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I work in an engineering field (related to AI, machine learning, etc.) and something I found interesting is whenever I use "big words" or even long words like "substantiate" or "corroborates" while compiling a draft to be submit to a conference and such, I will get a request from my co-authors demanding me to change them.

For example:

  • "these related works are germane to our present discussion." I got a request to change the word "germane" to something else. Really?
  • Or "...therefore, the scenario considered in [reference] is situated diametrically opposite to ours." I was told to change "diametrically". Really?
  • "The experiments in [references] corroborates with our results". I was told to change corroborates to "collaborates".

There are a lot more examples, especially in the latest draft. But I don't want to point them out just in case my colleagues are reading this forum. :-)

Mind you, this is all in the introduction of the paper, hence no way to confuse it with any technical terminology. This happens to me so frequently that I became almost clairvoyant as to which sentences I will need to rephrase in the upcoming revision.

My intention is merely for the writing to be conversational, and this is done in order to distinguish our works from some of the truly monotonous writing styles pervasive in this field.

Also worth noting is that some of the top authors in this field uses very flowery language (sometimes in my opinion excessively so), so you can say that I'm perhaps subconsciously trying to imitate them.

We are working in a North American university. However, some of my colleagues are non-native speakers (who have stayed here for something like 20 plus years). I wonder if this phenomenon is more wide spread or it is just happening to me.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion, answers, linguistic theories, or dissection of the grammatical accuracy of the example sentences; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – cag51 Sep 6 at 22:00

10 Answers 10

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There's nothing wrong with long words. The real issue with your writing is that it is redundant.

"these related works are germane to our present discussion."

In this sentence, "germane" just stands for "related", so you're effectively saying "these related works are related". Here you are using the English cliche of pairing a common word with a rare synonym, which we also see in phrases like "trials and tribulations" or "vim and vigor". As in these examples, you include the common word because without it, people won't always know what the rare word means. But the very act of doing that makes the rare word completely useless. Redundancy in this form should basically always be removed.

"...therefore, the scenario considered in [reference] is situated diametrically opposite to ours."

This is another example of the cliche above. The word "diametrically" isn't doing any work the word "opposite" isn't already doing. It's only there for the purpose of being a long word.

"The experiments in [references] corroborates with our results".

This is not correct usage: the word "with" shouldn't be there. Incorrect usage of a long word is very bad: people who don't know it will be annoyed with you, and people who do will judge you.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Sep 8 at 15:28
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    For the third point, I believe the OP was getting an incorrect replacement, as well. I don't think "collaborates" fits the sentence at all. – Michael Richardson Sep 8 at 22:36
  • +1 for the phrases "trials and tribulations" and "vim and vigor", which are actually examples of hendiadys, from a Greek term that means "one by means of two". Some more examples of hendiadys: "part and parcel", "nice and warm", "the steep and thorny way" (from Hamlet). Unless one's rhetorical skills are exceptionally well developed, it may be wise not to overuse hendiadys -- especially in engineering and STEM fields... – Mico Sep 9 at 2:30
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    "Diametrically opposite" has an actual purpose: it's more intense and precise than simply "opposite". I've heard the phrase many times. It even has a dictionary entry: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diametrically%20opposite – Buge Sep 9 at 8:00
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The rule is:

Never use an uncommon word where a common word can do the job just as well.

This is to make it easier to read your work.

You said

My intention is merely for the writing to be conversational

However, "Germane," "Scenario," and "Diametrically" are not words used in conversation. Words like these will immediately jump out to native English speakers as inappropriate for scientific language. In my personal experience, highly educated native Chinese speakers know these uncommon words and use them in their writing, but some native English speakers will not know them and quite a lot of other English language learners, who are the majority of your readership, will not know them.

Write as simply as possible, but no simpler.

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    I would disagree. Maybe my case is rare but in academia at least "germane" and "Diametrically" come up more frequently than in casual conversation. "Scenario" is used quite often in business. I agree write simpler because it conveys understanding - but "germane", "diametrically" (though I hear "orthogonal" more), and "scenario" are not complicated words and, speaking as a native speaker, are well known in spoken (American) English. I'd almost argue "germane" is too casual for this paper and "related" is significantly more proper in this context. – user117751 Sep 6 at 5:04
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    Yes, as a native speaker it wouldn't even register with me that there was anything unusual in those words. Of course, there will be some native speakers who don't know them, but they wouldn't be considered difficult words by the sort of people who read academic papers. – Especially Lime Sep 6 at 8:40
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    @CL40 Note that "orthogonal" and "diametrically opposite" are not synonyms. The first is more like "irrelevant" than "opposite". (And you never said otherwise, but your comment could be taken to imply that they are synonyms.) – Charles Staats Sep 6 at 12:28
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    Re "Never use an uncommon word...", the given examples ARE common words that should be familiar to any educated English speaker. – jamesqf Sep 6 at 18:30
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    "germane" vs "related" (synonym): trends.google.com/trends/… – Pat-Laugh Sep 6 at 20:45
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Yeah, I've had this before. My PhD supervisor* removed several of my perfectly fine English words with simpler ones. I still have the svn commit message saying, basically: "removing difficult words, but I'll allow 'aberrant'. I've learned something today :)".

In hindsight, I am not convinced that my supervisor was wrong. While my words were accurate, it doesn't hurt to write papers in a form that is more easily accessible to a wide audience. After all, I would like my papers to be read by an audience that does not exclusively stem from a native English speaking country. There are 1.1 billion Chinese people on this planet, and they encompass a substantial number of scientists.

The "corroborates->collaborates" suggestion is obviously wrong, and you can respectfully point that out to your co-author. But for the other two suggestions, I tend to agree with your co-authors that going for a simpler, shorter version is probably a better idea. For instance, where you write "these related works are germane to our present discussion", what is the point of the sentence anyway? Obviously, any related work that you discuss is assumed to be relevant to the discussion in the paper that you currently write, because everyone assumes that you're not wasting everyone's time. And where you write: "...therefore, the scenario considered in [reference] is situated diametrically opposite to ours.", you can also write "hence, the scenario from [x] is the polar opposite of ours". I don't think that the one version is necessarily better than the other, but I do think that they hold the same information, and if one version makes your co-authors happier than the other, then why not go for that version?

*my PhD and subsequent research is in the field of data mining, so definitely STEM.

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    Well, a good reason might be that in academic journals, diametrically opposite is far more common than polar opposite, and most readers are more familiar with the normal academic register. Even in normal printed books, polar opposite only became more common since around 2010. Using ones normal academic language generally makes things easier to understand. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Sep 7 at 1:34
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    And trying to 'simplify' ones language normally makes things more difficult for international readers, because they are used to the normal academic register, not what people think is 'easier' to understand. (Full disclosure: I teach academic reading and writing skills for non-native English speaking students at UK universities). – Araucaria - Not here any more. Sep 7 at 1:44
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. - what are you talking about? Replacing "germane" with "relevant" will improve readability for learners by a hundred fold. – Davor Sep 8 at 11:53
  • @Davor I seriously doubt it, but the argument is that scientific papers are written in Academese (instead of English), a language where "germane" is more easily understood than "relevant". Researchers learn Academese, not English, by reading papers and going to conferences, and should be addressed in that language, the reasoning goes. I would really much like to see an empirical study of that (= give researchers that are non-native speakers a text in simple English vs. Academese and test how fast they read, how much they remember etc. ; test PhD students vs older researchers too). – UJM Sep 9 at 18:12
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We are working in a North American university. However, some of my colleagues are non-native speakers (who have stayed here for something like 20 plus years). I wonder if this phenomenon is more wide spread or it is just happening to me.

No, I would ask you the same thing. When you write a paper, you want to write it for an international audience to maximize the number of people who can read it. For me that means two things:

  • When possible write it in English rather than in your native language, since English is the lingua franca for a lot of STEM fields
  • Don't make it unnecessarily hard to read for a non-native speaker.

I am not a native speaker, but after working 8 years in international companies I think I am fairly proficient in English. And I would have to look up the words "germane" and "corroborates". It is fine to use less common terms if they are needed for precision or are common in industry. If I need to look up a word and find that it could have been expressed in a simpler way, I am getting frustrated. I would probably even think less of the paper, since a good writer would be able to convey complex technical situations in a simpler way and someone who uses flowery language might want to hide a lack of substance. If I am going through a lot of papers, I just might skip one that is unnecessarily frustrating.

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    One of the Wikipedia languages is "Simple English". Are you suggesting it should be exclusively used in scientific literature? – yarchik Sep 6 at 21:54
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    @yarchik the key point in this answer (+1), to me, is that less common terms should be used when they are needed for their specific meaning. For example, nobody would be an eye at the phrase "results were inconclusive" in scientific writing - while it is uncommon in spoken language, it is a precise an succinct replacement for a longer phrase, something like "no clear conclusions could be drawn from these results". OP's example "these related works are germane to the our present discussion" can be restated in a simpler way, and possibly removed altogether, without any loss. – juod Sep 6 at 23:40
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    @yarchik See for example Randall Munroe's The Thing Explainer (the book uses only the ten-hundred most common words) – Hagen von Eitzen Sep 7 at 20:27
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    @yarchik English as the lingua franca is quite different from "Simple English". Its users are usually proficient in the language, but they may have a narrow vocabulary, as they only use the language in specific contexts. They may have huge gaps in the vocabulary native speakers learn as kids or in school, and they may have a hard time understanding idioms that require a specific cultural context or where words are used outside their literal meanings. – Jouni Sirén Sep 7 at 22:05
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    @Jouni, true. There were times when I knew "increase velocity" but didn't know "speed up" :) However, we learn by reading good language (even in scientific papers) rather than the 'dumbed down' one. – Zeus Sep 8 at 1:39
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I'm adding an answer for the purpose of voting, because I completely disagree with the (currently 8) answers and highly-upvoted comments to this question. None of the examples that the OP gave are uncommon or exotic words, to a well-read and reasonably-literate English speaker. To me, they were all entirely transparent. If you put them in a list of random words and asked me which ones were "flowery" I'd be hard-pressed to identify them. The idea that professional academics need to look these words up and claim that they are new to them is really quite hard to believe.

I'm reminded of a time I got refused a programming job for suggesting a standard textbook algorithm (Horner's Method), which the reviewer couldn't understand; similarly, when I sometimes bring this up online, many commenters likewise agree they would prohibit it from any codebase as "too opaque". But how can (computer) science progress without using new observations/algorithms?

Likewise, I've overheard my colleagues in the English department at the community college where I work (U.S.) saying that they now routinely have science PhDs from nearby graduate schools being referred to them for writing assistance, because those students commonly can't write even a simple English sentence correctly. So I think that there's an aspect of writing skills (and standards) for students in science programs that has very much fallen down in recent years.

The fact that you observe top authors in your field using a similar writing style is the most important piece of evidence, in my opinion. I'd recommend that you continue being literate, write in a style that feels natural and expressive to you, and pursue the goal of developing into a top researcher/author in your field.

Also, I would recommend that you get different co-authors in the top tier of your field. Consider looking for articles that you find inspiring and well-written and reaching out to those authors for actual (ahem) collaborations.

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    I would disagree with this, I'm a native english speaker and would say I'm well read but I needed to look up germane (and couldn't determine its meaning from the example sentence). Further, since science is a global endeavour, I would say its unfair to expect non-native speakers to have to develop native level English skills as well as competency in their field of expertise. Rather it makes more sense for native speakers to learn how to use common words more skillfully. – N A McMahon Sep 6 at 17:40
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    @N A McMahon As a non-native English speaker, I must say that the idea that non-native English speakers would find same difficult to comprehend as the native English speakers do looks like a very good example of bias. In fact I know quite a number of people who have the opposite issue: As non-native speakers, they don't use the "common" words, and are more comfortable with "flowery" language instead, because they tend to be more common in the subsets of English language they use in their daily interactions with the language. – AndrejaKo Sep 6 at 18:27
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    I'm not a native speaker but I prefer "nice" sentences over Wiki-style "Simple English" (which @yarchik mentions in his comment to another answer). Academic writing is not meant to be a technical documentation. IMHO it is acceptable, and even desired, to show off some level of erudition. Sometimes this can be overdone, and then it's bad. Otherwise it's ok. – ciamej Sep 7 at 1:51
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    Re Horner's method, that's absolutely hilarious. I didn't know that alg by name until just now, but not only is it in the textbook you mentioned, but it's also in the bible of C itself, K&R (at least 2nd edition), which is where I first encountered it. For a fellow C programmer (your interviewer) to not be familiar with it is frankly astounding. Re "germane", I'm a native English speaker with a substantial interest in linguistics, but had never heard the word before today. – user125755 Sep 7 at 10:41
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    I wholeheartedly agree, but need to point out that using an advanced english vocabulary needs to be done perfectly, i.e. not by merely filling in redundant, fancy near-synonyms. Only then the reader actually profits, and in more than one way! – Karl Sep 7 at 22:56
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In a famous literary feud, William Faulkner allegedly said of Ernst Hemingway's writing that it has

never been known to send the reader to the dictionary

Hemingway's response pretty much sums it up:

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

If you have to pick one side, err on Hemingway's in academic writing. The only point of an academic paper is to get your ideas across to your readers in the most efficient way possible. In particular, it is not to impress them with your English prowess.

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It is not necessary to keep a language in your papers sound like manuals, but at least it should not be confusing and overwhelmingly long. The language should be balanced between boring and flowery. Especially for people who read your paper to learn something new it is important that things are clear and precise. Stick to words you define, do not use synonymous words you did not define for things you defined (which is also part of a flowery language, but this can be really confusing).

So, it remains to cite Karl Popper:

Jeder Intellektuelle hat eine ganz besondere Verantwortung. Er hatte das Privileg und die Gelegenheit, zu studieren; dafür schuldet er es seinen Mitmenschen (oder „der Gesellschaft“), die Ergebnisse seiner Studien in der einfachsten und klarsten und verständlichsten Form darzustellen. Das Schlimmste – die Sünde gegen den heiligen Geist – ist, wenn die Intellektuellen versuchen, sich ihren Mitmenschen gegenüber als große Propheten aufzuspielen und sie mit orakelnden Philosophien zu beeindrucken. Wer’s nicht einfach und klar sagen kann, der soll schweigen und weiterarbeiten, bis er’s klar sagen kann.

Translation by me:

All intellectual people have a particular responsibility. They had the privilege and the opportunity to study; in this way, they owe their fellows (or the society) to show the results of their studies in the clearest and most comprehensible form. The worst [...] thing [they] can do to their fellows is to play prophet and to impress them with oracle-like philosophies. Someone who cannot say it clearly, should be quiet and continue working until they can say it clearly.

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  • It depends on your audience. I would say that you'd never go wrong using the language of your peers if that is the target audience. The only odd factor in this situation is that the co-authors are less likely to have the same reading grade-level as their English-native speaking counterparts. Note, in the case of dumb Americans or highly motivated foreign nationals, the opposite can be true. – Astara Sep 7 at 4:34
  • @Astara: The OP mentioned that some (but not necessarily all) of their colleagues are non-native speakers. – Schmuddi Sep 7 at 7:38
  • I addressed your point in a short answer posted as a comment to the OP. Unfortunately it was deleted. It cannot be posted as an ANSWER because I don't have enough points to post an answer -- only to post a comment. Obviously the rules are more important than any answer. In such an environment what can one do, but attempt to do the right thing. – Astara Sep 8 at 18:59
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The main objective of scientific writing is (or, at least, is supposed to be) to communicate the results, proofs, and general thought process in the clearest way possible. By itself, using a rare or not very well-known word is not a crime and it may make sense, for example, when it has precisely the meaning you intend to convey while more common words can only approximate it or have alternative meanings that you want to exclude, so if you do it sparingly and with clear understanding of the logic behind your preference, I would say "go ahead!".

That some people may have to look at the dictionary one extra time doesn't bother me too much: I like to learn new words myself and the common practice of sending the reader to the library to dig up some hard to get journal for a proof of some half-page long lemma that could be easily included into the main text irritates me much more. The bad practice, IMHO, is only using fancy words merely for the sake of doing it.

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    Words which have such a precise and special meaning that most people don't know them probably loose this precision when translated - and even if not, if they are too special to be known to the majority of native speakers - since exacly this very special nature might be particularly hard to translate. – user151413 Sep 6 at 19:35
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    @user151413 I guess you've missed the point. People won't look up the word in e.g. English-Chinese dictionary, but in an English-English one, so no translation is implied. – ciamej Sep 7 at 1:35
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    @user151413 In my opinion if you work in a given language, you should be proficient in that language. If your language skills are at the basic level you simply should improve or resign. That might be unjust for non-native speakers of English, but I believe the same would apply if the current lingua franca of science was French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Greek or even Latin. We cannot lower standards to the lowest possible to accommodate as many people as possible, because we will end up with Wikipedia's Simple English. This does not improve communication. Improving one's language skills does. – ciamej Sep 7 at 14:36
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    @user151413: Let me repeat. I am very happy that some leading French mathematicians write papers in their excellent and erudite French rather than their merely very good English. It gives me an opportunity to learn excellent French. – Alexander Woo Sep 7 at 21:37
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    @user151413 At my school, the use of an English-German dictionary was regarded as gross educational malpractice. With good reason. – Karl Sep 7 at 23:03
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Aside from what everybody else has said, I think it's worth noting that you're not prominent in your field (yet). Prominent people have more leeway than newbies. This is unfair, but it's the way it is.

So yes: write as simply as you can, without losing the complexity of the points you're making.

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    Great point. By the way: This phenomenon is also visible in Stack Exchange votes. Plus 1 from me. – user111388 Sep 6 at 16:30
  • You mean prominent people write more comprehensible papers even when they use the same incomprehensible words? – user151413 Sep 6 at 19:56
  • Skeptical. This would seem to imply that either (a) people who use "flowery" language become top in field (thus desirable!), or (b) people who become prominent change their writing style over time to become more difficult. – Daniel R. Collins Sep 7 at 2:56
  • Why do you have to mix this in? Do you personally know the poster and his achievements? Maybe what you write in the 1st paragraph is true, but what is the connection to the topic of discussion. – yarchik Sep 8 at 16:05
  • @Daniel R. Collins: option (c) : professor BigWig used to go through many corrections in their draft to make the language as clear as possible, but now that they are prominent they can just write stylistic garbage without fear of pushback. Co-authors don't insist, reviewers are intimidated ("if prof BigWig writes thusly, it must be the correct way" + "they know the editor and they evaluate my next grant, I should not call out the style"). This hypothesis is supported by the amount of scientific garbage some BigWigs got away with (if you do not know an example in your field, lucky you!). – UJM Sep 9 at 18:29
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I will preface this with confirming that I am a native speaker of English.

I would say the first two cases given by your co-authors should be corrected though (as many others have pointed out) in the third example the correction is wrong (though I also think it could be written better, and shouldn't have had with).

My feeling is that what you want to do is generate emotion in the reader as they read your paper. You want to build anticipation, tease the solutions and results, and feel the excitement when everything comes together. You want this so that the reader doesn't have to slog through yet another string of logical arguments. One way to achieve this (and I'm guessing this is relevant to at least some cases) is to use less common words from the English language. These may be words that as well as their broad meaning have sublet undertones of meaning flavouring them.

An example of these undertones is my use of flavouring in the previous sentence. Broadly it says there is general information in a sentence, and hints to help understand the meaning of other sentances. Subtlety it suggesting that a writer can take a boring/bland sentence and choose to add further hints of something that makes the text and enjoyment to read.

Another example would be verdant grass, broadly it means "green grass" but carries subtle meanings of lots of life. If we needed to use this in some academic text then maybe we might prefer to avoid verdant if possible. We could then use green grass, but then we've lost the subtle undertones, but perhaps we could fix that by using lush to get lush green grass instead. Now we have something very similar to what we wanted to say but by making use of more common words rather than something that would work brilliantly in a novel.

In addition to my broad thoughts above I'll go through my thoughts on the three sentences and how they could be improved.

The examples

For the first example I needed to look up germane, since your primary goal is to communicate information clearly that suggests there would be a better word (e.g. relevant). Only your secondary goal is to make it enjoyable to read, so if making it enjoyable to read requires people to pull out a dictionary or obscure information then it should take a back seat to writing boring but clear text. And don't forget that you should only expect your target audience to be competent at English, not have native level fluency.

these related works are germane to our present discussion.

Why germane? What does this give that related doesn't, is there any difference from what is said by "these works are related to our present discussion". If there is a difference can you correct this simplified sentence using more common words rather then reaching for a less common one.

One reason I could see you might be wanting to do this is to slow the reader down so that they think more about what you just said, and to separate what follows from what you've just written. In which case you could try something else while still restricting yourself to simple words (e.g. use the passive voice), "The work(s) presented in [citation(s)] must be considered for our present discussion" (though I still feel like this sentence could be improved).

...therefore, the scenario considered in [reference] is situated diametrically opposite to ours.

Unlike the first example I (personally) don't have to go to the dictionary for this, though it still feels bad to me. The big picture of what you are saying is Scenario in [Ref] is not the same as our work. However there are implications made by your choice of words, something like: There is a location in parameter space related to our work, and the work in [ref] is located at the complete opposite location. The parameter space idea probably comes to me because you used "situated" rather than because of "diametrically".

Why not something like "Therefore, the results in [references] are inconsistent with the scenario we've considered." Does this convey the same ideas that you wanted originally, if not could you start from this and generate what you want to say?

The experiments in [references] corroborates with our results

Here corroborates is correct but you shouldn't have with. However I feel like what you are conveying in the subtle undertones is wrong. Broadly you are saying experiments in [refs] agree with our results and thus strengthen our arguement. However at the subtle layer I feel you are saying [refs] decided to check our results and will strengthen our claims which is causally the opposite of what is going on. Depending on what you are trying to say perhaps "Our results corroborate the hypothesis put forward in [ref]". Or if you are trying to use the references to strengthen a claim put forward in your paper, "The experiments in [ref] fit the framework of [put claim here]"

The last thing to remember is that different people will interpret the subtle information differently, though their interpretation is still valid. So when you write like this you can't just assume that everyone will interpret it the same as you do.

But this also means there is flexibility in how you write and so you can develop a style you are comfortable with, enjoy writing, and take pride in the results. However whatever style you develop it must be constrained by the ways that your target audience will interpret it, and the general skill level that the majority of your audience has.

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    Something that I think is getting dropped from the discussion here (and in other comments/posts), is that "germane" is not just "related" -- it also calls out that the other work has bearing on the specific aspects of the topic that are under discussion, whereas "related" is a vaguer term and does not as strongly imply relevance. – RLH Sep 6 at 19:35
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    Here's an example: Take a paper about automated driving of tractor-trailer trucks, and in particular control strategies for avoiding an unexpected obstacle in the road. A previous paper about having automated cars avoid the obstacle would be related, but the results may not necessarily be germane to the present problem if, e.g., the approach taken in the car paper requires maneuvers that are fundamentally not available to a truck towing a heavy trailer. – RLH Sep 6 at 20:08
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    @RLH Yes, "germane" says more than just "related". But you still don't need both words, since "related" doesn't really add anything. – Especially Lime Sep 7 at 7:34
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    @EspeciallyLime "Related" has nothing to do with "germane". And in the OP's sentence, "related" would most likely not mean "related to the current discussion" in any case, but "related to each other". – Araucaria - Not here any more. Sep 8 at 22:25
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. That makes sense, thank you. I hadn't spotted that interpretation. – Especially Lime Sep 9 at 7:08

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