How has scientific paper writing changed over the course of time?

By Riya Jain & Priya Chetty on February 17, 2023

Scientific paper writing is defined as the technical form of writing derived from using sophisticated measures and running experiments and is designed to communicate scientific information.

In simple terms, scientific paper writing is:

  1. communication of scientific research,
  2. published in academic journals,
  3. written by professional scientists,
  4. written for peers for review (Turbek et al., 2016).

In this article, we aim to trace major changes that have taken place in scientific writing in the last four centuries, with the goal of simplifying the process for scientific writers of the present generation.

Purpose of writing a scientific paper

In the late 1590s’, Sir Francis Bacon, an English philosopher of modern science, stated that scientific papers should be published in simple language. The first scientific journal was published much after that, in 1665 and was called “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” (JSTOR, 1665). It was published in London, England and was created by the Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was the first journal dedicated to original research in the natural sciences and remains one of the leading scientific journals in the world. Its goal was to communicate findings to the scientific community. The standard scientific papers are theses, review articles, and research articles. Such scientific papers provide:

  1. an opportunity for quality control,
  2. presentation of discrete units of work,
  3. making all information accessible by public distribution,
  4. consistent recording of all information, and
  5. funding support.

Evolution of scientific paper writing

Since 1665, scientific writing has evolved in many ways. It is no longer just used to communicate findings of experiments in the fields of natural sciences but also technical fields like:

  • radiography,
  • biological science,
  • psychology,
  • environment,
  • health science,
  • bioanalytics,
  • physics,
  • pathology,
  • medical research,
  • sustainability,
  • geology,
  • chemistry, or
  • ecology.

Even social sciences-related domains like psychology and sociology are using scientific writing to communicate findings in a rigorous and transparent manner. Moreover, scientific writers are now emphasizing the way research is written, the accuracy of the information and keeping the readers engaged rather than merely reporting findings (Prayag, 2021).

During the 17th century when the first journal appeared, the articles were written without any predefined format. These included experimental reports with Empirical research and letter forms like the typography to present the letter shapes. This was a difficult combination because experimental reports were written in descriptive form and addressed to the general public whereas letter forms were written more concisely, for the general readers.

EXAMPLE

The second error, which is hereby endeavour’d to be remedied, is, that the seats of knowledge have been for the most part heretofore, not laboratories, as they ought to be; but only schools, where some have taught, and all the rest subscrib’d. The consequences of this are very mischievous.

Thomas Sprat wrote in the 17th century.

Kepler, 2016

From restricted circulation to journalism

Over time, scientific paper writing style has evolved to become more standardized wherein methods were specifically developed for determining the writing styles in the 19th century. The writing pattern was in the form of theory–experiment–discussion.

As technology usage increased in the 20th-century formal structure has been developed wherein the style of writing is in form of an introduction, methods, results, and lastly discussion (Edwards and Roy, 2017).

Up until the late 19th century scientific journals were tightly circulated only among top scientists around the world. Knowledge did not escape the scientific community as a result. However, towards the early 20th century as the number of universities increased, more scientific research started to take place. Thus more information started being generated, leading to a surge in what we call today “scientific journalism” or “popular science”. Scientists started to make scientific information accessible and understandable to a wide range of people.

EXAMPLE

“A picture book of evolution” written by Dennis Hird and “The Origin of Species” written by Charles Darwin.

  • A picture book of evolution
  • Scientific paper writing
  • scientific journalism

The need for stringent filtration of scientific papers

The format of a scientific paper over the years has changed. Therefore filtration processes followed by publishers have become increasingly stringent. This has not been the case in past times when the limited knowledge available resulted in a lack of focus on maintaining the quality of data and findings in terms of writing as per the readers’ understanding (Roland, 2009).

The focus in the early 19th or 20th century has been on providing scientific information without consideration of the meaning conveyed. This resulted in questioning the integrity and quality of scientific writing (Roland, 2009). Thus, with evolution and constant criticism of the lack of scientific feature writing to provide readable writing. The focus has more shifted towards maintaining the accuracy of results and outcomes and making them more relevant to the real world (Žukauskas, Vveinhardt and Andriukaitienė, 2018).

EXAMPLE

Researchers are presenting complex data in the form of images and infographics to make it more readable. There is a heightened need for maintaining the accuracy and integrity of such data.

Importance of replicability of research findings

Replicability in research is the ability to write to provide consistent results across studies when the same scientific question is answered with new computational methods or data. Journal publications consider this an important trait in scientific writing since it reveals the transparency of data (Academies, 2019). The replicability in scientific paper writing ensures the capability of the reader to draw meaningful results. This helps to ensure a real outcome that can be replicated.

Until the dawn of the twentieth century, there was limited information available, thus, the primary focus was not on replication but on the publication of the data. They were therefore less replicable. Not only did it make the public apprehensive about the data, but it also made it difficult for other scientists to use the results in different cases (National Academy of Sciences, 2019).

Until the 19th-century scientific papers lacked objectivity

Objectivity is defined as the means of uncovering the truth by eliminating emotions, false beliefs, and personal bias (Assis, 2021). In the 17th century, writing lacked objectivity, form simplicity, perspicuity, and self-assurance. The 17th century focused on including features that expressed personal experience, reducing the focus on factual data (Moessner, 2007).

EXAMPLE

In “Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière,” the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon presented theories about the history of the earth and the origins of species that were heavily influenced by his personal beliefs and biases. He often relied on subjective interpretations of evidence and disregarded facts that did not fit his preconceived ideas.

Buffon, 2019
  • Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière
  • Scientific paper writing
  • Comte de Buffon presented theories
  • Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière

In the 18th century, science was still in its early stages of development and objectivity was not yet considered a key principle in scientific paper writing. Instead, personal opinions and subjective interpretations often dominated the writings. This led to a lack of consistency and reliability in scientific findings. However, in the 20th century, the relevance of quantitative metrics in research increased. All the decisions of funding agencies and institutions for publications are based on the usage of quantitative information. Thus, vague words like unprecedented were avoided in scientific papers (Edwards and Roy, 2017). Quantitative information helps in eliminating biased results based on researchers’ emotions or beliefs. Hence, scientific papers now focus more on including factual details.

How has technology changed scientific paper publication over time?

Oral transactions were a common way to share research during the 17th and 18th centuries (Baur, 2020). The research was orally presented to the public and peers in a meeting before the manuscript was printed. Due to its lengthy and ineffective method, printed study work could only be distributed to a certain extent. But when more universities were established in the 19th century, research activity increased. As a result, scientific papers became more significant. Around this time, the printed journal was standardised and used to disseminate research.

The technology of the 20th century has significantly altered how scientific discoveries are communicated. The publication and accessibility of scientific knowledge have been made easier by increased digitalization. The availability of mainstream journals online has expanded, and this is made even more apparent by the wider availability of the internet. Scientific writing has become more streamlined and efficient thanks to the advent of word processing, scientific graphing, and powerful data analysis software.

Collaborative platforms on digital sources have facilitated communication and collaboration among scientists, both within and between institutions, making it easier to share ideas and results. This has led to a more integrated and interconnected scientific community. Predictive and machine learning technologies like Natural Language Processing is helping many scientists to evaluate and improve the quality of manuscripts before submission to a journal. All these technology-based evolutions resulted in supporting scientific writing with an increased emphasis on quality (Exploratorium, 2009).

The 20th and 21st centuries saw the creation of a preprint archive called arXiv, which allowed for discussion of the material prior to publication. The public and other academics had the chance to participate in this conversation and either confirm the accuracy of the work or advance their own study on the peer-reviewed material. Also, it improved the capacity to protect the researchers’ work (Baur, 2020).

Journal indexation and impact factor

Researchers often use journal indexes, or a list of journals arranged by discipline, subject, geography, and other variables, to look for studies and data on particular topics (Nalen, 2020). With the gradual increase in the number of scientific publications in the 18th century, the indexation of journals started, and it has altered significantly since then. The number of indexed journals has increased from a few to thousands in the past to thousands today.

The development of digital databases and search engines has revolutionized the way researchers search for and access information. Online indexing has also made it easier for authors to submit their work, and for editors to manage and publish articles (Suiter and Sarli, 2019). Digital indexing systems use controlled vocabularies, standardized descriptors, and classifications to ensure consistent and accurate representation of articles.

Over time as the publication of papers increased metrics such as the Journal Impact Factor were developed in the 1960s to help librarians and researchers identify the most important journals in a particular field. Journals with higher impact factors are often considered to be more prestigious, and publishing in these journals can enhance the visibility and impact of a scientist’s work.

References

  • Academies, N. (2019) ‘Reproducibility and Replicability in Research’, National Academies.
  • Assis, A. A. (2021) ‘Objectivity’.
  • Baur, C. (2020) The History of Scientific Publishing, Research Square.
  • Buffon, G. L. L. de (2019) Histoire naturelle, générale et particuliere. Quadrupèdes. Tome II / par M. le Comte de Buffon, Internet Archives.
  • Edwards, M. A. and Roy, S. (2017) ‘Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition’, Environmental engineering science, 34(1), pp. 51–61. doi: 10.1089/ees.2016.0223.
  • Exploratorium (2009) ‘Science Writing : A Tool for Learning Science and Developing Language’, Exploratorium.
  • Hird, D. (2020) Volume 1: A picture book of evolution by Dennis Hird., Wellcome Collection.
  • JSTOR (1665) ‘Philosophical Transactions (1665-1678)’, The Royal Publishing Society, 1(1). Available at: https://www.jstor.org/journal/philtran1665167.
  • Kepler, J. (2016) Science in the 17th century : From Europe to St Andrews, MacTutor History of Mathematics.
  • Moessner, L. (2007) ‘The influence of the Royal Society on 17th-century scientific writing’, ICAME Journal, pp. 65–88.
  • Nalen, C. Z. (2020) What Is a Journal Index, and Why is Indexation Important?, American Journal Experts.
  • National Academy of Sciences (2019) ‘Reproducibility and Replicability in Science’, Washington, DC: The National Academies. doi: 10.17226/25303.
  • Prayag, A. (2021) ‘Overview and Principles of Scientific Writing’, Indian Journal of Medical and Paediatric Oncology, pp. 420–423. doi: 10.4103/ijmpo.ijmpo.
  • Roland, M. (2009) ‘Article Quality and integrity in scientific writing : prerequisites for quality in science communication’, Journal of Science Communication, 8(June).
  • Suiter, A. M. and Sarli, C. C. (2019) ‘Selecting a Journal for Publication: Criteria to Consider’, Mo Med., 116(6), pp. 461–465.
  • Turbek, S. P. et al. (2016) ‘Scientific Writing Made Easy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Undergraduate Writing in the Biological Sciences’, The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, (October), pp. 417–426.
  • Žukauskas, P., Vveinhardt, J. and Andriukaitienė, R. (2018) ‘Research ethics’, Management Culture and Corporate Social Responsibility. doi: 10.5772/intechopen.70629.

I am a management graduate with specialisation in Marketing and Finance. I have over 12 years' experience in research and analysis. This includes fundamental and applied research in the domains of management and social sciences. I am well versed with academic research principles. Over the years i have developed a mastery in different types of data analysis on different applications like SPSS, Amos, and NVIVO. My expertise lies in inferring the findings and creating actionable strategies based on them. 

Over the past decade I have also built a profile as a researcher on Project Guru's Knowledge Tank division. I have penned over 200 articles that have earned me 400+ citations so far. My Google Scholar profile can be accessed here

I now consult university faculty through Faculty Development Programs (FDPs) on the latest developments in the field of research. I also guide individual researchers on how they can commercialise their inventions or research findings. Other developments im actively involved in at Project Guru include strengthening the "Publish" division as a bridge between industry and academia by bringing together experienced research persons, learners, and practitioners to collaboratively work on a common goal. 

 

I am a master's in Economics from Amity University. Having a keen interest in Econometrics and data analysis, I was a part of the Innovation Project of Daulat Ram College, Delhi University. My core expertise and interest are in environment-related issues. Apart from academics, I love music and exploring new places.

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