The Guardian’s Life section (science) has an article about the impenetrable writing favoured by scientists when writing in journals. This is hardly a new development but it’s no less interesting or disappointing for it; what is disappointing is that the author, Chris McCabe, has reduced this interesting subject to a directionless and misguided article, which is rather amusing since he’s supposed to be a key member of the resistance against bad writing. The article basically consists of the trivial argument that no-one understands scientific papers supported by far too many anecdotes and examples of bad writing. It’s only until the last couple of paragraphs that he actually gets to the point, such that it is.
While I’ll be the first to admit that there’s far too much bad writing in journals, a lot of what people might consider to be impenetrable is always going to be impenetrable. McCabe uses the following excerpt as a prime example of bad writing:
“These findings support the hypothesis that spatial learning may depend on neuronal input from the entorhinal cortex to dentate granule cells via perforant path and LTP-induction at perforant path-dentate granule cell synapses in pathway-specific semi-interactive modes of operation.”
Now, this could have been written much more clearly, but the real reason why it’s impenetrable is because over 99% of the population have no idea what these words mean: spatial learning, neuronal input, entorhinal cortex, dentate granule cells, perforant path, LTP-induction, perforant path-dentate granule cell synapses, pathway-specific semi-interactive modes of operation. Is it any surprise, then, that it reads badly?
Scientific papers aren’t aimed for the general audience. They’re aimed for those highly specialised scientists, numbering in the tens of thousands, who actually care about and understand the particular field. Before I’m accused of being elitist, there are articles – called reviews – in journals that do attempt to explain specialised subjects like the one above to the greater scientific community. Most reviews probably wouldn’t be suitable for the general public because, like papers, they assume a certain amount of background knowledge. If they didn’t, they’d be far too long. As it is, journals impose very strict word limits on papers and unfortunately scientists have to be terse in order to meet them.
Yet even when scientists aren’t actively trying to be terse, they often appear like it. Take this sentence from the methods section of my dissertation:
“The slices were subsequently transferred to a recording chamber, also perfused with oxygenated aCSF at room temperature.”
Makes no sense at all, does it? But what’s the point of trying to pad it out when all of my readers know exactly what I’m talking about and just want me to get to the good bits, namely, the section where my methods differ from everyone else’s? Just in the same way, when I try to read this analysis of the Superbowl, I have no idea what they’re talking when they say ‘third down’ and ‘two point conversion’, but it doesn’t bother me because the article’s not written for those completely unfamiliar to American Football, it’s written for fans.
Even if writing in journals was improved (and it needs improving), it would still remain totally opaque to the general public. We only start nearing the general public at the level of newspaper article, TV programmes on science and (perhaps) New Scientist.
The problem McCabe is trying to address isn’t really about bad science writing for scientists, it’s about bad science writing for the public. To pretend that scientists get their negative image from their writing in journals is like claiming that Christina Aguilera is popular because of her wonderful personality – in other words, it’s completely missing the point. It might be a tired cliche to say that we need to ‘build a bridge’ between the scientific community and the public, but it’s still true.
Our entire culture’s schizophrenic attitude to science, one of simultaneous awe and hatred, of hope and despair and of magic and boredom, desperately needs mending. It’s not just a job for the scientists, it’s a job for politicians, teachers, parents, children, journalists – everyone.
So, long live terse journal papers – but more importantly, long live Science!