Myths of Science Writing

I’m mired in lab grading at the moment, which is sufficiently irritating that I usually have to decamp to someplace with no Internet access, or else I spend the day blogrolling instead. Or, really, just hitting “Refresh” over and over on Bloglines, hoping that somebody in my RSS subscriptions has posted something new.

A big part of the problem is that a large number of people have a badly mistaken view of science writing. I’m not sure where they get this from– the first-year students in the intro course already have a fully developed case, but many of them claim not to have written lab reports in high school. Whatever the source, though, there are a number of pernicious myths that I run into again and again.

Myth 1: First-person pronouns are forbidden in scientific writing. I have no idea where students get the idea that all scientific writing needs to be in the passive voice, but probably three quarters of the papers I get contain sentences in which the syntax has been horribly mangled in order to avoid writing in the first person.

I don’t know where they get this, but I know where I lost it: I had this beaten out of me in graduate school.

The research group I was in did most of their publishing in Physical Review Letters at the time (these days, they get a fair number of Science and Nature articles, but the constraints are the same), and PRL has a strict four-page limit: All the text, figures, and references need to fit onto four journal pages, with no exceptions.

Of course, to merit publication in PRL, you have to have a really solid experiment, with lots of supporting details, so we were almost always desperate for space, and active voice is almost always more compact than passive– even at the simplest level, “We measured X” is one character shorter than “X was measured,” and a whole paper worth of those can make a difference.

Myth 2: Scientific writing is indirect. This is very closely related to Myth 1, and is another thing I had beaten out of me in graduate school. Along with the tangled avoidance of first person, you get this weird reluctance to make direct statements. Rather than “We measured X,” you get “X was able to be measured.”

This is bad both because it eats up valuable character, but also because it’s poor presentation. At the risk of upsetting people with the f-word, a big part of what you’re doing when you write a scientific paper is framing your work to emphasize your importance. In doing this, you want to make the strongest possible case to the reader that what you’ve done is important, worthwhile science.

“X was able to be measured” is a horrible sentence for these purposes. Who was is able to be measured by? And did they actually do the measurement, or were they just able to do the measurement?

You’re talking about something that you did, so say that: “We measured X.” You weren’t just able to measure it, you did measure it. And you measured it, not some impersonal elves who snuck into the lab while you were playing Nethack. You should take credit for it– demand credit, even.

Myth 3: Big words sound scientific. After the third or fourth lab report containing a sentence like “In order to measure X, the Y technique was utilized,” I want to stab somebody in the eye with a red grading pen. “Used” is a perfectly respectable English word, with a long and honorable tradition. “Utilized” is an abomination, an unholy perversion wrought by pompous pointy-haired managers.

Not only do short, simple words save valuable characters, they keep you from sounding like an executive in a Dilbert cartoon. Not only that, but there’s seldom any ambiguity about what they mean, while longer words frequently have some shading or connotation that should be used with care. The goal of a scientific paper is to answer questions, not create them. If your reader is busy thinking “They said they ‘utilized’ Technique Y, but they ’employed’ Technique Z– does that difference mean something?” then they’re not thinking about the brilliance of your results. You want them focussed on the science, not the language. Say what you want to say in the simplest, most direct manner possible.

Myth 4: Scientific results are supposed to be a surprise. This one is more structural than the others, and I think it’s a result of unduly rigid adherence to the artificial Abstract-Introduction-Procedure-Results-Conclusion format. I get tons of reports in which students tie themselves in knots in the Abstract and Introduction tryng to avoid presenting any hint of what their results were.

This is folly, for two reasons. The first is that framing thing again: Part of the point of a scientific paper is to sell your accomplishments, and to drive home to the reader what you did that is exciting and novel. You should mention your results in the Abstract, and again in the Introduction. You should discuss them in detail in the Results, and you should hammer them home in the Conclusion, just in case the reader managed to read that far without appreciating how cool you are. A scientific paper is not a novel, and there’s nothing gained by keeping the reader in suspense.

The other reason is simple courtesy. When I get a new copy of a journal, I don’t sit down to read it cover to cover. I’m looking for things that are interesting to me, and I don’t want to have to wade through the entire article to figure out whether the paper is itneresting. You need to put a short statement of what your results are, and why they’re interesting in the abstract of the article, so I can tell quickly whether I want to read the whole thing.

If you just say “A study of Effect W was performed,” that doesn’t tell me whether you measured Interesting Result X, or Boring Result Q, and I’m not likely to be moved to read the whole article to find out. The abstract needs to say “We studied Effect W, and measured Interesting Result X,” at which point, I’ll say “Hey, that’s interesting,” and read the rest of it. And even if you got Boring Result Q, you should say “We studied Effect W, and measured Boring Result Q,” which will leave me more kindly disposed toward you and your research program than if I spend an hour wading through the whole article just to find Boring Result Q.

There are a number of other tics that annoy me in student attempts at scientific writing, but these are probably the biggest and most universal. Are there any big ones that I missed?