Editing for impact #5 – Is it time to stop using “A study by Author et al.,…”?

This is not a post about whether or how you should cite your sources. That bit isn’t in question; everything that isn’t your work or thinking must be appropriately credited to the source material. Rather, this is a post about how you construct sentences where your objective is to tell your reader about some information or conceptual advance. The core point to consider is whether you should include the “Author et al.,” part within the sentence or whether the citation part should be in parenthesis (Author et al.,).

How to use et al.

Et al. is an abbreviation of the Latin term “et alia” meaning “and others”. When to use the full list of authors names and when to use et al., is defined in a citation style guide. As an abbreviation, “al.” has a “.” after the al. Other punctuations comes after that period e.g. “et al.,”

As et al. is a Latin term, it is often italicised in English texts. However, this isn’t always true and depends on the journal.

Note that et al., in vitro, in vivo are very common in Scientific writing, so much so that they are part of the “normal” and some style guides do not require italics to be used.

What do you want to emphasise?

“As shown by Smith et al., 2007, cell migration  is dependent upon generation of traction forces.”

If you read the sentence above and thought; “hold on, there is nothing wrong with that, that’s what you are supposed to do,” then don’t worry. The sentence above is not wrong. The question is whether it does what you want it to do? Is this construction is the most effective way of delivering our message?

The sentence with the Authors’ name as part of text delivers two points: 1) who did the study, and 2) what the study identified.

Having a sentence with two points isn’t a problem. Indeed, it is quite efficient. For example, your results sentences should say the magnitude, direction and the confidence all in one sentence (implicitly or explicitly in terms of confidence). However, for the citation containing sentence, the real question is what is the relative importance of each point to the narrative. The answer should change the way you write the sentence

Quick poll time, what is your opinion?

Write for your reader

Your answer to the poll above should influence how you construct your sentence. Your goal is to be effective, to deliver what the reader would value.

We’ve talked about emphasis in a different editing post (here). I don’t want to repeat myself too much (not even for emphasis), but to control emphasis we consider position, structure and length of the different clauses on offer.

Here are four options. Arranged in order from most author-centric, from when you really want to emphasise who did the work, to least author centric, where the greatest emphasis is on the information (note that they do all deliver the same info, both the author and the message).

Most Emphasis on author “Cell migration is dependent upon generation of traction forces, as was revealed in Smith et al., 2007.”

Less emphasis on author “As shown by Smith et al., in 2007, cell migration is dependent upon generation of traction forces.”

More emphasis on study outcome “Cell migration, as revealed by Smith et al., 2007, is dependent upon generation of traction forces.”

Most emphasis on study outcome “Cell migration is dependent upon generation of traction forces (Smith et al., 2007).”

My approach.

In the final option, the authorship has been relegated to parenthesis, the sentence is focused upon the information that is essential to the overall message. This is a really quick and simple edit but has a large impact on the overall feel of your work.

Personally, I consider sentences constructed with the authors names in the sentence as “first draft sentences”.

Those are versions of the text that doesn’t require any thinking: “X did Y”. Essentially its your notes version! First drafts are about getting something, anything, down onto the page; therefore there is no problem. Later, with draft written, you can ask the poll question above about every sentence to decide whether it would be better if edited.

Additional Reasons to edit author et al., sentences

You are writing about the Science. The people who did the work isn’t usually relevant to your story.

Cutting the use of author et al., will encourage you to provide more critical insight

Author et al., focused sentences very deliberately don’t say anything about your opinion on these findings. You aren’t saying anything at all about whether the information is solid or not. You could (obviously) expand on the point in the other sentences of the paragraph, talking about strengths/limitations etc. However, often you don’t have the space to that.

If an assignment mark scheme considers whether the student has demonstrated “synthesis” or “critical insight”, then using author et al., versions will be less likely to demonstrate to your marker that you should get top marks for those parts. As you progress through UG degrees and into postgraduate work, the expectations for insight become greater and more central to evaluation.

Multiple “et als.,” in a row and you end up with a list.

It should be quite rare that you are talking about single studies

Of course it does happen. There is that one major piece of work that caused a genuine paradigm shift or was integral to your work. However, more commonly, as the strength of an inference is dependent on the weight of the evidence, you will find the “points” you are making should be supported by more than one reference. Remember that the confirmation studies can be as valuable as the initial discovery. You should also be changing your language based on how strong the evidence is.

It is much more efficient to have (X et al., Y et al., Z et al.,) tagged on the end of the sentence rather than writing “A study by X et al., showed… and this was then confirmed by Y et al., and Z et al.,.

You might have read that last sentence and thought “hold on, that second option actually adds emphasis to the weight of evidence”. If you did, great! There are times when using author name does help, let’s look at them.

When can “Author et al.,” sentences be useful?

As with all writing comments, there are caveats! Unsurprisingly, the caveat here is that sometimes the author’s name is relevant to the reader. Let’s look at when that happens:

To present controversial or opposing positions.

“Work from the Yurchenco and Hohenester groups strongly support the three arm hypothesis whereas a study from Odenthal et al suggest an alternative model….”

In phrases like the one above there is value in providing the authors name. The names are connected the thoughts and are useful to establish where division lies. A sentence of this type would likely come after some sort of set up of the first interpretation and the following sentence would go on to talk about the alternative thinking. These sort of link sentences can be quite useful to establish where and why you might think different things about your data. i.e. the next sentence could say “the results presented here support the first/second model”.

“Recent work from Ahmad et al indicated XXX however, our data point to an opposing interpretation”

This sort of sentence might also work in your discussion for a similar reason. Here the rest of the paragraph would go on to compare your study to the previous work and why you made your interpretation. Again, you don’t actually need to mention an author name, “Previous data has suggested” could work just as well! However, sometimes it might help to highlight a specific school of thought that your work directly refutes (and why, of course).

“Work from the Jones lab, Sonnenberg lab and Brukner-Tuderman lab all support the finding … ”

This is the direct antithesis to the point about efficiency in the previous section! Here using the name-dropping approach highlights similarities in thinking and emphases the “weight of evidence”. The actual names aren’t the part that matter here, more that they are different. Studies from three different groups that all agree present a stronger message than three studies from the same group.

Hero worship! (contextual information in review articles)

“Seminal work from Grierson et al., …”

Hero is a strong word and this final option is also similar to what I said that you shouldn’t do! In Science, the name of the person doing the work shouldn’t be the important part. However, the difference here is that the author et al., statement is being used as a mechanism to add context . It now adds value by adding an opinion to the sentence.

I don’t advocate using this type of construction in a primary data publication very often, but it can be very useful in a review article or, particularly, in the literature review part of a thesis; anywhere where the historical context is a relevant part of the story.

If you do use hero worship sentences, do so sparingly. Overuse dilutes the impact.

Takeaway

So, is it time to stop using “A study by Author et al.,”? Probably not entirely, but certainly I encourage you to make the little bit of effort required to ensure that when we do it is a deliberate choice that adds value and isn’t driven by laziness!

When you are at the point of editing your text, look for anytime that you have used Author et al., and ask yourself “what value does including the author name provide to the reader”. If the answer is “not much” then change the phrasing and focus on the part that matters. Don’t dilute your message!

Other resources

Life in the Lab guidebook available now on Amazon!

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.