The Science Of Scientific Writing    Set B      Paragraphs: Intro to Readers' Expectations    First Three Expectations    Exercise 1 Quiz   A Fourth Expectation: Coherence   Paragraph flexibility: explicit and implicit texts   Exercise 2     Final Page.

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OVERVIEW: The way to well-written science

How to do the Course


PART I: Paragraphs and Sentences

SET A: Paragraphs: The Maps Behind Them

SET B: Paragraphs: Using Maps to Meet Readers' Expectations

SET C: Paragraphs with Something Extra: Points and Tails

SET D: The Generic Section: Expectations and Maps as Blueprints

SET E: Scientific Sections: The Methods and Results

SET F: Scientific Sections: The Discussion

SET G : Scientific Sections: The Introduction

SET H : Sentences

SET I : The Paper as a Whole



PART II: The Paper and its Sections


SET 1: Argument Parts

SET 2: Indicator Words

SET 3: Refining Claims

SET 4: Locating Arguments in Prose

SET 5: Rationale's Essay Planner

SET 6: Evidence in Arguments: Basis Boxes

SET 7: Assessing

SET 8: More on Assessing

SET 9: Analysis Maps

SET 10: Assessing Again

Synthesis 1: Position-Early Paragraphs

Synthesis 2: Position-Final Paragraphs

Synthesis 3: Writing a Discussion I

Synthesis 4: Writing a Discussion II

The fourth and final major expectation of a paragraph we will consider is this:

(4) A paragraph should be coherent

Readers expect writing to feel "integrated" and "consistent" and there are many strategies that can help writers to give their texts these qualities. In expository writing (the general category of writing to which scientific papers belong) the strategies are commonly divided into two groups:

  • Small-scale (improving cohesion)
  • Large-scale (improving coherence)

At this point in the course we will only consider the main contributor to coherence.

The most basic feature of a coherent paragraph is that the reader can readily ascertain its purpose. For the reader, there will be no confusion as to what the writer is aiming to achieve (even if the reader might not agree that the aim has been achieved).

Consider the following as an example of an incoherent paragraph (incoherence appears near the end)

There are three species of macaque in peninsular India. The most threatened of these is the Lion-tailed Macaque, classified as "Endangered". Only about 2500 Lion-tailed Macaques are thought to exist in the wild. The Rhesus Macaque is classified as "Near Threatened". The least threatened species is the Bonnet Macaque, which is currently considered of "Least Concern". One of the world's most famous macaques is the Barbary Macaque, a small population of which lives on the Rock of Gibraltar. Their tails are mere stubs.

It all seems to be going well until we come to the last two sentences, where non-Indian macaques appear without any apparent reason. The content is more than non-core, it is non sequitur (i.e. it does not follow). As a result the reader is confused.

Another way in which a paragraph may tend towards incoherence is shown by this variation of the macaque story:

In much of the world, when people think "monkey" they are probably thinking "macaque". Apart from humans, macaques are the most widespread of the world's primates. In peninsular India, there are three species of macaque. Peninsular India is sometimes defined as that part of the country south of the Tropic of Cancer, or in other cases, as that part south of Gujarat. The most threatened of the Indian peninsular macaques is the Lion-tailed Macaque, classified as "Endangered". This macaque gets its name from the tuft at the end of its long slender tail. The Rhesus Macaque, another peninsular species, is classified as "Near Threatened". Rhesus monkeys are well-known for being extensively used in biological and medical research. The "Rhesus factor", a supplementary category of the ABO system of human blood grouping, derives its name from them. The least threatened species is the Bonnet Macaque, which is currently considered of "Least Concern".

In this paragraph there is no content that is strictly unconnected with the main thread (or its offshoots). Nevertheless there is so much supplementary material that there is some risk of the reader not detecting the main thread in the first place.

An advanced problem of multiple purposes: mixing reporting with argument

It is obvious that basic clarity depends on the reader being able to determine what the writer is aiming to achieve. But there is more to it than that. If you look to older journals you will find that in the past it was often acceptable to combine the presentation of results with discussion of them. This is much rarer these days, and one of the reasons for this is that it is absolutely critical for the reader (and reviewers) to be able to distinguish the new findings from those of previously published work. This necessity stems from both the publishing requirement that a paper must present sufficient novel findings, and from the readers' need to know what information has or has not already been stood the test of review by the scientific community.

To understand this point, let us consider the following paragraph from a fictional paper (Fallo and Sza, 2009), with particular focus on the information in bold. Note: the paragraph is meant to have appeared in a combined Results/Discussion section.

When the adipose cells of the patient with the D233E mutation of yenda were observed they were uniformly rich in banana-shaped mitochondria. None of the cylindrical mitochondria typical of adipose cells were seen. A role for yenda in mitochondrial shape determination in adipose cells is also supported by our observation of pear-shaped mitochondria in a patient with a H377K yenda mutation, and by several previous studies that report mitocondrial shape abnormalities in animals treated with inhibitors of yenda activity (Smith, 1998; Rhagavendra and Klein, 2002; Zaheer, 2007; Wright and Fallo, 2008).

It is unclear whether the information in bold represents:

  • a newly reported observation, further to the one detailed in the previous sentences.
  • a previous finding that has been already passed review in the paper Wright and Fallo, 2008 and is now being used as evidence in an argument.

This uncertainty comes about because all the citations are grouped together at the end of a two-part sentence and we do not know which block/s of information they reference. Such amibiguities can even be consciously exploited by authors who are trying to trick readers into thinking either that (1) old results are really new ones (bulking up results), or that (2) new (less vetted) results are stronger evidence than they really are (bulking up a discussion-style argument).

By keeping the Results and Discussion sections of a paper separate - and thus keeping Reports away from Arguments/Explanations/Descriptions - such problems do not arise. Thus one should never include citations in the Results section.


How maps can help us meet the fourth expectation

1. Managing the core content of the map

When we looked at map making in Set A it was pointed out that in science we are mostly concerned with three types of maps:

  • Description/Report maps
  • Explanation maps
  • Argument maps

and that in any one type of map, the core of the map is of only one type.

A map's type tells us a lot about its purpose. For example, in an argument map our purpose is to persuade the reader that the statement in the top box is true. Thus if we create a proper map, we have come a a long way to making sure that a paragraph composed from that map has n purpose that will be obvious to the reader.

2. Managing the non-core content of the map

When we compose a map that is mean to become a paragraph, the non-core content must be managed properly too. First, we must be able to connect it sensibly to the core content. When we create a paragraph for the first of the incoherent macaque paragraphs above, we see that the extra information cannot be connected to the main map:



Second, in cases when all the extra information can be connected, problems can still arise if the non-core content overwhelms the core content. That is the problem with the second "incoherent" paragraph, as we see when we map it: s