Scientific Writing Is Really Boring

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.

Discuss.

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11 Responses to Scientific Writing Is Really Boring

  1. Juju says:

    I don’t know what to do about practicing scientists who publish unreadable writing, but it seems that the trend at universities to offer writing classes for STEM students is meant to combat this problem. In my English department, for example, we’re working with reps from the STEM departments to teach students how to develop a readable style (which often means finding existing work that they want to emulate), incorporate useful narratives, and avoid a style that’s too jargon-laden. I’m encouraged to find that our initiatives seem to respond to your concerns.

  2. EvoStevo says:

    I think that writing by committee is a huge component of shitty science writing for many reasons including: different styles and voices, different authors being being more/less enthusiastic about different aspects of a paper and more/less confident in different aspects of a paper. Also, right or wrong, IMHO it seems like less of a “sin” to overstate a finding or claim in the heat of a talk than to write it in a paper for perpetuity.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      I’ve been involved in a couple of writing-by-committee papers. In both of them, after we’d finished putting together the actual content, we took a fair bit of time back-and-forthing over the order of sections, story-telling, removal of redunadancies and so on. We finished up with one of the authors (me in both cases, as it turned out) doing a complete wordsmithing pass, It was a lot of work, but I think it’s resulted in very readable papers. See what you think: Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals

  3. coloncancercommunity says:

    I think one of the issues that gets in the way is the need to be concise and compact while still making things readable. My mentor would slash and burn my text in introductions and discussions because to make it less “jargony” meant making it longer – often too long. My peers and superiors had no argument about my style, they actually liked it and found it readable. But the amount of information that I had to cram into a small space forced me to alter my writing so that it was more like what you are describing. Also, unless you were very familiar with the specific niche, it was harder to read than was necessary. That last bit is really a shame because if we allowed for a more user-friendly style, I think scientists would expand the range of the literature that they read. Broadening is something that is needed in science and is hard to do – for the reasons you site so well.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      This is an important reason to avoid journals with hard length-limits. Papers should be written to exactly the length they need to be in order to tell their story clearly.

  4. Yasmin says:

    One of the reasons is also that as students we are discouraged to write any sentence on a way which might be considered non-scientific. Older co-author edit every attempt of metaphors or non-jargon terms. Scientific papers are not only hard to read, but scientific writing might also be so boring that you feel depressed at the idea.
    Also, we aren’t necessarily at ease with style in English when it’s not our language…

  5. JB says:

    I dare any professional scientist to add punch and pizzazz to their article submitted for publication and to listen to or read the consequences. Even if factually accurate, the article would still be rejected based on lack of style convention. For example, the sentence, “In our opinion, this finding blows the lid off that (or any) other theory.”, suggests significant impact of the work, and is factually correct (It’s only an opinion), but would outrage the reviewers. Thank goodness for the editorials in major science mags. Those pieces have the luxury to express significance of the work, often in a colloquial style, and to put the new work into the context of previous studies.

    By the way, that sentence should read, “This finding suggests a substantial shift from the current paradigm…” The more boring this pivotal phrase is, the better.

    • LMM says:

      I was thinking something similar, except in interpersonal contexts. Scientific feuds are often quite intense, but — in print — they’re also exceptionally passive-aggressive. The more overt the claim, the more likely the authors have gotten involved in at least one shouting match at a conference.

      Angewandte Chemie (among others) is fond of publishing personal feuds thinly disguised as review articles (“there has been much confusion in the literature recently….”). Even those tend to be dry, though. Again, no overt aggression.

  6. amy c says:

    I’m a writer working in a chemistry department; I do external communications, grants editing, paper editing. We’ve got a few scientists who can write, but not many.

    I’m very tired, so I’m going to tell why in v. abbreviated fashion:

    (1) The ability to write beautifully and the kind of intellectualism that gets you science or any kind of theory are quite distinct gifts that haven’t much to do with each other; you won’t find many people who’ve got both;

    (2) Our K12 system’s hopeless when it comes to rhetoric and writing, and colleges haven’t time to do all the fixing, meaning that few people emerge with so much as a workmanlike sense of how to recognize and write down a story.

    (3) There are sound rhetorical reasons against vivid and engaging scientific-paper writing. Papers are dispassionate for a reason, however mannered and dead-fish they may sound.

    (4) There are lousy reasons why the writing in scientific papers is so hideous, but you guys do it to yourselves by insisting on jargon as clubhouse passwords and 87 pages of references as proof of seriousness. Not to mention the terror of looking stupid — must not say anything stupid, ever! — that makes y’all as wooden as Algore on the stump.

    Too tired now to remember if I’ve missed anything, have been reading papers all week.

  7. Following a similar post on the “Careers” blog of Science (http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2012_03_23/caredit.a1200033), I pointed out (in French; http://toutsepassecommesi.cafe-sciences.org/2012/04/06/les-articles-scientifiques-sont-ecrits-de-maniere-chiante-et-cest-bien/) that there are good reasons why we write the way we do.
    Of course, much science writing could be improved, because we are not all gifted for this and because it takes a lot of time. But also, science writing needs to communicate clearly to a broad range of people with diverse cultures and native languages. Expressions, literary references, synonyms, etc, will make it nicer to read for native English speakers with a common cultural background, but might make it harder to read for others.
    So in short I agree with points 1 and 3 of amy c.
    And if you can’t read my post in French, have a thought for the hundreds of thousands who must read scientific English every day, and whose language it is not. 🙂

    • Mike Taylor says:

      I am in awe of non-native English speakers who conduct science in English. Seriously: you guys are amazing. *clap clap clap*

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