Quotation marks in scientific writing: seemingly simple, yet terribly troublesome

This is a joint post by Scott Ramsay and Steve.  The topic was Scott’s idea, and Scott (mostly) wrote the part about scare quotes.  The boring stuff at the beginning is (mostly) Steve’s.

Photo: scare quotes by Scazon via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0.

Quotation marks seem, on the face of it, the simplest of the punctuation marks.  Commas are rampantly misused; semicolons drive us to distraction; hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes are cryptic to all but the cognoscenti.  But quotation marks?  Nothing to it, right?  Ah, not so fast…

The rarity of direct quotation

The most obvious function of quotation marks is (and hence their name) to mark a direct quotation.  Issues of typography aside*, it’s pretty hard to get that wrong.  Except in one way: should you use a direct quotation?  This is one way in which scientific writing differs from writing in other academic disciplines (and from non-academic writing): we rarely use direct quotations.  If we want to report on what someone else wrote, 99 times out of 100 we paraphrase it (and then cite the author, of course).  I suspect this has to do with the fact that science doesn’t operate on argument from authority; therefore, the fact that a particular person wrote a particular set of words isn’t that important; the content of what they wrote is.  If Jones (1967) assured us that at night all cats are grey, the precise words Jones used to communicate that insight don’t matter; only the way we sense the reflected spectrum of the cats matters (although of course we credit Jones for having the insight).  Since using direct quotations usually increases the length and complexity of text, we avoid them.  In the arts and humanities, the culture is quite different and direct quotations are very important.

When do we use direct quotations in scientific writing?  I can think of two main cases.  Occasionally, we use an epigraph (a short quotation at the start of a paper or a section, intended to communicate its theme).  Epigraphs are rare outside essay-style opinion pieces, though.   More interestingly: once in a while, the precise words someone used actually are important.  Most often, that’s true when we’re writing to comment on (or rebut) something, and so it’s important to be fair and transparent in reporting exactly what was said.  For this reason, direct quotations are far more common in Comment papers (sometimes called Replies) than in primary-results papers.

 When quotation marks go missing

Our habit of avoiding direct quotations lurks in ambush to bedevil new scientific writers.  In high school, most of us learned to write essays liberally sprinkled with direct quotations.  Then, as undergraduates learning scientific writing, we learned to stop.  The transition is tricky for some, and we often see students derailed by it.  They may use a direct quotation without quotation marks  – not realizing that it’s the quoting, not the quotation marks, we object to, or that using a direct quotation without quotation marks is plagiarism even if the quoted work is cited.  Or they may paraphrase too lightly, and end up plagiarising despite intent to reword – because pulling out a thesaurus and switching out a few words doesn’t make text your own.  Paraphrasing is a skill that scientific writers need to master – with the goal being to change the text enough that it’s genuinely in your own words, but not so much that it’s misrepresented.

Other functions for quotation marks

Quotation marks don’t always indicate quotations.**  They can also be used to focus the reader’s attention on a word or phrase itself, rather than on the meaning of that word or phrase.  This can be useful in flagging the introduction of a newly coined term, for drawing attention to an unfortunate piece of terminology (“seminal” contributions, for example), and for a variety of other, similar, tasks.  These uses of quotation marks are completely appropriate – but they grade into the horror that is “scare quotes”.***

Scare quotes and similar beasts

Quotation marks sometimes show up in scientific writing when words or phrases are either unfamiliar or used in an unusual context. This usage shouldn’t be surprising in disciplines where new findings or ideas demand description; however, we’ve all seen examples of quotation marks used around perfectly familiar terms.  When that happens we, as readers, are made to stop and question what the author meant. For example one recent paper included this sentence: “a single gene…is important in the ‘gender-specificity’ of this behavior.” In the absence of an explanation for the term, we’ll likely assume that the author is signalling an ironic intention, or else that they dislike the phrase but feel they must use it anyway. The latter case was termed “scare quotes” in the late 1950s in an article on Aristotelian philosophy laced with quotations of all sorts. Scare quotes can be bothersome to a reader since they suggest some subtext that the author is trying to convey, while leaving them to wonder what the actual issue might be.

Writing guides vary in how they treat this particular use of quotation marks. General style guides such as Fee and McAlpine’s Guide to Canadian English Usage includes referring to words, and indicating irony as two of several ways in which quotation marks are used. In describing the former usage Fee and McAlpine include the situation where terms may be unfamiliar to a reader; the expectation is that the term will be explained and then the quotation marks will be dropped for subsequent uses of the word. In the latter case, indicating irony, Fee and McAlpine caution that readers are likely to be confused. They quote Fowler’s (pithy as usual) advice and suggest that authors choose a side: use the term as is, or choose another way of saying what you actually mean.

In scientific writing guides we see a greater range of variation on this topic. One of us (Scott) scanned five different guides he’d collected over the years to see what advice they give. Two specifically mention the use of quotation marks for unfamiliar terms, but only one of the two mentions their use for non-standard use of words, and specifically advises against using quotation marks to set off slang and technical terms. One of the guides offers no advice at all on the use of quotation marks, yet is guilty of using scare quotes in its chapter on revision****. It is hard to know what to make of the others that give no advice in this area. My favourite out of this collection is one that says nothing about setting off words and phrases in quotation marks – but which offers a commandment that, by extension, applies in this context: “Never make the reader guess what you have in mind”.

We see scare quotes most often in student writing, but they show up in papers written by more experienced authors, too. Scott’s first thought was that this practice might be a form of overcorrection by inexperienced writers not wanting to take for granted their readers’ understanding of scientific terms. Reflecting, though, he wonders if instead these authors are signalling that they feel the terms they use are verging into jargon (and this seems plausible to Steve too).  This may be particularly likely when the term in question was recently coined, and still making its way from neologism to jargon to part of our routine scientific vocabulary.  How does that evolution happen, and how is it signalled textually or typographically?  Ah, that’s another issue; tune in soon for a follow-up post on that.

While scare quotes aren’t new, they seem to have had a creeping presence in scientific writing of late. The advice from writing guides is a bit of a mixed bag, although the ones that have anything to say are clearly against the use of scare quotes. Recent examples suggest that special words or phrases do not require quotation marks to identify them as new as long as sense can be made of them. Marking a newly coined word with quotation marks is appropriate during the earliest stages of its use, but doing so sets a demand on the writer to offer an explanation of the term and then move on. Using quotation marks to signal irony or subtext does no service to a reader; it only slows them down and forces them to think about the author’s true intent.

We wonder if another reason for the occurrence of scare quotes is that inexperienced writers are signalling a lack of confidence in their word choice. It also may be that air quotes have become so common in conversation that writers feel a need to include the textual equivalent when writing. Regardless of what drives writers to use scare quotes, knowing that they can impede reading takes us back to the advice quoted earlier: never make a reader guess what you mean. If an unfamiliar word or phrase requires explanation, then give it. If you dislike a word or phrase, instead of using scare quotes to signal that you’re holding your nose, say what you mean in a way that is less bothersome to you. Your readers will thank you.

What uses or misuses of quotation marks have we missed?  Let us know in the Replies!

© Scott Ramsay and Stephen Heard  October 8, 2019

*^For example, does other punctuation, when it ends up adjacent, go inside or outside the quotation marks?  Who cares?  British and American conventions differ, both are clear, and if the publication you’re writing hews to a particular style guide, they’ll let you know.

**^Yes, I know, that makes the name “quotation mark” a little less than à propos.  But guess what?  Butterflies aren’t flies, and aren’t made out of butter.

***^See what we did there?

****^Steve was careful not to ask whether The Scientist’s Guide to Writing was among “the guides he’d collected over the years” or whether it might be the guilty one.  Sometimes he just doesn’t want to know.


3 thoughts on “Quotation marks in scientific writing: seemingly simple, yet terribly troublesome

  1. Manu Saunders

    But what about single vs. double quotation marks? 😉

    Nice post, made me look through my papers & see how I use them! I mostly use them for terminology, e.g. to describe variable names or refer to relevant colloquial phrases, as per your ‘other functions’…
    I think I would have preferred to italicise most of these terms instead, but some journals have rules about use of italics. As an aside, I mostly use single quotes for terminology (double quotes for actual quotations), but I’ve just noticed that some of the journals I’ve published in have replaced my singles with doubles in the published version…you can’t win!


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      You know, until now I had never once thought about the distinction between singles and doubles, except for the obvious use in nested quotations. (And the lazy one, I can type a single without hitting the shift key.). It would be quite useful if there was some kind of distinction that everybody understood! A quick googling suggests that that isn’t the case. Fun article here: https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/10/single-quotes-or-double-quotes-its-really-quite-simple.html.

      Agreed about italicization: I also would like to use that, but it’s frequently disallowed by journals. I’m not sure why, unless it’s because if I were allowed, I’d surely overuse them…



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