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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

COMMENT: Scientific Writing [Full link to blog for email clients.]

A recent online discussion turned to the topic of the writing and comprehension qualities of scientific authors. A main theme of this discussion was that scientists, in the course of writing their scientific papers, use sentence construction, grammar, voice, and tense that would not be appropriate to any written material outside the scientific field. The discussion was started with the comment "glad I am, that speak like a scientist, I do not."

It's true, scientific writing is not the easiest thing to read. Many of the constraints of the scientific publication process contribute, but a certain amount of responsibility must also be taken by the scientists who do the writing. In many cases, they write the way their mentors and advisors wrote.  As a result, most scientific papers are full of passive voice, run on sentences, and very stilted structure. I will not excuse the outright bad writing, but there are a number of reasons why scientific writing is different than writing news articles, biographies, histories, or fiction. This is a major reason why I have chosen to "translate" brain science into terms that are much easier for writers and readers to understand.
  1. Scientific writing is frequently in passive voice, past tense. A scientific article must describe events that occurred in the past: the experiment was run, the results were observed.  Use of present tense is typically reserved only for discussion and implications of the results. Use of active voice is often frowned upon by "professional" scientists, due to the association with persuasion. A writer who uses active voice is attempting to persuade the reader, and therefore must have weak scientific evidence. I'm not saying this is true, but it is a common attitude among scientists.
  2. A scientific paper must present facts and data in specific formats which are accepted by the scientific field in which it is published. There are certain accepted conventions in how the data is presented, statistics that must be provided to support the conclusions, reference to figures illustrating the conclusions, and the manner in which conclusions can be reached. These conventions are as different from public media as the language used in the legal profession or in a contract.
  3. Journal articles have very stilted construction. One of my mentors often remarks that there are only about 10 phrases that can be used to accurately describe scientific results. Writing a scientific paper is an exercise in writing those 10 phrases in as few variations as possible into an approximately 5000 word paper. Again, this is largely a result of the standards of the field in which one is educated. It is also a product of how one's mentor or advisor wrote. Thus, it tends to be a result of the culture of scientific writing.
  4. Scientific writing is meant to convey the impression of a professional in the field, even if the writer is still a student. Therefore, students are encouraged to adopt the formalism of their advisors, and of any papers that they have read while a student. The student that either gives an oral presentation, or presents a written paper, with informal writing style conveys the impression of incomplete training in his field.
  5. The use of jargon is not so much meant to make the material incomprehensible by the lay public, but as a shortcut to enable the writer not to have to provide complete details and background of the scientific material. If I as a scientific writer refer to "creb" I have saved considerable verbiage compared to the description, "cyclic AMP response element binding protein, a gene product which responds to neuron activation and produces metabolic changes in the target neuron." Yes, jargon is a shortcut and it does make scientific papers more difficult to understand by those who are not well-versed in the shortcut codes used by the scientists. However at the same time since the terms are understood by scientists, they enable faster, more efficient communication of very sophisticated concepts.
  6. Scientific authors often do not have access to copy editors and proofreaders to correct the grammar and sentence structure in their papers. An unfortunate consequence of the proliferation of scientific communication, increasing costs of publication, and increasing "open access" publication, is that publishers are reducing the staff who process scientific manuscripts into publications. As a result many journals now require an author to produce formatted text, and even fully formatted articles with embedded figures, and perform little to no copy editing and typesetting of their own. Since all manuscripts are now electronically submitted, and the author has supposedly performed spell checks on the documents before they are submitted, the publisher need only perform rudimentary copy editing functions before sending the paper to the printer. And we all know how well spell check and autocorrects work, not to mention dictation software such as I am forced to use. [In fact, this essay had to be copyedited by a friend to correct Dragon's mistakes. Thanks, Stephanie Osborn!].
  7. Scientists frequently write their manuscripts at night and on weekends, not while sitting in their offices or laboratories. The typical laboratory scientist spends between four and eight hours a day in a laboratory, "at the bench" in researcher terms, or if they have entered the administration phase of their career, in meetings and performing departmental functions. E-mail between staff members and with colleagues consumes another substantial portion of the day, as do phone calls and teleconferences with colleagues at other institutions. And then there are great writing duties: in the current economic and scientific funding climate, it is necessary for a research scientist to write a new grant application every 4 to 6 months. The competition for grant funding is intense, and many scientists are leaving the field because they can no longer afford to support their laboratories. NIH is funding less than 10% of applications, and NSF funding is even lower. Private foundation and institutional funding typically only accounts for about 15 to 20% of research dollars. Thus researchers must spend a large portion of their time attempting to get the grant funding to support the next research project. This means that the time available for the researchers to write the manuscript is limited and they often have to take their work home with them. Scientific papers get written at night and on weekends after the researcher has already spent more than a full day at work. That does have an effect on quality.
  8. As much as academic and research institutions use scientific publication record as a criterion for pay and advancement, they don't actually allocate time in the day for the scientists to write. Neither do they provide access to the tools that would allow scientists to become better writers. When I first entered the field 30 years ago, several departments had copy editors and professional grant writers who would assist the scientists in preparing their publications and applications. Since that time, most funding agencies no longer allow such positions to be paid from research grant funds, and the universities, hospitals and foundations prefer not to spend their "overhead" on personnel positions that do not directly contribute to the funding of the institution. Secretaries are unable to fill this need, because the typical department will have one secretary for 8 to 10 professors. Their time and availability are limited, and not available to the students and post docs.
Thus it is necessary for scientists to train themselves to become better writers, and frankly, many of them do not want to spend, or have, the time to do so. Spending time copy editing and correcting the grammar and sentence structure of the manuscript means that the scientist must spend less time in the laboratory and less time writing the next paper or next grant application.

There is another reason for "impenetrability" of scientific writing that is less formal and more subconscious. It is true that the purpose of a scientific publication is to present results in a manner as to convince the reader that the results are valid, and to present the methods in a way that they can be repeated by other researchers. However scientists' own research, and own methods, are their livelihoods. It just would not do to make it so easy to understand that anybody could do it, and thus put the researcher out of a job. As I say this is not a legitimate nor is it a conscious reason for poor writing in scientific papers, but there is a certain amount of subconscious motivation to keep the paper from being too easily understood.

Yes, there are many problems with scientific writing. Many of them are the fault of the scientists themselves, they may know better and choose to write in an artificial manner that has only a passing acquaintance with appropriate grammar and construction, or they may feel that the artificial, stilted construction which they were taught is the only appropriate way to write for science. All too many scientific papers must build on a background that consists of prior published scientific results. As a consequence, they may seem incomplete to the reader who is not familiar with the history of the field.  This is one reason why individuals who interpret science for the public media are so important; however, it is likewise important that the "interpreters" walk a very fine line between accurate interpretation of science and "dumbing down" the science for public media.

In the past authors such as Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov have done an excellent job of interpreting science for the public. There are scientist SF writers that do a *wonderful* job of writing engaging stories (e.g. Travis S. Taylor and Stephanie Osborn).  They are my role models and I hope that I can do even a fraction as well as they did (and in the case of T.S.T. and S.O., still do).

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