Thursday, May 28, 2015

Are scientists boring writers?


I was talking with an undergrad who is doing her honours project with me about the papers she’s reading, and she mentioned how difficult (or at least slow going) she’s found some of them. The papers are mostly reviews or straightforward experimental studies, but I remember feeling the same way as an undergraduate. Academic science writing uses its own language, and until you are familiar with the terms and phrases and article structure, it can be hard going. Some areas, for example theoretical papers, even have their own particular dialects (you don’t see the phrase “mean-field approximation” in widespread usage, for example). Grad school has the advantage of providing total immersion into the language, but for many students, lots of time/guidance and patience is necessary to understand the primary literature. But is science necessarily a boring language?

A recent blog piece argues that academic science writing needs to fundamentally change because it is boring, repetitive, and uninspired. And as a result, the scientific paper needs to evolve. The post quotes a biologist at University of Amsterdam, Filipe Branco dos Santos: he feels that the problem is rooted in the conservative nature of scientists, leading them to replicate the same article structure over and over again. Journals act as the gatekeeper for article style too – submission requirements enforce the inclusion of particular sections (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, etc), and determine every thing from word counts, figure number, text size, and even title structure and length. Reviewers and editors are within their rights to require stylistic changes. The piece includes a few tips for better article writing: choose interesting titles, write in the active tense, use short sentences, avoid jargon, include a lay summary. It’s difficult to disagree with those points, but unfortunately the article makes no attempt to suggest what, precisely, we should be doing differently. Still, it suggests that consideration of the past, present and future of scientific writing is necessary.

One glaring issue with the post is that the argument that scientists are stuck in a pattern established hundreds of years ago ignores just how much science papers have changed, stylistically. Scientific papers are a very old phenomenon – the oldest, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, was first published in 1665. The early papers were not formatted in the introduction / methods / results / discussion style of today, and were often excerpts from letters or reports.

From the first issue, “Of the New American Whale-fishing about the Bermudas” begins:

“Here follows a relation, somewhat more divertising, than the precedent Accounts; which is about the new Whale-fishing in the West Indies about the Bermudas, as it was delivered by an understanding and hardy Sea-man, who affirmed he had been at the killing work himself.”

Ecological papers written in the early 1900s are also strikingly different in style than those today. Sentences are long and complex, words like “heretofore”, “therefore”, and “thus” find frequent usage, and the language is rather flowery and descriptive.

From a paper in the Botanical Gazette in 1913, the first sentence:

“Plant geographers and climatologists have long been convinced that temperature is one of the most important conditions governing the distribution of plants and animals, but very little has as yet been accomplished toward finding out what sort of quantitative relationships may exist between the nature of floral and faunal associations and the temperature conditions that are geographically concomitant therewith.”

While this opening makes perfect sense and establishes the question to be dealt with in the paper, it probably wouldn’t make it past review without comment.

Some of my favourite examples that highlight how much ecological papers have changed come from R.H. Whittaker’s papers. He is clearly an avid (and verbose) naturalist and his papers are peppered with evocative phrases. For example, “If, for example, one stands on a viewpoint in the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the autumn, one sees a complex varicoloured mantle of vegetation covering the mountain topography” and “The student of vegetation seeks to construct systems of abstraction by which relationships in this mantle of vegetation may be comprehended.” Indeed!

Today, in contrast, academic science writing is minimalist – it is direct, focused, and clarity is prized. Sentences are typically shorter, with a single focal thought, and the aim is for a clear narrative without the peripatetic asides common in older work. These shifts in style reflect the prevailing thoughts about how to balance the role of scientific papers as a communication device versus as a contribution to the scientific record. It seems that science papers may be boring now because authors and editors would rather a paper be a little dry rather than be unclear or difficult to replicate. (Of course, some papers manage to be both boring and confusing, so this is not always successful….) Modern papers have a lot of modern bells and whistles too. The move away from physical copies of papers to pdfs and online only colour versions and supplementary information has made sharing results easier and more comprehensive than ever.

If there is going to be a revolution in academic science writing, it will probably be tied to the ongoing technological changes in science and publishing. The technology is certainly already present to make science more interactive to the reader, which might make it less boring? It is already possible to include videos or gifs in online supplements (a great example being this puppet show explaining Diversitree). More seriously, supplements can include data, computer code used for analyses or simulations, additional results. It’s possible to integrate GitHub repositories with articles tied to a paper’s analyses, or link markdown scripts for producing manuscripts. The one limitation is that these approaches is that they aren’t included in the main text and so most people never see them. It’s only a matter of time before we move towards a paper format that includes embedded elements (extending on current online versions that include links to reference papers). One could imagine plots that could be manipulated, or interactive maps, allowing you to explore the study site through satellite images of the vegetation and terrain.

Increasingly interactive papers might make it more fun to work through a paper, but a paper must stand alone without them. For me, the key to a well-written paper is that there is always a narrative or purpose to the writing. Papers should establish a focus and ensure connections between thoughts and paragraphs are always obvious to the reader. The goal is to never lose the reader in the details, because the bigger picture narrative can be read between the lines. That said, I rarely remember if a paper is boringly written: I remember the quality of the ideas and the science. I would always take a paper with interesting ideas and average writing over a stylish paper with no substance. So perhaps academic science writing is an acquired (or learned) taste, and certainly that taste could be improved, but it's clear that science writing is constantly evolving and will continue to do so.

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