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Essay

Reinventing the science paper

How impenetrable writing harms science

Linda Cooper 6 May 2007

www.lablit.com/article/251

Lighten up: clear writing helps clear thinking

Editors can send a strong signal to those who refuse to present their data clearly – by rejecting their manuscripts

It’s amazing how scientists can talk enthusiastically about their research, but once they write about it in a scientific article, all the energy and life drains away. Journal editors, and even scientists themselves, acknowledge that something is not right with the scientific paper. Obstacles to clear communication in science include too many abbreviations, too much specialized terminology, too much detail – and too little clarity. As a result, published articles are often boring to read and incomprehensible to most (non-specialist and specialist alike). This could be one reason why half of articles published are never cited (1).

Some other factors that impede clear writing in science journals include the notion that anything that sounds simple can’t be serious, that complex ideas demand complex language, and that specialists appreciate obscure, techie writing (2). Whatever the cause, when scientists write about their research in a way that obstructs rather than fosters communication, the whole scientific community suffers.

And it's a problem that feeds on itself. By publishing articles that are either poorly written or poorly edited, the journals themselves unwittingly perpetuate a style of writing that some experts claim discourages, rather than facilitates, communication (3). Since graduate students and neophyte researchers turn to journals in their fields as models of how to write a paper, if the models are weak then the culture of bad writing becomes deeply entrenched.

In my view, the whole science writing enterprise needs a serious overhaul. Researchers need to be trained to write naturally and persuasively – that is, clearly, completely, and without making assumptions about what readers know about a topic. Editors need to hold scientists accountable for the clarity of their articles. They can do this by rewarding scientists who write about their important findings so that specialists and non-specialist readers can understand them – by publishing their articles. And they can send a strong signal to those who refuse to present their data clearly and accessibly – by insisting that they revise their muddled thinking before publication, or even by rejecting their manuscripts altogether. The problem is probably not unsolvable. After all, scientists want to be able to write about their research in a straightforward and accessible style; there’s also a deep desire on their part to read and understand the work of their peers. If they’re given the tools to do so (training in effective writing and revising techniques) and if journal editors uphold high writing standards, researchers are certainly capable of explaining their work to others. There’s so much to gain by making this shift because when researchers write clearly about their data, they think more clearly about it as well. And when scientists think and write clearly about their work, the entire community benefits.

References

1 Richard Smith, Reinventing the Biomedical Journal, J. Neuroscience, Sept. 2006.2 Editorial, How Experts Communicate, Nature Neuroscience,Volume 3: 2000.3 James Glanz, Cut the Communications Fog, Say Physicists and Editors, Science Volume 277: 1997.

Related articles on LabLit

The untold story: what doesn't make the cut in scientific papers (Matt Hall)

Once more, with comprehension (Bill Hanage)

Linda would welcome your comments; please email her on linda.cooper[at]mcgill.ca