SPECIFICITY

Specificity is critical for scientific communication.

DEFINITION: Specific writing allows readers to accurately understand what the authors seek to convey without needing additional explanation.

Specificity is critical for scientific communication. For example, the failure to specify the units for measurements caused NASA to lose the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft in 1999 (Physics Today, 2016). Throughout science, specific written explanations are an essential part of archiving information that is useful to future researchers, engineers, clinicians and decision-makers. Specific communication is necessary to clearly convey the exacting measurements and careful analysis that are important for scientific progress.

However, specific expression is often one of the weakest areas of communication for developing scientific writers (McMillan, 2016). One reason is that when we lack knowledge about a particular topic, we (not surprisingly) also may not understand how much there is to know about the topic (Kruger and Dunning, 1999). We are ignorant even of our own ignorance. Therefore, people who are new to a topic can make inaccurate, over-generalized, or ambiguous statements -- sometimes without even knowing that the statements are unjustified.

Poorly defended, overly-general, or ambiguous statements do not contribute to strong arguments and diminish a reader's confidence in an author. Therefore, unsupported generalities or ambiguous statements not only don't help construct strong arguments, but can actually weaken arguments that the statements are associated with.

Conversely, being able make and strongly defend specific statements can be an indication that an author has the requisite understanding to make strong arguments. Therefore, specific statements are often a necessary (although perhaps not sufficient) component of effective arguments.

Because specificity is so important, it is useful to discuss some principles for specific writing, and to practically apply the principles to make writing more specific.

SUMMARY

Specificity is essential for making scientific writing accurate and clear. Specific writing involves making statements that are unambiguous, truthful, and self-contained. Defining the audience is important for clear communication. A reasonable audience for scientific writing is a scientist in a different field of study. Terminology that could not be reasonably known by a scientist in a different field must be defined. Specific paragraphs are clearly structured with a strong framework, contain all of the information necessary to understand the paragraph, and make a clear contribution to the larger framework that includes the paragraph. Specific sentences express a single idea using unambiguous subjects and objects, and contain all of the information necessary to understand the sentence. Word choice can also contribute to specificity. Specific words have clear referents and are not vague and confusing. “Helping” words can help qualify descriptive words to make sure that the words have appropriate scope.