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Scientific style and format: the CSE manual for authors, editors, and publishers

Style Manual Committee, Council of Science Editors. 2006. 7th ed. Reston, VA: Council of Science Editors. [ISBN 978-0-9779665-0-9. 658 pages, including index. USD $59.95.]

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2007. Book review: Scientific style and format: the CSE manual for authors, editors, and publishers.Technical Communication 54(1):119–121.

Editors accumulate style guides the way others accumulate back issues of National Geographic because despite heroic efforts by style guide authors, no guide can possibly cover everything. For example, no style guide includes a usage guide as comprehensive as Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2003; reviewed in the February 2005 issue of Technical Communication). That being the case, those who embark on the perilous task of creating a subject-specific style guide must focus on the essentials and leave generalities to more general works. To respect that constraint, we reviewers of style guides must temper our disappointment when a guide fails to include everything we’re hoping for.

The long-awaited 7th edition of the Council of Science Editors style guide valiantly attempts to cover the essentials in 32 chapters. Here’s a selective overview: Part I covers publishing (elements of scientific publications, policies and practices, copyright), Part II covers general style conventions (symbol use, word formation, prose style, abbreviations, units of measure), Part III covers 12 specific genres (including chemistry, physics, medicine, genetics, and geology), and Part IV covers publication elements (journal styles, references, tables, figures, manuscript preparation).

At 658 pages, the guide clearly cannot be all things to all people. Recognizing this, the authors have provided extensive supplementary references in each chapter, including the authorities behind their recommendations, plus an 11-page general bibliography with logical subheadings and a significant list of Internet-based resources. There are omissions, such as a comprehensive catalog of journal style guidelines (for example,, but they’re forgivable; no index of Internet resources can ever hope to be comprehensive or fully up to date.

A primary goal of the authors was to gather information from myriad sources in a single place, both as a resource and to encourage convergence among the disparate style guides for each scientific discipline. Another goal was to simplify complex rules that cover too many exceptions, as illustrated by the thorough, logical discussion of all things numerical in Chapter 12. For example, the authors provide the welcome recommendation to use numerals for all numbers representing measurements or counts instead of inconsistently using words for single-digit numbers. There’s even a decent overview of statistics that would benefit many scientists I’ve worked with, not just editors. Here and elsewhere, sound justification is provided for recommendations so readers can understand style choices instead of memorizing seemingly arbitrary rules. (Rules are easier to remember and apply in daily practice when they make sense.) However, science is complex; here, as in many other chapters, you’ll need to have at least a basic background in science to grasp certain recommendations. A similar caveat applies to the comprehensive discussion of taxonomy and nomenclature in Chapter 22: you won’t become a taxonomist, but if you’ve previously grappled with this complex discipline, you’ll learn many things you never fully grasped before, including puzzling inconsistencies between fields.

It isn’t possible to do justice to a book this large in a brief review, so I’ve chosen to illustrate the guide’s strengths and weaknesses through a representative example: Chapter 21(“Genes, chromosomes, and related molecules”). I would have focused on my own specialties—ecology, environmental biology, and plant physiology—but there are no such guidelines. The authors clearly state that they set out to emphasize common themes rather than providing a guide for every branch of science. This is an acceptable choice for a general reference, but a high level of unnecessary detail in some areas leads to seemingly arbitrary omissions.

Chapter 21describes gene nomenclature well enough that I wish I’d seen it before grappling with this material on the job; I’ll save considerable time in future edits of genetics manuscripts. However, it also digresses into an explanation of how to determine whether you’ve really discovered a new gene; every genetics writer and editor needs to know the nomenclature, but the latter is in no way a matter of style and comes at the expense of a clear discussion of more relevant resources such as GenBank and BLAST searches. The lengthy discussion of nomenclatural conventions and detailed tables for major model species from yeasts to mice is, to be sure, a valuable resource for these species. But basic editorial concepts are missing. The explanation of sequence lengths (measured in base pairs, bp) is clear and thorough but doesn’t discuss whether long segments should be measured in kbp (a common choice consistent with bp) or kb (the authors’ shorter preference) or how to use nt for nucleotide positions (nt before a number represents a position, but after a number it represents a sequence length). The description of transformation vectors is too short, and there’s no discussion of frequently misused genetic terms such as expression, transcription, and translation. These kinds of bread-and-butter omissions are symptomatic of a recurring lack of focus.

Did the authors choose the right essentials to cover? Often, they did not. The subject-specific guides (Part III) provide a wealth of information applicable across many scientific fields. The basics are clear and concise, and accompanied by copious literature citations for those who need more details. However, help in several key subject areas simply isn’t present.

Specific sciences were omitted because of the emphasis on general applicability and space constraints (the book is set in legible but uncomfortably small type to keep its size manageable). But several chapters whose topics are covered better by unabridged dictionaries, style guides such as Chicago, and guidelines to authors available on publishers’ Web sites also should have been omitted to make room for issues unique to science. For example, there’s little use for chapters on punctuation (Chapter 5, though the list of specialized uses for punctuation marks should be preserved), spelling and word formation (Chapter 6, though the list of prefixes that don’t require hyphens is useful and should be enhanced by expanding the too-brief list of prefixes that do require hyphens on p. 75), grammar (Chapter 7), capitalization (Chapter 9), typography (Chapter 31), and correcting proofs (Chapter 32).

The list of frequently confused words is great to see but could be expanded by eliminating the incomplete discussion of irregular plurals (for example, discussion of octopi-octopuses-octopodes is missing—but perhaps that’s why we have dictionaries). Similarly, it’s a questionable choice to devote 85 pages to literature citations (Chapter 29) when science publishers are famously idiosyncratic in their approach. (Indeed, every publisher seems to take it as a personal challenge to develop unique permutations of the possible ways to arrange and punctuate references.) Though it’s laudable to gather this detailed information in one place to help authors understand what is necessary and why, most publishers cover literature citations adequately in a fraction of the space in their online style guides.

This redundant coverage leads to an occasional lack of focus on style issues and to important omissions. For example, Chapter 7 (“Prose style and word choice”) does not explain appropriate use of active and passive voice—a concern if you write or edit for journals. At a minimum, it should include basic guidelines, possibly accompanied by a survey of journal preferences to illustrate how prose style is changing. Indeed, no mention is made of “voice” or “active voice” whatsoever in that chapter—nor anywhere else as far as I can tell from the index or the tables of contents. At nearly 30 pages, the index is clear and well-laid out but suffers from insufficient use of keywords and synonyms, making it difficult to find topics without browsing. If you’re willing to browse, a table of contents for each chapter can help, but the 32+ pages occupied by these tables of contents would have been more usefully allocated to an expanded index.

A good review should be critical, so don’t take my discussion of the book’s flaws as damning. Scientific style and format remains a valuable addition to any science writer or editor’s library. It does not eliminate the need for specialized references such as university-level textbooks, but fills a large gap in the existing scientific references. However, its own significant gaps in coverage, the inclusion of information that’s not relevant to writers or editors, and redundant overlaps with more comprehensive general guides should be addressed in preparing the next edition.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved