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.

iCloud: iUnderstand

This is one of Steve Job’s last presentations, still explaining “his” products with inspired simplicity and clarity.

Focus with me for a moment on his metalanguage (often called signposting), that is the language he uses to take us from one point to the next. Metalanguage or signposting varies widely between presentation types, and is generally very different in product marketing, say, than in a presentation of technological developments to other specialists. Likewise metalanguage in academic science presentations that rely heavily on visuals will differ completely from those in economics, with their charts and empirical data, or from lectures in philosophy. At one level the difference is connected to the way each type of presentation communicates concepts. The more abstract and involved concepts get, the more difficult it will be for the audience to relate to and follow the speaker communicating them, and the more necessary it becomes to talk about what has already been said and to connect it to what is coming up next. In other words, there is no one formula for signposting, no instant phrases to learn by heart and simply apply to presentations. One size does not fit all. Every genre is different!

Just listen to the type of metalanguage Steve Jobs uses. It’s unbelievably simple:  Introducing a new product: “You like everything so far? (Audience: Yeah!) “Well, I’ll try not to blow it.” Moving from one feature to the next: “So that’s Contacts; here’s Calendars. Works much the same way.” Each statement backed by the trademark big, beautiful pictures. His authentic and communicative body language suggests that everyone is really getting the message. He doesn’t explain the technology in a way that goes over anyone’s head. And should anyone not get it completely, he draws them in, not through information, but through

  • Empathy: “Keeping those devices in sync is driving us crazy.” “You might ask, Why should I believe them? They’re the ones that brought me Mobile Me. It wasn’t our finest hour, let me say that, but we learned a lot.”
  • Emotion, quasi-religious feeling and humor: “Some people think the cloud just a hard disk in the sky… We think it’s way more than that.” “The truth is on the cloud.”
  • Reassurance: “It just works.” “Pretty cool.” “It’s that simple.”

…and his audience laughs and believes it understands. A socially very powerful approach. Remember we are talking about an app that takes all of the information on your personal phone and removes it to an external something, somewhere, which should at least invite questions. But no, it’s all good.

It’s really an understatement to say that Steve Jobs’ iconic presentation style perfectly matched the Apple image. As a consequence of these presentations, Jobs was Apple. He’ll be a hard, no: an impossible act to follow. RIP.

Learning to listen to scientific lectures

One of the greatest challenges for non-native academic users of English as a Lingua Franca is keeping up with what is being said in discussions to the point where they can process the information in real time and contribute themselves. In a word, the challenge is information overload. Not only are you trying to understand the content, but you are also trying to decode the language. But instead of listening to every single word, you need to focus on very specific things.

The challenge is two-fold. First, learn to listen for the key words that hold meaning, and know what vocabulary to expect and which structures to expect those words in. This is something you can acquire through practice. It is also where pronunciation as a receptive skill comes in, listening in context and noticing how the most important words are stressed. Here it makes sense in the name of international intelligibility to listen to and emulate good near-native speakers and the way they use nuclear stress.

The second challenge is learning to accommodate a wide variety of accents. This means understanding what specific challenges a non-native speaker needs to overcome to make his or her English sound “English”, based on the restrictions of his or her native tongue (L1). Accomodation is a challenge for every speaker of English, and in fact is at least as difficult for native speakers as it is for non-native speakers. I have a hard time with some Asian and African accents, and even with some from the UK! But practice makes perfect. Here are some sites to practice your listening skills:

Talk About English: Academic English is a didactic program from the BBC geared to preparing learners for the listening skills part of the IELTS exam. This BBC program provides discussions and tips, listening practice and accompanying questions, and student responses are discussed with a teacher.

The TED Talks are the best lectures online today, but tend to be removed from the type of lectures students are subjected to at college. Still, it has obvious benefits to study these talks by international luminaries, as the series celebrates the highly engaging nature of cutting edge research.

Video Lectures is a collection of videotaped academic and business lectures by international speakers, tagged by discipline and accompanied interactively by powerpoint slides. This site has content supplied by academic institutions, which makes it a good window into academic presentations. On the business side, I’ve watched a presentation from 2001 by Volvo CEO Leif Johannsen on Volvo’s Environmental Business Strategy, and one from 2009 by Robert Grant on the financial crisis. I can also recommed the very entertaining Umberto Eco on the History of Ugliness, from 2007.

In the Reith Lectures on Radio 4 on BBC, Martin Rees,  President of the Royal Society, speaks on “The Scientific Citizen”:  In 4 lectures dedicated to “Scientific Horizons”,  he challenges scientists to play a greater role in helping the public understand science. The full transcript is available.

For these and more tips, explore the wonderful English for University site written by Patrick McMahon. His page with great links is here.

Finally, my current favorite for online pronunciation practice, English Central, is the place to go to analyse at the level of individual words and phrases what exactly it is that you are hearing.

Practice academic writing skills 2: Ambiguity

One of the most important elements of good writing is clarity. Unfortunately, English has a lot of potential for ambiguity, which makes it easy to write ambiguous sentences. Great for humor, of course, but not a lot of help when it comes to writing works of science! One example is the use of prepositions.


  • I saw the man with a telescope.
  • I saw the man through a telescope.
  • Do you have any books on antique furniture?
  • Do you have any books about antique furniture?

In each case, both prepositions are correct, but the second choice is unambiguous.

A great source of trouble are invisible phrase structures, like defining clauses (introduced by which, that, who – or nothing!), extended prepositional phrases full of relatively unconnected information and long-distance dependencies using structures like if…then and either…or.


  • They’re having a barbecue in the garden behind the house they are renting next Saturday at 8. (They’re only renting the house at eight o’clock?)
  • They’re having a barbecue next Saturday at 8 in the garden behind the house they are renting.

What went wrong in the first sentence? The reader expects information that belongs together to be close together.


Here are some more similar phrases. Enjoy, determine what makes them ambiguous, and then suggest how to rephrase them.

1. Yoko Ono will talk about her husband John Lennon who was killed in an interview with Barbara Walters.
2. Two cars were reported stolen by the Griveton police yesterday.
3. The license fee for altered dogs with a certificate will be $3 and for pets owned by senior citizens who have not been altered the fee will be $1.50.
4. Tonight’s program discusses stress, exercise, nutrition and sex with Celtic forward Scott Wedman, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Dick Cavett.
5. We will sell gasoline to anyone in a glass container.
6. For sale: Mixing bowl set designed to please a cook with round bottom for efficient beating.
7. “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.” Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers

Ambiguous phrases 1.-7. from Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 94

(This is a post on the Moodle Scientific Writing Forum I’m developing for the PROGRESS group at Uni Potsdam. Feel free to use if you like, let me know if the explanations click or fizzle.)

Practice academic writing skills 1: Parallelism

Parallelism adds elegance to your writing:

Clumsy: They work with great care and effectively.
Elegant: They work carefully and effectively.

Clumsy: Making contacts is as important as to give a good presentation.
Elegant: Making contacts is as important as giving a good presentation.

Clumsy: We analyzed the extensive data, which was highly complex.
Elegant: We analyzed the extensive, highly complex data.

Clumsy: We hope to visit the site, so the measurements will be completed by the end of the month.
Elegant: We hope to visit the site and complete the measurements by the end of the month. (Note: drop the second “to”)

Parallelism is required by some grammar structures – see the examples in red. The dependent phrases in blue must take the same parallel form following the grammar words in red. They are equally dependent on the headword in green. So it’s: headwordgrammar worddependent phrasegrammar worddependent phrase.

  • not only A, but also B
    Error: I not only do research on A, but also on B. (verb with object, object only)
    Correct: I do research not only on A, but also on B. (two dependent objects)
  • Error: I do not only research, but also teach. (noun, verb)
    Correct: I not only do research, but also teach. (two dependent verbs)
  • neither A, nor B
    Error: Johnson’s research neither considered recent developments nor objections previously raised by his colleagues. (active verb phrase, phrase without an active verb)
    Correct: Johnson’s research considered neither recent developments nor objections previously raised by his colleagues. (two noun phrases dependent on “considered”)
  • both A and B
    Error: The project helps geoscience faculty stay up-to-date both with research and teaching methods. (with is misplaced)
    Correct: The project helps geoscience faculty stay up-to-date with both research and teaching methods. (two dependent objects)
  • A, B and (or) C
  • I look forward to A and B
  • In terms of A and B
  • more A and less B

There are more practice sentences here (link).


  1. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, a scientist, and he made inventions.
  2. The ancient Greek scientist Archimedes discovered the principle of boyancy, devised formulas for calculating the areas of various geometric figures, and he is remembered as the inventor of the Archimedean screw.
  3. According to the principle of boyancy, a boat floats and baloons will rise because they weigh less than the water or air they displace.
  4. I look forward to both seeing and to talking to you soon.
  5. The members of the expedition were advised to work hard and against relying on luck.
  6. During the embargo, oil was extremely expensive and not at all easy to get.
  7. The givernment is considering banning imports of genetically modified food products and to lower tariffs on organcally grown foods.
  8. Intellectually and in terms of morality, the educational system is failing children in need.
  9. People may wear different clothes, but they still use them to express what they have got, the way that they believe or the amount of money they have.
  10. I arrived in Barcelona without knowing anyone and I could not understand any Spanish.

Phrases 1.-10. from Paula Maier, Teaching Academic Writing,  p.45, unpublished manuscript for KommUNIkation, LMU München, a teacher training project 2005-7 organized by Elena Gallo.

(This is a post on the Moodle Scientific Writing Forum I’m developing for the PROGRESS group at Uni Potsdam. Feel free to use if you like, let me know if the explanations click or fizzle.)

Rhetorical styles

The PhD students looked at ways of incorporating rhetorical styles into their poster presentations. They were best at using the rule of three for repetition, but clearly need lots of practice in creating shorter, more powerful parallel phrases.

I demonstratrated the power of cutting out needless repetition through this correction (which is still not ideal):

  • To apply learning methods on our data sets we are looking for methods to group continuous data into discrete data. Such discretization methods are optimal if as little information as possible is lost and the discretized data still reflect the dependency structure.
  • Grouping continuous data into discrete data ideally requires methods that retain as much information as possible while still reflecting the dependency structure.

These were the phrases they came up with, which they practiced saying/ reading aloud:

rule of three

  • When I look for paleo-earthquakes in a certain area, I want to learn: Did big events happen, how big were they and how often did they occur?
  • Because there is such a deadlock in international climate negotiations, it is important to look at the levels below, namely the regional, the national and the local levels. (Use hands to scope from large to small, to express that region is larger than nation.)
  • Bayesian networks are a great tool since they help to discover dependency structures, to understand complex processes, and to communicate them to experts and non-experts.
  • Health depends on the fulfillment of physiological needs, the provision of adequate infrastructure, and the protection from disease exposure. (This nominal style needs rephrasing using verbs for spoken English: People can be considered healthy when their physiological needs are met, they are provided with an adequate infrastructure, and they are protected from exposure to disease.)
  • Finding alternatives to standard interpolation-based approaches allows us to stick with the original data, to retain the variance of the processes, and to adjust easily to different data qualities.
  • Interception cannot be measured; So we collect throughfall, we measure rainfall, and we subtract throughfall from rainfall.

parallel structure

  • Health is not simply the absence of disease, but in fact results from the presence of beneficial conditions. (This is contrast rather than parallel structure; a good example of how difficult it is to boil complex ideas down to simple phrases.)
  • There are two ways of looking at climate politics: One is the program, or policy; the other is its administration, or organization.

Next time I teach giving presentations, I’ll add logical shift: a change or movement in a piece resulting from an insight gained by the speaker. I’m just starting out, and so don’t have models and phrases from the students’ writing to work with yet. Work in progress.

Stuart Brown explains play

I used the first 10 minutes of this video, with its wonderful photos of the male polar bear and the female husky at play, as an intro to my last/ 3rd day of teaching the PhD students, as they trailed in, to attune them to the idea that play allows us to do things we would otherwise not be able to.

They’d all been stretched on day 1, the natural scientists by having to address a broader audience rather than their peers, and the social scientists by having to define terms and make science posters. Their feedback the next morning showed what a challenge that had been. But then, on day 2, they knuckled down and got into the zone, working individually, but also in productive groups, on their texts and posters. So on the last day they were ready, and we were able to play.

I’ve become more cautious about using games in my lessons, but the spirit of play is central, a seriously important element, right at the heart of storytelling: “We all have an internal narrative that is our own inner story. The unit of intelligibilty of most of our brains is the story.” (9:30)