Owning your authentic scientific voice

Owning your authoritative scientific “voice” is critical for ensuring that reviewers see you as a knowledgeable, credible expert prepared to undertake the work proposed in the application. When providing background information and describing the findings of other investigators, many applicants use informal, conversational phrases and sentence structure that inadvertently undercut their “voices,” and coincidentally, waste precious space. Consider the following sentence (emphasis added):

It has long been appreciated that inadequate maternal nutrition leading to a compromised pregnancy increases calf mortality rate by 10% at or near birth, while an additional 20% of calves die prior to weaning (Corah et al., 1975).

Introductory clauses such as “It has long been appreciated that” or “It is well known that” are unnecessary here, and subtly suggest that the author of the proposal is just re-stating the obvious. If a fact is truly well-established, and you are providing a citation, this type of phrase can be left out. Instead, by excluding the introductory clause and simply including the reference(s), the statement becomes more declarative, and gives you more authority as a speaker and investigator:

Inadequate maternal nutrition leading to a compromised pregnancy increases calf mortality rate by 10% at or near birth, while an additional 20% of calves die prior to weaning (Corah et al., 1975).

Similarly, general, introductory phrases referring to “Various authors,” “Many investigators,” or “Researchers in the field of X” weaken the power of your words and risk giving the paragraph the feel of a section in a student paper or dissertation where you are simply reporting the work of others. For example, instead of saying (emphasis added):

Natural resource scholars emphasize that acknowledging the poly-centricity of land governance can promote more responsive resource management.

consider

Acknowledging the poly-centricity of land governance can promote more responsive resource management (references).

On a rhetorical and stylistic level, these subtle shifts towards an enhanced authoritative tone are particularly important for early career investigators and those branching into new areas of research. Additionally, on a more practical level, when used over and over again in the course of a proposal, these empty introductory clauses can end up stealing space needed for meaningful detail. This becomes even more apparent when you consider how naturally wordy we can be. For example:

Over the past 15 years, many authors in the field of cyberinfrastructure have demonstrated that _____________ (Hernandez & Wong, 2002; Borrero, Troy, Schmidt, and Partil, 2012; Archer, Rosenfeld, and Katz, 2017)

Here, the introductory clause not only risks diminishing the applicant’s “voice” and uses up an entire line in Arial 11 font, it is almost certainly unnecessary given that the “many authors” and 15-year time span are both already evident within the parenthetical citation.

Finally, the use of these empty introductory clauses often involves anthropomorphizing, i.e., the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to non-human objects or entities, which should also be avoided in grant applications. While we have commented on the issue of anthropomorphism in a previous Dangerous Words to Avoid blog, it is worth reiterating here, particularly in the context of reporting what others have identified, determined, or demonstrated. For example:

Numerous studies looking at phenomenon of X have suggested that …
An extensive body of literature on X has examined the role that X plays in ….

In the first case, studies can’t look at a phenomenon or suggest things; however, researchers, investigators, or authors can. Similarly, in the second instance, a corpus of literature does not, and cannot actively examine things, but scholars or teams can. The literature just contains or reflects what those people found and then reported.

In conclusion, when discussing or presenting the results of researchers who have come before you, synthesize, state, and cite, without superfluous clauses that unintentionally detract from your “voice” or assign agency to non-human entities. Careful attention to word choice can help ensure that you maintain a knowledgeable, confident, convincing persona on paper and maximize the allotted space in a grant proposal by using a succinct writing style.