MET workshops

Quantitative research data with units in text: to correct or to query?

In metrology – the science of measurement – a quantity is a physical property, for example length or mass. How we measure quantities and report the values is standardized across the globe (with important exceptions). Standardization is essential for consumer trust, precision manufacturing, and reproducible research, so readers can accurately interpret what authors mean by, say, “500 kilometres travelled”, “10 ng RNA”, and “25 millisieverts of radiation exposure”. The standardization of quantities is codified in the International System of Units (or Système International d’Unités, SI), which is maintained by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. This intergovernmental organization defines the units of measurement for different quantities and sets rules for their use, as explained in the SI Brochure (periodically updated).

This workshop introduces SI and explains how units of measurement are formed and used in text. It explains when the use of SI units is preferred and when disciplinary or cultural differences justify the use of other units of measurement. In addition, the workshop presents the concepts of accuracy, precision and measurement uncertainty, and explains the rules that govern how many digits and decimal places should be reported for any measured or calculated value. With this basic understanding of metrology, editors and translators can help their clients present quantitative data according to international standards and with the correct level of precision. 

Facilitator: Valerie Matarese

Purpose: To help participants gain confidence working with quantities in text. Participants will learn how to safely edit text with quantities and how to recognize problems that should be brought to the authors’ attention via notes in the margin.

Description/structure: The main topics of the workshop are (i) SI, the Système International for quantities and their units of measurement; (ii) common non-SI units used in certain disciplines; (iii) how to format quantities in text (e.g. spaces, capitalization); (iv) grammar for quantities (e.g. verb conjugation, prepositions, word order); (v) how to write about concentrations and percentages; and (vi) how to respect numerical precision by eliminating the sloppy use of digits. 

The workshop will consist of alternating short lectures (~15 minutes) and practice exercises. It will be organized in two parts (1.5 hours each), each equally divided between lectures and exercises. Exercises will be mainly sentence-level activities requiring participants to find and correct common errors of reporting. These sentences will be taken from the recent research literature and provided to participants in advance in a printable workbook. The exercises will be done individually, one at a time, and discussed immediately.

Who should attend? Editors and translators who work on texts with quantitative data, whether in academia or industry.

Outcome skills: At the end of the workshop, participants will:
  • be familiar with common quantities and their units of measurement
  • know how to present quantities in text (capitalization, punctuation, verb conjugation, when to use “of”, ranges of values, etc.)
  • understand different types of concentrations and their units
  • understand the concepts of accuracy, precision and measurement uncertainty
  • know how significant figures and decimal places should be used, and be able to recognize wildly erratic precision requiring author intervention

Pre-workshop information: Participants are encouraged to browse the educational content of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, especially the SI Brochure, 9th ed. revised in 2022. They are welcome to bring to the workshop examples of difficult usage from their own editing and translating experiences.

About the facilitator: Valerie Matarese is an authors’ editor and trainer in scientific writing with ~25 years’ experience supporting biomedical researchers mostly in Italy. She offers an intensive course on research article writing for early career researchers in the biomedical sciences, and a series of short writing workshops derived from the main course. She also has experience as a journal copy editor. She holds BS and PhD degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology from the United States and has published original research both in biomedical science and on writing for publication.