I enjoy reviewing a well-written paper, and strongly believe that it doesn’t matter how great your science is if you can’t communicate it to others. Sometimes I think I may be in the minority on this one.
A few weeks ago I was ‘talking’ with Alison Borealis about good scientific writing. We were discussing the fact that many science/technical undergraduates have terrible writing skills, and that it doesn’t improve much with grad students. Alison mentioned that she’d been praised on the writing in her thesis, as in “that was the most well-written thesis I’ve read in a long time”.
It’s great to hear people recognized for writing well in science – reviewers have also commented that papers coming out of our research group are well-written. But I wonder sometimes if it’s almost a back-handed compliment. A way of saying the writing is good, but the science, well…
There’s a perception that if science is understandable, it must not be novel and groundbreaking. I’ve had some fairly condescending manuscript reviews that started out saying how well the paper was written, but then picked apart the science for not being ‘complex’ enough. While I’m prone to automatically thinking it must be the fault of my research & research program, this isn’t borne out by comments from my colleagues. They read my papers and say I’m doing excellent work, that more people should be doing similar things.
As a PhD student, I once attended a series of guest lectures by candidates for a departmental tenure-track position. Tellingly, the person who gave the most incomprehensible talk was perceived as the most intelligent, while the person who gave the clearest talk – and had some of the more innovative ideas – was considered ‘unfocused’ and working on ‘simple’ topics.
In my books, making a complicated topic accessible is a talent and a skill to be rewarded, not penalized. But how do we change the perception that understandable science is equivalent to unsophisticated or simple science, and that incomprehensible research is more likely to move a discipline forward? It’s analogous to changing the perception that making science understandable requires you to ‘dumb things down’, rather than just being clear and concise.
In many ways the culture is changing as younger faculty bring new perspectives to the academy, and as blogging, Twitter and other forms of informal communication are embraced by scientists.
It could also be a case of perception over facts, as in Matt Shipman‘s recent post where he showed that the myth of the serious scientist (who doesn’t waste time talking to the media) must be perpetuated by a minority of scientists, because the data show otherwise. Maybe the myth that poorly communicated science is somehow better is similar – perpetuated by a minority in the scientific field.
What’s your experience?