have been checked for accuracy in the same way as in traditional publications.  I would always advise taking at least some of your information from "archival journals". Such journals include information and explanations that have been passed by referees as "good" and that are published in a form that will be stored in many libraries for many years to come.   Good internet resources should reference such publications.   Note that journal articles are increasingly becoming available online, and that these have the same credibility as the paper-based versions, as long as you give the full journal reference. 

Any diagram or picture in your article that has not been drawn by you MUST have its source specifically acknowledged in its figure caption.  This can be via a reference number, eg "Three moons of Jupiter.  Picture taken from NASA website3", with reference number 3 at the end of the article giving the URL and date accessed. 

There are various different ways in which references can appear in the scientific literature.  In much of the physics-specific literature specific numbered references1 are used in the text, and they appear in numerical order.  In some of the astronomy literature and some of the broader science literature the "Harvard" referencing convention (Murray and Hughes, 2008, p 68) is used, where the author and year appear in the text as shown.  At the end of the piece then the reference list contains full information about the sources.  In the number system these are listed in numerical order in a forms such as

     1.  N Murray and G Hughes, Writing up your university assignments and research projects, McGraw Hill, 2008

In the Harvard system the sources are listed in alphabetical order of first author, for example

     Murray, N, and Hughes, G (2008) Writing up your university assignments and research projects, McGraw Hill.

Different journals and books may request slightly different styles of referencing, even if all requiring a numbered set of references.  You may wish to look at the style guides for Physical Review and the Optical Society of America.

References to papers in scientific journals should be of the form shown below (note the bold text for the volume number)
   M Drinkwater, Superclusters - the largest structures in the universe?, Science 287 (2000), 1217

and the reference to a book should include the publisher and year, for example
   J Gribbin, In Search of Schrodingers Cat, Bantam Books, 1984, page155

a reference to a web-based article should be similar to
   Review of Engineering Education Steering Committee 1996, Educating engineers for a changing Australia, exposure draft report (Prof. P. Johnson, Chair),  
   (WWW) (accessed 28 August 2005).

The University library provides some information on referencing, and plans to include on that pages in due course the style often used in the physics-specific literature.

University information on good academic practice and academic misconduct, including plagiarism.


Why this fuss about referencing?  Good referencing ....

  • gives credit to the person whose intellectual effort went into generating the stuff you are using
  • it acknowledges that your work builds on that of others
  • it lets the reader know where to find supporting information for your discussion
  • it allows the reader to check up on the origin of facts in your material
  • it shows what is "yours" and what belongs to others
  • keeps you clear of any allegation of academic misconduct


Last modified by Bruce Sinclair 3.14