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Distinguishing features of academic writing #5: Accuracy

In our final discussion of this series on distinguishing features of academic writing, we focused on accuracy. Specifically, we considered what it means to be accurate, how understanding and vocabulary affects accuracy, how to check for accuracy in sources we use, how accuracy affects the structure, style, and grammar of a manuscript, and why accuracy is important in academic writing. Below is a summary of the discussion.

Elements of accuracy in academic writing

We began our discussion with the question, “What does it mean to be accurate?” According to ThoughtCo, “accuracy is how close a value is to its true value.” This can often be confused with precision (discussed previously as another distinguishing factor of academic writing) which measures repeatability.

West Sound Academic Library defines accuracy as “the reliability, truthfulness and correctness of the content” and The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing states that accuracy has the following three main aspects:

  1. Document accuracy – proper coverage in appropriate detail
  2. Stylistic accuracy – careful use of language to express meaning
  3. Technical accuracy – grounded in understanding of the subject

Considering the element of technical accuracy, we asked, “How does the author’s understanding of a subject and its vocabulary affect the accuracy of a manuscript?” Much like speaking a foreign language, it can be asked of academic writing, “What is more important…fluency or accuracy?” According to the British Council article on fluency vs. accuracy, accuracy in language “demonstrates your ability to use the necessary vocabulary, grammar and punctuation correctly”.

According to a National University of Singapore Centre for English Language Communication resource, Using Appropriate Words in an Academic Essay, “Choosing words that are appropriate in your writing can convince your readers that your work is serious and important. On the other hand, if your words are unclear, ambiguous and/or incorrect, chances are your readers might be confused about the content of your essay or might even think that your work is not worth reading.”

Enago Academy notes in their article, “Word Choice in Academic Writing: Tips to Avoid Common Problems”, the following six common problems concerning word choice:

  • Misused words
  • Words with unwanted connotations or meanings
  • Complex words where a shorter, simpler term would do
  • Awkward word choices
  • Words that are similar to each other, but convey the wrong meaning
  • Words that convey finer shades of meaning

Checking for accuracy in source information

There’s an old adage, “garbage in, garbage out”, so our next topic for discussion during the event was, “How can we check for accuracy in the sources we use as references in our writing?”

According to Edward F. Barroga in his article in the Journal of Korean Medical Science, “Inaccurate reference lists negatively affect the indexability and influence of a scholarly journal. Authors who cite references without retrieving and reading related full-texts may increase inaccuracies.” Further, “The authors’ duty is to continuously upgrade their skills of processing scholarly information and referring to essential sources. …Rechecking the relevance and format of each reference by searching through evidence-based bibliographic databases is also the authors’ responsibility”.

A resource on reference accuracy from Lund University states, “Correct referencing is vital for reasons of clarity as well as for reasons of academic integrity.” In an effort to aim for referencing accuracy, they suggest using sources in a way that ensures readers can “understand which sources materially influenced the new text”, “receive an accurate impression of what the source text said”, and “understand whether the language comes from the source”.

It is also important to use only credible sources in our academic writing. To determine if a source is credible, Purdue University’s Online Writing Center (OWL) recommends asking the following four questions:

  1. Who is the author?
  2. How recent is the source?
  3. What is the author’s purpose?
  4. What type of sources does your audience value?

Effects of accuracy on manuscript structure, style, and grammar

Our next two discussion questions focused on how accuracy applies to the manuscript structure, style and grammar in academic writing. Specifically, “How does accuracy affect the structure of a manuscript?” and “How does accuracy apply to style and grammar in academic writing?”

In his article, “11 steps to structuring a science paper editors will take seriously”, Angel Borja notes that the order in which we write a manuscript is often different from the order in which the information is ultimately published. He offers the following steps to organizing your manuscript for publication:

  1. Prepare the figures and tables
  2. Write the methods
  3. Write up the results
  4. Write the discussion
  5. Write a clear conclusion
  6. Write a compelling introduction
  7. Write the abstract
  8. Compose a concise and descriptive title
  9. Select keywords for indexing
  10. Write the acknowledgements
  11. Write up the references

Enago Academy offers this advice for organizing your thoughts and focusing on your manuscript goals. “Ask yourself what you are trying to convey to the reader. What is the most important message from your research? How will your results affect others? Is more research necessary?”

A group of authors from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, led by Angelia Garner, published Ten Points to Address When Publishing a Manuscript and noted that “Guidelines are readily available to aid authors in proper format and submission of manuscripts for journals. Common mistakes in writing, methodology, and references can be prevented with preparation and attention to details.” They cautioned as well, that “Authors must maintain their sense of purpose throughout the publication process in order to fulfill their mission to add value and knowledge to the scientific community.”

The University of Reading LibGuides resource, “Thinking about grammar”, claims “where it’s necessary to convey ideas accurately and clearly, writing grammatically is important. In academic writing, where you are expected to demonstrate your understanding of very complex ideas, it is absolutely essential.” They continue to provide advice for thinking about words, sentences, and paragraphs and to consider using software to check your grammar, however they caution to “never just accept all proposed changes in spelling or grammar made by an electronic spell or grammar checker – they can radically change the meaning of your writing!”

Walden University says that “Self-awareness is the key to being able to revise for grammatical errors. Grammatical errors tend to follow patterns, so once you are able to identify the types of errors you most commonly make, you will be able to focus specifically on these.” They recommend paying attention to feedback you receive and to keep a grammar revision journal to track your most common grammatical errors.

The importance of accuracy in academic writing

As we closed our discussion on accuracy as a distinguishing feature of academic writing, we asked, “Why is it important to ensure accuracy in our academic work?”

One area accuracy is routinely discussed is in the reporting of survey data and results. According to Graham Kalton at the Statistics Canada Symposium 2001, “Increased research efforts are needed to investigate the various sources of inaccuracy, both to help guide improvements in survey methods and to fully inform users about the overall accuracy of the estimates they are using. User needs should affect decisions about fitness for use. Producers should make greater efforts to communicate data on accuracy to users and to encourage them to use those data.”

Roger Vaughan, in his American Journal of Public Health article, “The Importance of Accuracy”, identifies three considerations on the power and convenience of statistical software used to generate data and analysis:

  1. although we have software programs that will happily produce results once the button is pushed, we often don’t completely understand the applications, assumptions, and interpretations of the more advanced methods,
  2. because these “higher level” analytic methods are now so readily accessible, many of the appropriate simple analyses are often set aside, making the digestion of the content and meaning of many of our articles more difficult, and
  3. our reliance on point-and-click computer analyses often means that we take whatever is printed on the output as gospel and transfer it verbatim to the tables in our articles.

Finally, as noted in the Northern Illinois University resource on Responsible Conduct in Data Management, “Regardless of the field of study or preference for defining data (quantitative, qualitative), accurate data collection is essential to maintaining the integrity of research. Both the selection of appropriate data collection instruments (existing, modified, or newly developed) and clearly delineated instructions for their correct use reduce the likelihood of errors occurring.”

In earlier posts we looked at the other four of the five distinguishing features of academic writing, precision, complexity, formality, and objectivity. We welcome you to join us on Twitter every other Friday for new TweetChat discussion topics under the hashtag #AcWriChat.