Subtleties of Scientific Style

by Matthew Stevens (ScienceScape Publishing, 2007): pdf or hbk (see below), 103pp, ISBN 0 9578877 2 8.

Reviewed by Caroline Landon

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This slim book on the niceties of scientific style is a useful addition to the biomedical science editor's toolkit. The author Matthew Stevens is obviously an experienced editor who writes well and knowledgeably about the subject.

The book is aimed at 'hands-on' science editors, particularly those involved in what he terms 'substantive editing', which he defines as being a step beyond copy-editing, but which seems not quite to extend to 'developmental editing' – a recent hot topic on SfEPLine. For each of the issues he raises, he has a supporting argument and gives useful examples.

Step by step

The book is divided into three sections, followed by appendices. The first section gives a step-by-step approach to editing a manuscript substantively. This will be of most use to copy-editors who are making the move towards the more rigorous type of editing or to non-scientists breaking into this specialism.

Budgets and timescales in the real world make it unlikely that any of us will have the luxury of making his recommended seven passes through a document (or the chance to put it aside overnight). However, the details he suggests covering in each pass are sensible, and it is possible to attend to more than one area at a time – for instance, rather than carrying out a separate read-through, I edit figures and tables as I hit their citations in the text and while I have them in context.

Common errors

In the second section, the author gives his opinion on a number of common errors. This is a useful tour of key issues but is not written to be dipped into. Rather it has to be read as a whole when first encountered, although the adequate index gives easy access for later perusal.

I was particularly impressed with Stevens' elegant explanation of 'times/fold larger' in terms of percentages. His argument for 'first- person science' – 'we injected rats' instead of 'rats were injected' – is, in theory, a way to get scientists to appear to take greater responsibility for their research. However, it goes against common practice in biomedical publishing to such an extent that it would be a brave editor who goes down that route.

Tricky or misused terms

The final section is an alphabetical listing of tricky or misused terms to watch out for and, as such, is easier to dip into and out of than the previous section. A particular bugbear of mine that he includes is 'biweekly', which can mean both 'twice a week' and 'once every two weeks' and always merits an author query.

The author is, by his own admission, a prescriptivist, and in this section, he argues strongly to preserve the difference between gender and sex. However, this is a battle that, sadly, I think is now lost. The appendices are rather perfunctory, especially the one on US/UK spelling, and the areas they touch on might have been better served if covered in full in the main text.

Filling in the gaps

This is not a style manual, like Scientific Style and Format: The CSE manual for authors, editors, and proofreaders, but to an extent, it does fulfil its stated aim 'to fill in the gaps left by other style guides', statistical issues being a pertinent area of omission.

As an experienced scientific editor, I thought this book would fail to teach me anything I didn't already know, but I was wrong. There are a few points that the author argues in favour of that I disagree with. However, he reinforces why it is vital in science to write simply and rigorously so as to avoid any possibility of confusion. This volume merits a place on the biomedical editor's bookshelf.

Subtleties of Scientific Style is downloadable as a free PDF.

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