Online tools and resources for scientific writing

I’m still struggling to teach scientific writing to a diverse group of PhD candidates that I only see occasionally. My latest attempt is to give them a set of online tools to analyze their genre of target texts (published works and their own work in progress), and to tell me how they like what the tools do. These are tools I use myself when I explore a genre to analyze them within the overall corpus of English and present typical collocations. In class we’ll then look at selected texts on one topic comparing different genres (i.e. in a general publication, as opposed to a scientific journal) to determine typical collocations and rhetorical and stylistic devices.

MacMillan Dictionary
handiest online dictionary, with a thesaurus, examples, audio

COCA Corpus of Contemporary American English
BNC British National Corpus (GB)
How are your words generally used in context?

Word cloud generators:

How frequent are key words in a text you read or write? Copy it into a  word cloud generator that makes the more frequent words larger. Tips: In Wordle, create strings of words, or multiword units: Edit your text before you copy it in, joining the words you want to keep together with the tilde character: ~ (e.g. “cataclastic~rock”). Also, reduce the word output number (Layout/Maximum words) to simplify.

Just the word
This collocation thesaurus concordancer shows frequency and produces word clouds. Clicking on a given collocation gives you samples from the BNC. (e.g. precipitation)

A set of tools to analyze the text you copy in:
a. Concord Writer
Work in progress: Write text in the window, and your text is dynamically linked to multiple examples as you write.
b. Vocab Profile (BNL)
A published article: Copy in your text, and the tool will output a word list.

Google Ngram Viewer
How has your word been used over time? Has it changed in meaning? Study a word over time based on the word’s occurance in the Google Books library (those published since 1800).

5 modes of search for collocations: find one word (e.g. the missing word in a phrase – e.g. verbs, prepositions, possible modifiers), several words, alternatives in the phrase (so: find a better synonym), and word order (e.g. adverb placement). Follow links to find sample sentences. Caution: the Internet is your database.

If a scientist wants to read just one article on writing a thesis: George Gopen and Judith Swan show that where you place information in a sentence makes a huge difference. Their article The Science of Scientific Writing was originally published in the November-December 1990 issue of American Scientist.

Some excellent websites to surf for university writing skills:

And when in doubt, try a grammar quiz:

Diagnostic grammar quizzes, especially recommended for connectors/ transition words

These are not online tools, but books I recommend for the research library:

  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Abstracts and the Writing of Abstracts. The University of Michigan Press 2009.
  • Christine B. Feak/ John M. Swales: Telling a Research Story. Writing a Literature Review. The University of Michigan Press 2009. (The answers to the tasks in these two books are available online.)
  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills. Second Edition. The University of Michigan Press 1994/2009. Also get the commentary by same authors: Commentary for Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills.
  • Rowena Murray: How to Write a Thesis. Open University Press2002/2011.
  • Robert A. Day/ Barbara Gastel: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Greenwood Press 2006.
  • Michael McCarthy/ Felicity O’Dell: Academic Vocabulary in Use. 50 units of academic vocabulary reference and practice. Self-study and classroom use. Cambridge University Press 2008.

Do you have any resources to add?

PS: There is an online scientific writing tool called Swan, the Scientific Writing Assistant, The concept was developed by Jean Luc Lebrun, formerly at Apple and now a scientific communication skills author and trainer. It requires Java version 6.0 or higher, and runs on various operating systems, working on Apple OS 10.6 and higher. Its USP is that it helps you organize your thoughts and content (rather than your language and grammar) by working around the placement of key words.

PPPS: Graham Davies created a fantastic online site dedicated to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for Language Teachers, initiated with EC funding in 1999-2000, which he has continued to maintain himself. It contains pretty much everything teachers need in ICT. I’m finding the section on using concordance programs in class and the one on corpus linguistics helpful. It makes me want to take a week off and do nothing but dip into this world, and finally read the books I’ve got on the subject from cover to cover. Graham also keeps a blog.

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Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

5 thoughts on “Online tools and resources for scientific writing”

  1. Hi Anne,

    Just discovered this through your Twitter link. There are some really nice resources here, lots familiar, but some new ones too. I haven’t played with word clouds yet, but look forward to giving them a go the next time I’m teaching.

    Just a note on corpora – the BNC is really pretty dated now (nothing this century, so no Internet or other recent technology) and actually pretty small by current corpus standards too. I find the two student corpora BAWE (written) and BASE (spoken) really useful for finding examples of language students might actually be able to produce – i.e. NS student models rather than slightly unattainable published academic writing. You may have picked up the link from #ELTchat, but they’re available to browse for free here:


  2. Thank you Julie, this is really helpful.
    The BAWE and BASE look like great resources. I’ll be exploring.

    You’re definitely right, trying to achieve the level of published writing is a huge challenge and perhaps not what novice writers should be trying for. But on the other hand, I find that more advanced students are reading and responding to publications in their field, and want to get published alongside their role models, so they pick up on word groups and scientific idioms that they reuse. Often enough, there’ll be a jarring disconnect between those and other language in a text that they’re retrieving from some other source, be it spoken ELF or pseudo-English elements in their L1 scientific discourse. I don’t have any examples ready, unfortunately, though it’s on my to-do list to put some together for German scientists, but that’s where looking again at the publications themselves, and finding how the idioms fit in, makes sense.
    Thanks very much for your message, and also for joining the EULEAP Ning. Looking forward to further conversations!

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  4. Hi, Anne! I used to teach vocabulary the traditional way by isolation. It’s just recently that I’ve been exposed to teaching collocations. Now, my students have greatly improved in their use of vocabulary in their writing.

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