Guide To Translating Scientific Papers Into Plain English
    By T. Ryan Gregory | April 28th 2008 08:25 PM | 13 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About T. Ryan

    I am an evolutionary biologist specializing in genome size evolution at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Be sure to visit


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    Believe it or not, scientists do not always take themselves too seriously. We can laugh at ourselves and the sometimes rigid conventions of our profession. Take, for example, this guide to translating the formal language of scientific articles into plain English. (Note: This has circulated on email among scientists a number of times over at least a 10 year period; I remember taping it on the door when I was a grad student.  An astute reader pointed out that it is originally from Graham, CD. 1957. A glossary for research reports.  Metal Progress 71: 75, though it has mutated somewhat in the interim).

     Really means
    It has long been known... I haven't bothered to look up the reference.
    It is thought that... I think so.
    It is generally thought that... A couple of other people think so, too.
    It is not unreasonable to assume... If you believe this, you'll believe anything.
    Of great theoretical importance...
     I find it interesting.
    Of great practical importance...
     I can get some good mileage out of it.
    Typical results are shown.  The best results are shown.
    Three samples were chosen for further study.  The others didn't make sense, so we ignored them.
    The second sample was not used.  I dropped it on the floor.
    Results obtained with the second sample must be interpreted with caution. I dropped it on the floor but managed to scoop most of it up.
    Correct within an order of magnitude.
    Much additional work will be required.
     This paper isn't very good, but neither is anyone else's.
    These investigations yielded highly rewarding results.
     My grant will be renewed.
    This research was supported by a grant from... I wonder if the taxpayers know they're paying for this?
    A line of best fit was drawn using least-squares regression.
     I drew it by hand.
    A non-linear relationship was found.
     I drew it by hand and I didn't use a ruler.
    Stringent controls were implemented.
     My advisor was watching.
    I thank X for assistance with the experiments and Y for useful discussions on the interpretation of the data.
     X did the experiment and Y explained it to me.


    This is 'humor'-ous. But please don't take it seriously because it is absolutely not always true. Maybe evolution people do that (for example hand-draw a regression line), but not all other fields can do that. Especially, if you do microarray analysis where you have millions of data points, you are always asked to deposit your raw data to a public database at NCBI, which everyone can access and analyze. --If there's any manipulation, some body will find out. Then you will be doomed. Plus, most scientific conclusions must be reproduced by different labs before being generally accepted.
    By Beyond Lab
    Do we understand what humour is? An academic definition: the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement (Wikipedia, 2000)

    T Ryan Gregory
    I have confidence in the readership to see this for the attempt at humour that it is...
    haha is that a complicated way of saying "i think its funny" ???

    How about some attribution? You didn't write this.
    T Ryan Gregory
    The best I can do would be "Sent around by email multiple times over the past several years, with some modifications by me". I'll add something to that effect.
    Tough crowd. Remind me not to use that Science Pick-Up Lines block in the sidebar any more.

    I didn't invent "I wish I was your differential, because then I'd be touching all your curves" or "Enough about me, let's talk about mu" but I'll be darned if I could tell you who did.

    It just seemed as if you were taking credit for writing the whole thing, which I didn't like. I found the reference. It's from this: (yes, over 50 years old!) A glossary for research reports Metal Progress vol 71 (1957) C D GRAHAM, JR. It's also published in the anthology A Random Walk in Science which I highly recommend.
    T Ryan Gregory
    I don't think I implied that, or at least I didn't mean to, and I assumed it was one of those author-less email jokes that circulate around every couple of years. Thanks for the excellent detective work -- I have gladly updated the information, and it's great to know that what was funny 50 years ago still is.
    I know in "Expelled" there is the claim that science is a big cabal all high-fiving each other and keeping out everyone else but that's not the case around here. People here get bonus points for tripping each other up.

    Maybe they interviewed the wrong scientists in that movie.

    The versions I've seen also included some bits about working with animals, including "The material was slightly toxic..." = "All the injected animals died"

    Anyone remember the rest of it?

    The difference between real science and pseudoscience (like Intelligent Design) is that in real science, this is a funny joke.

    Jen Palmares Meadows
    I'm so happy I found this. So many articles make much more sense to me!