Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers grew out of a course in scientific writing given to postdoctoral fellows in cardiovascular research. The course was started by Julius H. Comroe, Jr., M.D., the founder and first director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco. Since 1978, when I began teaching this course, I have been assessing writing problems in drafts of research papers and discovering which principles of writing authors need to consider to make their writing clear. In addition, I have been adapting drafts of papers by young authors into examples and exercises that illustrate these writing principles. The result of these efforts is this book.
A special feature of this book is its emphasis on structure and storytelling. The book explains how to construct both individual paragraphs and each section of a research paper so that each paragraph, each section, and finally the paper as a whole tell a clear story.
Other special features of this book are numerous specific principles of clear biomedical writing (summarized as checklists at the end of each chapter), numerous examples of unclear writing followed by clearer revisions, and numerous exercises coupled with one or more revisions. The examples and exercises are taken mainly from drafts and also from some published biomedical research papers. The revisions are models that students can imitate in their own papers.
Several instructors have used this book successfully in courses on biomedical writing given to graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty all over the world. Because the students have limited time available, the course is usually brief and intensive, running about 24 hours for 4, 6, or 12 weeks or about 35 hours for one week.
In preparing this book over the past several years, I have received help from many people. First, I am indebted to Dr. Comroe. The syllabus for his writing course gave me a solid jumping-off point, and his dedicated teaching was inspirational. Second, I am indebted to the numerous postdoctoral fellows who worked on their papers with me to the point of near-perfection necessary for use as teaching examples. Without their willingness to pursue perfection and their generosity in allowing me to publish their original and revised drafts as examples and exercises, this book would not have been possible. Similarly, I am indebted to the authors of published papers and to their publishers, who have graciously allowed me to use parts of their papers as examples and exercises. These papers provided some of the most useful and stimulating examples and exercises in this book. In addition, I am grateful to the many participants in the writing classes whose insightful revisions have enriched this book. I am also grateful to the many scientists who prevented me from making gruesome errors in science. No doubt some errors remain, but I hope readers will be able to see past scientific problems to understand the writing principles being illustrated. Finally, I especially want to thank seven people: Bobbi Angell, an illustrator affiliated with the New York Botanical Garden, who made the hand-drawn figures in this book, and Paul Sagan, an editor in the Cardiovascular Research Institute, University of California, San Francisco, who prepared the computer-drawn figures, for their fine work and cheerful spirit throughout many revisions; David F Teitel, M.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco, Harold Schultz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Physiology, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, and Thomas Pisarri, Ph.D., Assistant Research Physiologist, Cardiovascular Research Institute, University of California, San Francisco, who kindly and efficiently helped me write and rewrite revisions for a few challenging exercises; and Stanton A. Glantz, Ph.D., Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, and Bryan K. Slinker, D.V.M., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine and of Physiology and Biophysics, University of Vermont, who tirelessly and graciously advised me on scientific and statistical questions throughout the development of this book. They are the special sort of consultant that every English instructor working in science needs—knowledgeable, sensible, and generous.
In this second edition, I have added a number of examples and exercises on molecular biology. I have also fine-tuned all the chapters and have reorganized and expanded Chapter 3, Paragraph Structure, which presents the main writing principles on which the rest of the book is based. In making these additions and changes, I have had help from seven more people. I am grateful to James McKerrow, M.D., Ph.D., Professor, Department of Pathology, and Evangeline Leash, Principal Editor, Department of Stomatology, both of the University of California, San Francisco, for enlightening explanations of molecular biology and of current trends in the mysteries of writing molecular biology papers. I am also indebted to Henry Bourne, M.D., and Harlan Ives, M.D., Ph.D., both Professors of Medicine and of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, Joseph Kitterman, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics, and Zena Werb, Ph.D., Professor of Anatomy, all from the University of California, San Francisco, for kindly explaining the science in parts of papers to me and helping me turn these parts of papers into exercises. Special thanks to Stanley D'Souza, Ph.D., Assistant Staff, Center for Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, Department of Molecular Cardiology, The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, for graciously and meticulously helping me rewrite a part of his already fine paper to use as a good example. Without the generous help of these seven people, several useful examples and exercises in this edition would not have been possible.
Finally, based on work done by participants in my writing classes both at the University of California, San Francisco, and around the world, I have further revised many of the revisions of exercises from the first edition. Heartfelt thanks to all these people, who prove the truth of the quotation (from whom, I do not know): "The correction of prose is endless; poetry comes right 'click,' like a box."