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The Science of Scientific Writing

If the reader is to grasp what the writer means, the writer must understand what the reader needs

George Gopen, Judith Swan

Reader Expectations for the Structure of Prose

Here is our first example of scientific prose, in its original form:

The smallest of the URF's (URFA6L), a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the NH2-terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene. The functional significance of the other URF's has been, on the contrary, elusive. Recently, however, immunoprecipitation experiments with antibodies to purified, rotenone-sensitive NADH-ubiquinone oxido-reductase [hereafter referred to as respiratory chain NADH dehydrogenase or complex I] from bovine heart, as well as enzyme fractionation studies, have indicated that six human URF's (that is, URF1, URF2, URF3, URF4, URF4L, and URF5, hereafter referred to as ND1, ND2, ND3, ND4, ND4L, and ND5) encode subunits of complex I. This is a large complex that also contains many subunits synthesized in the cytoplasm.*

[*The full paragraph includes one more sentence: "Support for such functional identification of the URF products has come from the finding that the purified rotenone-sensitive NADH dehydrogenase from Neurospora crassa contains several subunits synthesized within the mitochondria, and from the observation that the stopper mutant of Neurospora crassa, whose mtDNA lacks two genes homologous to URF2 and URF3, has no functional complex I." We have omitted this sentence both because the passage is long enough as is and because it raises no additional structural issues.]

Ask any ten people why this paragraph is hard to read, and nine are sure to mention the technical vocabulary; several will also suggest that it requires specialized background knowledge. Those problems turn out to be only a small part of the difficulty. Here is the passage again, with the difficult words temporarily lifted:

The smallest of the URF's, and [A], has been identified as a [B] subunit 8 gene. The functional significance of the other URF's has been, on the contrary, elusive. Recently, however, [C] experiments, as well as [D] studies, have indicated that six human URF's [1-6] encode subunits of Complex I. This is a large complex that also contains many subunits synthesized in the cytoplasm.

It may now be easier to survive the journey through the prose, but the passage is still difficult. Any number of questions present themselves: What has the first sentence of the passage to do with the last sentence? Does the third sentence contradict what we have been told in the second sentence? Is the functional significance of URF's still "elusive"? Will this passage lead us to further discussion about URF's, or about Complex I, or both?

Information is interpreted more easily and more uniformly if it is placed where most readers expect to find it.

Knowing a little about the subject matter does not clear up all the confusion. The intended audience of this passage would probably possess at least two items of essential technical information: first, "URF" stands for "Uninterrupted Reading Frame," which describes a segment of DNA organized in such a way that it could encode a protein, although no such protein product has yet been identified; second, both APTase and NADH oxido-reductase are enzyme complexes central to energy metabolism. Although this information may provide some sense of comfort, it does little to answer the interpretive questions that need answering. It seems the reader is hindered by more than just the scientific jargon.

To get at the problem, we need to articulate something about how readers go about reading. We proceed to the first of several reader expectations.

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