On Scientists Writing Well

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Scientists make sense of the squiggles (Photo by tanakawho, CC BY-NC 2.0)

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?

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27 thoughts on “On Scientists Writing Well

  1. It’s my experience that poor writers that produce great results often are lucky enough to have helpful colleagues and bosses who do a yeoman’s job of converting the papers into readable English. Some bosses send their bad writers to intensive writing courses.

    • This is a viable approach in industry/govt, where employees can be sent to workshops etc. on ‘bosses orders’.

      But I think we need to address the problem before it gets that far, by training people to write and communicate well before they get hired – which will also, incidentally, make them more employable.

      It may also be that, if they have great results as poor communicators, they may have brilliant results as good communicators because the very act of communicating makes them think about how to push the results farther.

  2. I once saw the author Bill Bryson give a book reading and Q&A session on one of his midlife crisis books. During the Q&As, someone in or on the periphery of scientific work – asked Mr Bryson how he makes science writing (re “A Short History of Nearly Everything” the history of science book everyone should read) so interesting & compelling, mentioning that everyone else he reads is mechanistic & boring, by comparison. The author’s response was that science writers often go for economy of words (“we did X, Y happened…”) rather than telling a story.

    In regards to my “that was the best-written thesis…” comment, I fought hard for those extra sentences, commas and semicolons. My supervisors regularly commented on the fact that I must have “Arts majors for parents”, as if communication was only ever meant to be perfunctory & simplistic. In my mind, complex ideas & issues occasionally deserve compound sentences.

    My department, on the other hand, has come to recognize the need for good communicators, and was tired of receiving damning feedback on the awful presentation (etc) skills of our grads. Communications classes (speeches, presentations, elevator pitches, brochures, posters & reports) are now mandatory for all undergrad & grad students.

    P.s. Heh… Pseudonyms as real names are always strange to see. πŸ˜‰

    • Semicolons, something that reviewers have always striven to banish from my papers lol!

      Great that your dept recognizes importance of good communicators. More need to recognize it as well as provide training in it. We can do it on our own as profs, but having dept/institutional support lends credence & weight to it.

  3. This reminds me of a workshop I attended for PhD supervisors, focused on thesis writing.

    We had a brainstorm activity where we had to think of the qualities of a good thesis. After a long list of suggestions (clear, concise, well-argued etc) I suggested “accessible”, only to be shot down in flames by two professors from other departments.

    Not only did they consider accessibility to be unimportant, they actively discouraged it. The argument was that students should be writing for their examiners and nobody else and by writing in inaccessible jargon were somehow demonstrating their mastery of the field.

    I didn’t get very far with my counter-argument that being able to explain something in lay terms is the best possible test of whether you understand it. Apparently all that matters is being able to use the lingo to demonstrate that you belong in the science club.

    And we wonder why people think scientists are irrelevant…

    • Exactly the sort of thing we need to get away from!

      Maybe the whole “clear science = simple (not elegant) science” is more of a community-wide assumption and not a myth as I’d hoped.

      Your mention of the ‘science club’ is a good one – like many clubs, you aren’t a valued member if you don’t use the correct vocabulary…in this case, jargon.

  4. Interesting post, Sarah. I do think, however, that things are changing.. many of us recognize the need for both – good science & good communication skills – lacking in either is a problem. I see this with new staff starting at my Uni, and we also have to ensure ‘science communication’ is part of training for all UG students. We’ve tried this in the program I oversee at McGill – Environmental BIology has a required ‘science literacy’ course. Here’s the irony – we don’t have anyone qualified to teach it and have had to rely on a lecturer with skills in grammar, writing style, etc. Given budget constraints, we are having to rethink this course and rethink who might be able to teach it! Anyway, it is time that a scientist’s skill set ALWAYS includes excellence in written communication.

    • I think things are changing in biology – which is partly why I’ve been drawn to the ecology community. But in hydrology/earth sciences, it remains a different story.

      I completely agree that there are difficulties in finding people qualified to teach science communication courses. I know of altac people providing these courses – either as adjuncts or through workshops. Again – something both depts & unis need to invest in/support as critical to student development.

      • Ha Patricia sure there are people around, but there really aren’t that many who offer workshops or are interested in teaching as sessionals (with the associated poor pay & other issues). At least not out West (might be different in Europe?).

        I’ve been considering a move in this direction – editing/communication workshops for grad students – because not only am I well suited for it, but I think we really need it. Communication is going to become more – not less – important, and scientists can’t afford to be left behind.

      • Ha, qualified people not existing vs. not willing to work for low wages is a different problem. A quick Google search for “effective scientific writing workshops in Canada” pulls up numerous companies. Individuals are perhaps harder to find, but those that I’ve encountered are happy to travel (as am I- especially to Canada!). The European Association of Science Editors has a extensive directory (there must be a N American equivalent?). People exist, I think they’re just outside the radar of where departments normally look for instructors.

        I couldn’t agree more that scientific communication needs to improve (why I became an editor/writing consultant!). Honestly, though, the biggest challenge for my workshops is that those who control the purse strings (senior researchers) are very happy with their current skills, and don’t understand what style/composition mean, or what value clear writing has. For example, I get fantastic feedback from students and postdocs, but I often hear “This is great, but my supervisor is never going to accept it”.

      • Patricia – I think you nailed it. Not willing to work for low wages is intimately tied to supervisors not wanting to spend the money on good training. I’ve read articles about students hiding attendance at these types of events from their supervisor, because (s)he ‘just wouldn’t get it’.

        I think that goes back to the basic problem, which is that clear communication isn’t valued. In some cases it becomes a liability (i.e., ‘your research must not be good because it’s too easy to understand’).

        I’m not sure how we address that fundamental (mis)perception.

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  6. There’s good writing vs. bad writing on one axis, and who is your audience and what is your purpose are on totally orthogonal axes. So an effective piece of writing hits the just right spot in 3-di: it’s written directly for its purpose, finds its audience, and is well written. A well written proposal that only speaks to experts within the specific field will not succeed if it is not understandable by an educated scientist from a neighboring but distinct field. (And even then only extremely well written proposals succeed in my experience.) A scientific paper reporting new results doesn’t necessarily have to be understood by people outside the immediate field. Sometimes jargon is an efficient way to communicate. Something written with a non-science audience in mind will have a different flavor than something written for scientists, independent of how well written it is. Same as talks: connect with the proper audience. I’ve seen otherwise good talks that have misjudged their audience–either pitched to undergrad-level during a research job talk which should be pitched to the profs; or pitched to the experts during a general seminar, which should be pitched to the grad students or undergrads, depending. Blogs can be anything, which is one of the reasons they are fun. Also: In my experience, writing is hard, takes time, and the skills are hard won.

    • That’s a great way to think of it – a 3d plot of comm skill vs audience vs purpose. It’s always important to tailor your work to the latter two.

      Perhaps some of the bigger troubles arise when you have a mixed audience. Say you’re giving a job talk in a geog dept, with both human & physical geogs and maybe some planners & archaeologists. Some people will be glad they can actually understand what you’re talking about, while others who are closer to your field might be irritated that it’s too ‘simple’ for them. Or you can focus on the latter and have the former unhappy that – once again – they can’t understand what the presenter is talking about. A tough call.

      I completely agree about writing – definitely hard, as my grad students have also learned. πŸ™‚

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  8. I review 3-4 papers a month because I enjoy it. I have to admit it has also improved my writing, unlike Allison my thesis was picked apart for writing issues. As a reviewer my attention is foremost on the science, not on writing style. At that stage mistakes are not that common, there are just places where something can be said better. What gets me is how poor most scientists are at presenting there work, even when I know the work is good. This shows the difficulty they have at addressing a different audience other than a specific peer group.

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  11. Thank you for bringing up this argument! As a grad student having to read more than 32 papers for just one 8 week class, I am appalled by how truly unstructured most of these papers are! I just don’t understand why position, a complicated mind, and brilliant ideas are used as excuses for poor communication skills both written and oral. There must be a way for these papers to be more palatable! Okay, I will go cry and read in my study corner now…

  12. Excellent article. I actually have the exact experience you mentioned with the paper’s presentations. I suspected runaway pretentiousness in an undergrad sociology class I had. As such, I wrote a clear, concise analysis and another version of the same thing but stuffed with unnecessary jargon and pervasive passive voice. The readable one got a C and the unreadable garbage got an A. I discussed this with the professor. She was not amused.

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