“As far as he can achieve it, readability is as important for the scientific writer as it is for the novelist.” – Donald O. Hebb
Readability is communicating your research ideas with simple word choices and sentence structures. People are busy and have no time to slog through long sentences or complex languages in research papers. However, research analyzing over 700,000 abstracts from 123 medical and science journals found that there has been a steady decrease in readability over the years.1 These results are concerning for scientists and the wider public, including policymakers, as they impact both the reproducibility and accessibility of your research findings.
The more complex your research idea, the simpler your language should be. This will allow your readers to engage with the research ideas instead of struggling with the language of your research paper. There are several guidelines and toolkits from learned associations that help novice and seasoned authors alike to improve readability. For example, the European Association of Science Editing (EASE) provides author guidelines on preparing manuscripts, with suggestions aimed at improving the language quality of research works and manuscripts.2
Reporting your research findings clearly and accurately in journals or conferences is a fundamental part of the scientific process, facilitating both knowledge dissemination and the reproducibility of results. One measure of your research quality is the influence your research work has on the field of study. For this, researchers must be confident in their study design, research methodology, results, interpretations, and conclusions. However, journals seek to publish high-quality research that meets their target audience’s demands and will reject papers with poor readability or grammar errors in order to sustain their reputation. The quality of your research and the manuscript are two different things.3 While you might have a personal writing style as an author, it needs to be precise and unambiguous to be effective. If your manuscript lacks readability and contains simple writing mistakes, it will probably decrease your chance of being accepted. Thus, readability is the final factor determining your publishing success and your paper’s impact. It is important to spend time checking your research paper, as every good piece of writing requires many revisions. Once you draft your manuscript, it is advisable to check the paper repeatedly for grammar, consistency and accuracy in writing.
Tips to improve readability
- Proofread for elementary mistakes: Basic mistakes in spelling, punctuation, spacing, and grammar leave a very poor impression. A simple grammar check of your research paper can help avoid these often avoidable mistakes.
- Keep it simple: When it comes to the research paper language, keeping it simple will make your work more accessible to others. If you can delete something, then you should.
- Maintain consistency and logical flow in your writing: Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” As a writer, you should strive for consistency in using hyphens, units of measure, punctuation, grammar, symbols, capitalization, and acronyms.
- Avoid redundancy: Redundancy is the repetition of words and phrases that, if omitted, will not impair the meaning but make the text polished and easier to follow. Therefore, replace “due to the fact that” with “because,” “In the form of” with “As,” “In many cases” with “Often” and “has the ability to” with “can.”
- Use reader-friendly fonts: Most journals suggest using user-friendly fonts, such as Times New Roman, Arial, and Helvetica, which are easy on the eye.
- Shorten your words and sentences: Long sentences affect the readability of articles. Check your paper for short and simple sentences, focusing on introducing ‘one idea per sentence.’ You can also read well-edited multi-disciplinary journals such as Science and Nature to learn more about the short and simple writing style.
- Frontload your sentences: The most important information should be mentioned at the beginning of the sentence rather than at the end. When a sentence is frontloaded, the reader can quickly assess significant information. This will attract the attention of your readers and make it more readable.
- Pay attention to reviewer comments: Common criticisms from reviewers concerning language of the research paper include unclear and poorly written manuscripts, inappropriate structure, lengthy manuscripts, unclear Discussion sections, and information redundancy. Focus on areas where you have received negative comments in your earlier manuscripts when working on your next one.
- Test your writing using readability formulas: Finally, in the era of data metrics, you can check the average readability using an ‘r-index’ such as the New Dale-Chall (NDC) readability score or the Automated Readability Index. A grade level of 7 or 8 is considered good.4
- Plaven-Sigray, P., Matheson, G.J., Schiffler, B. C., & Thompson, W.H. Research: The readability of scientific texts is decreasing over time. eLife, 27725 (2017).
- Kojima, T., & Barron, J.P. How Readability Can Improve Your Manuscript. 日本消化器外科学会雑誌, 48(1), 83-84 (2015).
- Zimmerman, J.L. Improving a manuscript’s readability and likelihood of publication. Issues in Accounting Education, 4(2), 458-466 (1989).
- Svider, P. F., Agarwal, N., Choudhry, O. J., Hajart, A. F., Baredes, S., Liu, J. K., & Eloy, J.A. Readability assessment of online patient education materials from academic otolaryngology–head and neck surgery departments. American Journal of Otolaryngology, 34(1), 31-35 (2013).