Pre-submission advice:  academic vocabulary

The following advice is of a general nature.  Various elements discussed will be valuable for both non-native speakers of English and native-speakers.  It will be useful as a reference prior to submission to a journal or conference, or prior to submission to a copy-editing or proof-reading service.  It covers selected aspects that are specific to English vocabulary for academic writing. 

Selected academic vocabulary

Obvious
Significant / Statistically significant
Show
Detect
Weight / Mass 
Remain / Maintain
Could / Was able to / Is able to / Can
Efficient / Effective

Other English phrases

 

Selected academic vocabulary

Obvious

"Obvious" generally means that something is very easily seen or recognised;  it can also imply that the thing should/would have been anticipated by a reasonably informed person.  Therefore "obviously" has a different connotation to "clearly", and is not very common in academic writing. 

Examples:

"The pH clearly increased on the seventh day." This means that the value of pH exhibited an increase that was unambiguous.  (It does not necessarily mean that the increase was "large"!) 

"The pH obviously increased on the seventh day." The reader cannot be sure of the intended meaning.  Maybe it means that the value of pH exhibited an increase that was unambiguous.  But, then again, it could also mean that an increase in pH always happens on the seventh day, and was therefore expected.  (In neither case does it necessarily mean that the increase was "large"!) 

Significant / Statistically significant

In plain English the word "significant" indicates that something is important, in the sense of being practically relevant, i.e. having practical consequences. 

In academia a convention has developed in which statistical hypotheses are evaluated in terms of their statistical significance.  A "statistically significant" result is one that is unlikely to have occurred by chance.  It must always be remembered that a result can be "statistically significant" without necessarily having any practical importance (i.e. negligible practical significance), and vice versa

Examples: 

"It is well-known that diet has a significant influence on health.  However, in our classroom experiment we were unable to demonstrate a statistically significant effect of diet on the health of ants." 

"In a review of hospital data for 10000 patients, an analysis revealed a statistically significant difference in mean discharge time from 14:25 (winter) to 14:37 (summer).  However, this doesn't have any apparent impact on patient health or hospital operations, so it is not a significant finding." 

"Hospital staff had suggested based on anecdotal reports that consumption of non-hospital-provided food and drink improved patient morale and could lead to better patient outcomes.  In a preliminary review of hospital data for 10 patients, an analysis revealed that patients undergoing a routine procedure were on average discharged one day earlier if they were able to consume food or drink brought in for them by family and friends.  This is a significant result, because the impact in these ten patients was so stark, and because of the immense benefits of faster recovery. On the other hand, due to the small sample size, the observed difference was not deemed statistically significant at the α=0.05 level.  Therefore further investigation with a larger sample size is warranted.  The assumption of a causal relation should be checked, and likewise the assumption that early discharge is an unbiased surrogate indicator of faster recovery time."   

Problems & recommendations:

Due to overuse of hypothesis testing in modern research, in what has been called the Cult of Statistical Significance, authors commonly make the mistake of abbreviating "statistical significance" to "significance".  Consequently, some readers have fallen into the bad habit of interpreting "significance" as "statistical significance". 

To avoid relying on contextual clues and capability of the reader to interpret ambiguous statements, it is recommended to never use "significant" or "significance" in isolation. 

  • Use "statistically significant" or "statistical significance" when assessing findings from hypothesis testing. 
  • Use "practically significant" or "practical significance" or simply "important" / "importance" when assessing real-world impacts. 

Show

The verb "show" is common in academic writing in a few different forms, but it is important to use the right form for each context. 

Examples:

"The population rise has slowed since 1970, as shown in Figure 3 and also Table 2."
Not "showed", as the action is not completed in the past.

"Figure 7 shows clearly that the two populations under consideration cannot be considered to respond in the same way to nitrogen enrichment." 
The 'proof' is still valid, so the present tense is used (not "showed"), and here the active form rather than passive is used (hence not "shown").

"It is shown by Table 4 that larger particles do not always settle faster than smaller particles."
This is present tense, but the passive form is used, hence "shown" is correct. 

"Through the above results from the present study we have shown that filtration and centrifugation have markedly different characteristics." 
Not "showed", as the action is not completed in the past.

"In their classic paper of 1994, Landman & White summarised key developments of dewatering theory, and showed that this theory applies equally to dilute suspensions and compressed filter cakes."
Here "showed" is appropriate, as the action refers primarily to 1994. 

Detect

The verb "detect" has a more limited meaning than "measure".  A measurement will generally describe an amount (e.g. 5 mm, 20 °C, 30 cells), whereas a detection only tells us whether something is present or not. 

Examples:

"We did not detect sulfur in the mineral samples."  (No, sulfur was not found.
"We detected the presence of sulfur in the mineral samples."  (Yes, sulfur was found.
"We measured the concentration of sulfur in the ore to be 1.2 % by mass."  (The [relative] amount of sulfur was determined.)
But note carefully:
"We detected low levels of sulfur in the mineral samples."  (Yes, low-levels-of-sulfur were found.)  

Weigh & Weight versus Mass

The verb "weigh" and the noun "weight" have precise technical meanings, relating to the force engendered by the action of gravity upon a mass.  In everyday expression they are used as if they had the meanings of "determine the mass of" and "mass" (respectively) — however, in a technical context that is not correct.  It is quite unfortunate that there is no direct equivalent of the verb "weigh" in terms of masses, so alternative phrases must be used instead. 

Examples:

"We found the mass to be 1.503±0.002 mg." 
Milligrams are a unit of mass, not weight. 

"The imposition of a second load imposed a weight of about 220 N on the support beam."
Newtons are a unit of weight. 

Remain / Maintain

"Remain" and "maintain" both relate to the concept of "lack of change", and are sometimes confused.  "Remain" describes the state of the subject.  The state may be an adjective, an adjectival phrase, or a prepositional clause.  "Maintain" describes what the subject keeps constant.  The thing that is kept constant must be a noun (although this is less obvious when used in the passive voice). 

Examples:

"The traffic light remained green."
"The dog remained in the yard." 
"The pH remained high."
"The slurry remained unmixed for 24 hours."

"The local economy is predicted to maintain a surplus of 10 million euro."
"The traffic light maintained its green state." [stilted, not recommended]
"We maintained the pH at a value of 10±1."  [less common]
"The pH was maintained by us at a value of 10±1."  [passive with explicit agent;  less common]
"The pH was maintained at a value of 10±1."  [passive without explicit agent;  more common]

Could / Was able to / Is able to / Can

As a verb, "could" relates to two main concepts:  ability and possibility.  Often "Could" tends to connote uncertainty (associated with possibility), and therefore it is not recommended to use it as the simple past tense of "can" (indicating ability) in academic articles.  "Can" simply means that something is possible or is capable.  Likewise, "is able to" expresses the presence of an ability.  Thus, "was able to" expresses the previous presence of an ability — implying that the ability is not (or may not) still be present.  

Note also that present tense should be used for statements intended to be taken as general truths (true in the past, present and future). 

Examples: 

"After the two solutions were mixed, in various ratios, a precipitate could be observed in every case."
"After mixing the two solutions, a precipitate could be observed, depending upon the temperature and pressure."
"After mixing the two solutions, a precipitate could be observed."
In the first sentence the context indicates that "could" represents the simple past tense of "can":  the researchers were able to observe a precipitate in all cases.  In the second sentence the context indicates that "could" represents the conditional form of "can":  observation of a precipitate was contingent upon some condition(s).  In the third sentence the context is lacking, and so the sentence is ambiguous:  it is quite likely that the reader's interpretation will differ from the writer's intended meaning. 

"Performance of two nominally identical engines was measured.  Engine B ran more efficiently.  That could have been because of the different lubricants used in the two engines.  Alternatively, it could have been due to manufacturing differences, or some as yet unidentified factor." 
The cause is uncertain;  a few alternatives are mentioned. 

"We tried ten different lubricants in three different engines.  The performance in engine 1 was insensitive to the lubricant used.  However, in engines 2 and 3 the performance was about 20% better when either lubricant C or lubricant J was used;  all of the other lubricants provided similar performance.  This demonstrates that choice of a different lubricant can improve engine performance." 
It is confirmed to be possible for lubricant choice to improve engine performance;  however, the difference between some lubricants is negligible, and in some engines the lubricant won't particularly affect performance.  Moreover, if a poor choice is made, the performance might deteriorate. 

"...  This demonstrates that choice of a different lubricant is able to improve engine performance."
As above, it is confirmed to be possible for lubricant choice to improve engine performance, although performance won't be improved with every change in of lubricant type.  

"Exploratory statistical analysis revealed that the data was not normally distributed.  However, I was able to standardise the data by taking natural logarithms."
This is confirmed to have been possible for the data under discussion.  However, it wouldn't be possible for all data sets. 

Efficient / Effective

"Effective" or "efficacious" (and "effectiveness" / "efficacy" & "effectively") relates to the attainment of the desired outcome(s), regardless of the materials or energy used to achieve it. 

"Efficient" (and "efficiency" & "efficiently") relates to the degree to which the desired outcome(s) are attained, relative to the materials or energy used to achieve it.  

Examples:

"Previous researchers used Excel to estimate sludge dewaterabilities.  Although this was an effective method, much time was consumed on each analysis.  A recent computational tool allows results to be obtained more efficiently, as most of the process is automated." 

"Newton's Method is a numerical technical that can obtain estimates of the roots of an equation quite efficiently.  However it is not effective for determining exact values of roots, such as those involving surds (e.g. √2) or other irrational numbers such as π)."