Monday, September 24, 2012

Common Challenges for ESL Authors - Q & A

The purpose of this post is to solicit questions and excerpts from your writing that confound you. 

Some aspects of English writing are difficult for many native English speakers as well, e.g., choosing between its and it's or using transitions between paragraphs.  Others are more difficult for Chinese authors, e.g., the use of the articles a, an and the, which are unnecessary in Mandarin or Cantonese because context provides clarity.

As a general rule, I recommend focusing first on what is essential to convey your meaning and ignoring the rest until the penultimate pass.  (Many native English speakers don't know what "penultimate" means.) Ten years ago, I was much less flexible when editing; since that time, so many ESL authors have begun publishing in American scientific journals that I find numerous deviations in print.  I've discussed this with journal copy editors and learned that--without admitting as much--standards have relaxed.

This is not due only to their being overwhelmed by the cutbacks in staffing due to the recession, but to the nature of the English language itself.  Unlike Spanish and French, for example, there is no single guide to proper usage.

The influx of papers from scientists whose native language originated in China, India, Egypt, Italy, Kenya, Brazil or Chile affects the English of today, particularly in America, a polyglot nation. 'Twas ever thus.  We are more familiar with new words than with new structures, but both types of changes have occurred for centuries as English-speaking people migrated westward and emigrants from other countries followed.  (Just reading a dictionary transports me to exotic climes for hours.)

Nevertheless, there are some hard and fast rules--I can hear you cheering!--and some guidelines are prescriptive though not proscriptive.  So send your questions and samples and we'll have fun with them as we separate the "musts" from the "maybes". 

By the way, in case you noticed that I placed the period at the end of the preceding sentence outside the final quotation mark, I follow the logical system on that rule and you can, too--except when you're submitting a paper to a journal that follows traditional American style.  According to what I've read, the only reason Americans moved the comma and period outside was to accommodate a fragile type of printing press that is no longer in use. 

The British logically include all punctuation within the final quotation mark, and so do I!  Take that, Chicago Manual of Style!  What's up, o people of the windy city? Can't you feel the punctuation paradigm shifting? Wikipedia rules! Hip hip hooray!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Communication Skills Rated Highly by Employers and Funders

In a study of what employers value most for the 2012 job market, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found communication ability at the top.  The two skills most prized were the:
  • Ability to work in a team structure
  • Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
Also considered very important were decision-making/problem-solving, obtaining/processing information, and planning/organizing/prioritizing work. All three of these skillsets are necessary for excellent scientific writing.

In the scientific community, the ability to write for the general public is increasingly important because of the impact it has on the public and its support for government funding and legislation on issues such as climate change. Basically, the taxpayers are the employers of most scientists, and their government representatives the funding decision-makers.  

Even articles published in traditional scientific journals are cited beyond the author's specialty.  Considering that works are disseminated instantly to an audience that includes those for whom English is a second language, all scientific writers are under pressure to improve the clarity of their work.

In an article by Adam Smith in the Journal for Young Investigators, Jeff Berger, manager of the communications office at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), said:

--> “You can’t take for granted that just because you know you’re doing good work that your neighbors know, that other labs know, that colleges and universities know, that newspapers know, that the funding agencies know, that customers and suppliers know,” he said. “It’s good for labs if more people know. Science writers serve as a bridge to many audiences beyond scientists and engineers. Get an article in a large-circulation newspaper or magazine and you have the potential of many thousands hearing the message.”

Eileen Patterson, managing editor for 1663 at LANL, said:

-->“The journal Nature published an article complaining about the fact that most scientists were writing so that absolutely nobody could understand them. The biggest problem is sentence structure. Most people think that vocabulary is the problem when you’re communicating science. The biggest problem is not putting things where a person expects to find them.”

A good reference for communicating with the public is Dennis Meredith's book, Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work. 


Quantifying the Volunteer Effort of Scientific Peer Reviewing

After a two-year study of reviewers of Monthly Weather Review, my co-author David M. Schultz and I published the results as an article entitled "Quantifying the Volunteer Effort of Scientific Peer Reviewing" in the March 2012 issue of Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.  The dollar value of the voluntary contributions of scientists who serve as reviewers is considerable.  Although many of them are employed by institutions that encourage them to review others' work and they benefit from the knowledge and experience they acquire by doing so, much of the effort is completed by taking away from family and social time. During the ten years I coordinated the review process for MWR, I worked with hundreds of reviewers.  Rarely was any one of them anything but courteous and sincerely dedicated to improving the communication of science.

Here is the abstract:

"A survey of 310 reviewers for Monthly Weather Review addresses how much time and effort goes into the peer-review process and provides insight into how reviewers function. Using these data, the individual and collective contributions of volunteer peer reviewers to the peer-review process can be determined. Individually, respondents to the survey review an average of 2 manuscripts a year for Monthly Weather Review, 4 manuscripts a year for AMS journals, and 8 manuscripts a year in total, although some review more than 20 manuscripts a year. Each review takes an average of 9.6 h. Summing the individual contributions of the reviewers, respondents averaged 18 h yr−1 performing reviews for Monthly Weather Review, 36 h yr−1 for AMS journals, and 63 h yr−1 for all journals. The collective time that all of the reviewers put into the peer-review process for all manuscripts submitted to Monthly Weather Review for each year amounts to 362,179 h, or more than 4 years of voluntary labor valued at over $2.34 million. Nearly all respondents (95%) are comfortable with their current load, but only 30% said that they would be willing to perform more reviews. Because the number of submissions to journals has been increasing over time and is unlikely to decrease in the near future, this burden is anticipated to grow. Options for reducing the burden include using fewer reviewers per manuscript, increasing the number of unilateral decisions made by editors, and increasing the size of the reviewer pool (particularly from active retired and early-career scientists)."

A new star is born: the Colorado Collaborative for Girls in STEM

The Colorado Collaborative for Girls in STEM (CoCoSTEM) is bringing together leaders from academia, industry, government and nonprofits around the state to create collaborations that work to increase gender equity in STEM. At our information meeting for northeastern Colorado in March 2012, 75 representatives of organizations affirmed the need for CoCoSTEM. 


On November 28, 2012, from 9 am - 3 pm, at Metropolitan State University of Denver, CoCoSTEM will hold a kick-off that will provide professional development training and information about mini-grants to about 200 attenders from around the state. The Equity Assistance Center at MSU is sponsoring the use of the on-campus facility, St. Cajetan's Center.  For more information, email cocogirls.stem at or visit our Facebook page.

As the director of Cool Girls Science and Art Club, I attended the first national conference of the National Girls Collaborative Project in 2010. The vision of the NGCP is to bring together organizations throughout the United States that are committed to informing and encouraging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). With funding from the National Science Foundation, NGCP has created 28 regional collaboratives serving 38 states to strengthen the capacity of girl-serving STEM programs to effectively reach and serve underrepresented girls in STEM. Since 2002, NGCP has served more than 5.5 million girls in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Cool Girls is the convening organization for the new Colorado Collaborative for Girls in STEM (CoCoSTEM).  





Four years later....

Much has changed in my work life during the past four years, yet much has stayed the same.  The most important news was the publication by the American Meteorological Society of Dave Schultz's excellent book, Eloquent Science: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Better Writer, Speaker & Atmospheric Scientist, to which I contributed. Together with Dave, I also published my first article in a scientific publication, which was based on a two-year study of MWR reviewers: "Quantifying the Volunteer Effort of Scientific Reviewing."  I retired from the AMS in May 2012, still edit scientific papers, and still teach scientific writing occasionally for ESL scientists at UCAR/NCAR.

Please see my next post for information on the new Colorado Collaborative for Girls in STEM.