And that’s a problem. No, I’m not talking about science journalism, but actual science papers. I’ve been slowly (very slowly) working my way through the Dreaded Stack–the papers that you printed out in the vain hope that you’ll get around to reading them someday. They’re boring me. What happens is that I start reading a paper that looks interesting and relevant to what I do (and I’ve ‘pre-selected’ the paper by reading the abstract), and then about a quarter of the way through, cleaning the bathroom suddenly becomes much more exciting. While this is probably good for my personal hygiene, it’s definitely not helping me keep up with the literature.
Mind you, this isn’t some general personal crisis over TEH SCIENTISMZ! I like what I do, and the subjects of the articles are interesting enough for me to make a point of reading them. But the writing just slays me. By and large, it’s dreadful. Yes, this is technical literature, there are methods sections and so on, but, in too many of these papers, the importance of the findings is lost. Maybe the authors don’t think their work is exciting. Maybe they’re bored by it. Though I’m guessing that’s usually not the case. They’re probably pretty excited about it, and, in person (i.e., talks), make it sound interesting. You would never know this from the article though. The key findings and their importance are hidden away in a nearly-impenetrable thicket of jargon. Again, this isn’t an expertise issue, since these are articles in my area of expertise. Put another way, the statistic that eighty percent of articles are never cited (which might not be true) doesn’t surprise me, as too many articles are unreadable.
There are lots of reasons for this. When papers become more valued as professional currency than as communication, it’s no surprise that the communication suffers: who reads a dollar bill? I also think that more and more, papers are essentially unedited for style. Expert reviewers will slog through a manuscript no matter what and rarely comment, “The science is reasonably sound, but the writing is turgid.” Despite the value-added claims of editorial staffs, there doesn’t seem to be that much editing, other than copy editing. Writing by committee doesn’t help either (in the realm of fiction, one of the only multi-author books that is a joy to read is Naked Came the Manatee). Reviewers, some times correctly, sometimes not, also force authors to tone things down.
I raise this not to be a grumpus (that’s just a bonus), but because sometime this year I will be co-publishing some results that will be very cool and very important to public health (has to do with antibiotic resistance). I worry that for the reasons stated above the key points will be obscured. Of course, we’ll try to not do that (as the kids used to say, “DUH!”), but I have concerns. It’s important enough that I think it might get into a high profile journal (perhaps even a glamour mag, though a targeted journal might actually be better for disseminating the information to the relevant scientists), but it might wind up appearing far less interesting than hearing my colleagues or I talk about it would suggest.
Oddly enough, there are a few journals that don’t suffer from this problem. Emerging Infectious Diseases and Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report are kinda punchy (if you’re into microbiology and infectious disease). Admittedly, some of the articles are narratives–here’s what happened during an outbreak. The other feature is that appended to many of the articles is an editorial comment which is usually written well and has opinions.