NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Friday, February 18, 2011

How to read a scientific paper…

My good friend Sarah Hoyt asked me to do a special crossover  between her blog “According to Hoyt”  ( and “The Lab Rats’ Guide to the Brain” at Teddy’s RatLab (  For those of you joining us from the world outside the lab, I am Tedd Roberts, a professional researcher in the field of Neuroscience, and an apprentice SF writer.  As a Ph.D., I talk to a number of writers and give advice – some requested, some gratuitous (grin!) about getting the science right in Science Fiction.  Here in Teddy’s Rat Lab I am working on “The Lab Rats’ Guide” as a way to describe the basics of brain science in an informal way, without losing the accuracy of the science.

After all, *some* brain science in TV and Movies is just laughable.  What?  You’re not laughing?  Well, trust me, the doctors, scientists and students who watch and read are laughing; that is, when they aren’t hanging their collective heads in shame.

I’m sure you’ve seen it – the brain probe that is long enough to stick out the other side of the skull, yet somehow it never seems to do any damage when inserted into the back of the brain.  The outer space doctor emoting over “The engram has wrapped itself around the neocortex and we’ll never get it out!” 

Right.  Sure.  And the engines, they canna take ennimore, Cap’n. Yup, a whole university’s worth of professors is shaking their heads over that one.

So – as a writer, or as a reader, what are you supposed to do?  Read a scientific paper?

In a word?  No.

My advice, don’t do it. “That way lies danger, young apprentice.”  Scientific papers *really* aren't written for nonscientists.  They are full of phrases like "Under conditions of altered physiological constituents of the interstitial fluid, we determined a significant 5% increase in intracellular osmolality."  Now, if you're a scientist you can read that and figure out that when the liquid outside a cell is salty, the liquid inside a cell gets a little bit salty, too. Scientific writing is *stilted*.  It uses a very rigorous style that is meant to convey certain facts in a manner such that other scientists will know to look at the information in a certain way.

I have a colleague that says "Scientists only really only know how to write about 20 sentences.  They just have to learn how to use those same sentences over and over until they run out of results to include in a paper."  He should know, he's written over 150 articles for scientific journals, and they all use the same basic construction.  Only another scientist, schooled in the same art of manuscript preparation can truly wring all of the essential facts out of a scientific paper.

"Psst, hey Boss?"

"Yes, Ratley, what is it?"

"What about scientific magazines?  The Grad Students keep leaving them lying around in the lab.  Surely they're not so bad!"

"That's true, Ratley, but sometimes I think those magazines are edited by Ratfink.  Somehow, people seem to get impressions about science that the scientists themselves never intended, particularly in the magazines that have "Popular" in the name.  Unfortunately, the better public science magazines are still scientific journals, and the articles can still be hard to understand."

[Oh, sorry folks, Ratley is my assistant.  He showed up in the lab one day, and asked for a job.  Who better to handle lab rats, than ... a Lab Rat?  I introduced him and the other LabRats a couple of days ago over at the Guide.  Oh, and yes, I’m translating.  When Ratley speaks, most people just hear “squeak.”]

Back on track.  I'm sure you've seen them on the newsstand, Magazines with Science or Scientific in the title.  There are two high quality "public" journals ("Science" and "Nature") that publish new or important results with broad appeal.  Manuscripts are typically submitted to a board of editors, who then send them to be read and reviewed by other scientists in the appropriate field before the editors will consider publishing.  If an article passes this "peer review" and is also considered to be of interest to persons other than just those who study that exact phenomenon, then the magazine will consider publishing it.  These magazines are considered "public" because scientists and knowledgeable people from many different scientific fields read them.  There are other magazines that take science seriously, such as "Scientific American," either by inviting scientists to write articles for the general public, or having their own writers interview scientists before writing an article.  Then there are the ones that are not so serious - those are usually the ones with "Popular" in the name.  Getting an article to be understandable by the public requires someone that can *write* first, and the science comes second – sometimes without even talking to scientists.  It is very rare that a scientist is such a great communicator that they can write Sunday Supplement articles on science that anybody can understand – the late Carl Sagan was one, and the Science Fiction and Fact author Isaac Asimov was another.  The hazard in writing an article so that anyone can understand it, is that you might lose the science along the way.

So, "hard science" is ... hard, and "easy science" may not be science at all. In fact, I have quite often found that some of the "Popular" and "Today" magazines can sometimes take a decidedly *antiscience* stance. Is there a middle ground?  Sure.  If you are serious about including science, and in particular brain science, in your writing, consider taking a couple of courses at your local community college.  Often there are classes in physiology, neuroscience or psychology for non-majors – you may even find one taught by the same professor that teaches a university course to PhDs. Take the survey courses, learn the language.  It may not help you understand The New England Journal of Medicine, but it can certainly help with Scientific American.  The other thing it will help with is ...

Ask a scientist. 

"Ya want I should call Ratley and get some help in here, Teddy?"

"No, Ratso.  I think I can handle this one."

"Are ya sure?  Da emails have been pilin' up ever since ya posted dat blog on da Internet"

"No."  (pant) "I can handle it." (heave) "Man, that's heavy. How many more sacks of mail? Oh, heck no.  Yeah, Ratso, call the guys in here, we've got to sort through all of this stuff."

"Hey, Boss.  You've got more fan mail."

"No Ratley, not fan mail.  More questions, but I can't figure out how they got my address.  Do you know?  Ratfink ?"

(Ratfink leans on a mail sack, whistling)

"Ratfink?  You *do* know!  You did this, didn't you!"

"Sure.  You know folks, Teddy here will be *glad* to answer your questions, just email him at..."

"No, Ratfink.  Don't you dare, or no cheese."


You've probably figured out by now that if you *really* want to get a better understanding of the brain, who better to ask than a real brain scientist?  There are a bunch of us out there that are fans of *whatever* fiction genre you might choose.  Science Fiction is a favorite, and there are quite a few scientists that write as well.  Many years ago at a very large scientific conference, one professor had a booth selling (and signing!) his mystery books.  They were quite good, and appealing to scientists and nonscientists as well.  However, we scientists are not always the best at *writing* fiction, but we sure can tell when the science is wrong.  There are over 30,000 people attending the Society for Neuroscience meeting each year, and if you mention “Spock’s Brain” or “The Matrix” they will laugh, but at the same time they will speak well of “Memento.”

Need help finding a scientist?  Just ask on whichever bulletin board you frequent.  Ask the local medical school or university, find out who teaches the night classes in Biology, Chemistry  or Physics at the local community college.  Ask someone you know.

Getting the science right is *worth* it.  You owe it to the readers.  You’ll find that many if not most scientists will appreciate it – but be sure to explain to them that The Story comes first.  You aren’t writing a Ph.D. dissertation.  They’ll understand.

And who knows?  You might find out that you’ve gained a whole bunch of new fans!


  1. You're missing at least one more reason why going to journals isn't a good option for research. The journals keep their content behind expensive paywalls, and trying to get around them for anything outside of physical sciences/engineering often ranges from time consuming to impossible.

  2. "Ding, Ding, Ding!" Thanks for playing, Dan, that is another correct answer!

    Even for professors, our libraries can only maintain a certain number of subscriptions. In addition, there are a few large publishing houses that publish *many* different journals. One publishing house in particular is not carried by my library, therefore I cannot access any of their 25+ journals online for free. It costs me anywhere from $15 to $50 for access to a single article.

    On the other hand, since 2007, NIH has required that *all* manuscripts coming from NIH-supported research *must* be available free-of-charge starting one year after publication date. Some journals make their content free after a year; for others, search "Pubmed Central" for the articles.

  3. 99% of the time I go looking for a paper it's because I read about it the press somewhere and either wanted more detailed information or suspected the journalist of garbling it badly, so delayed free access isn't of much use to me.

    How often are the paywalls a problem for you? There're some commercial sites that allow a small number of articles to be accessed before throwing up a paywall. Would something like this be feasible, or would even a single free article/month undermine their revenue streams too badly?


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