Scientific illiteracy

Reading scientific papers helps me understand why so many people hate or distrust scientists.

Let me clarify briefly. This is not meant to be me bitching about my graduate school workload. This is not me thinking my PhD was going to be a cake walk. I was prepared to finish undergrad feeling like a genius and walk into grad school feeling average. I was prepared to learn, and learning requires feeling stupid first.

This is me trying to think what science looks like to an outsider.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been doing pretty much nothing but reading scientific papers – that is, peer reviewed research papers published in academic journals. Some of these have been historical, the oldest being from the 1940s, and some have been from the last couple of years. Some have been good, some have been excellent, but the majority have made me want to stab my eyes out with the nearest pipetman. I’ve been reading primary literature for the last three years, but dealing with so much recently has made me realize one thing:

Most scientists are terrible writers.

And when I say terrible writers, I’m not just talking about English skills – though that certainly is a problem. When I had to read some of my classmates’ papers in undergrad, I was often thankful to find a sentence that wasn’t a fragment or a run-on. I don’t have perfect grammar, especially when informally blogging, but I can usually get general concepts across. And don’t even get me started on the organization of some papers. Your methods are where?

But most science writing is simply impenetrable. Everything seems to be lingo and jargon, to the point where they might as well be speaking another language. This problem gets worse with time, since fields are becoming more specialized, not less.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, so many scientific papers are drier than Indiana on a Sunday. You would never guess most papers were authored by the same person who will perk up with excitement when you ask them about their research. Obviously papers are meant to be impartial, but that doesn’t mean they have to be devoid of all liveliness. When a paper does include a rare joke, or even a clever ribbing of another study, readers get excited. We like being reminded that humans wrote these papers, not some computer program (unless simulating papers is what your research is about, then…). I nearly pooped myself when I saw a paper use an exclamation mark once. Needless to say, exclamation marks should not provoke this amount of surprise.

So why is this an issue outside of my own graduate school woes? I hate tooting my own horn, but allow me to prove a point. I have a BS in Genetics and Evolution from a respected university. I have three years of research experience in a laboratory. I have one published paper and at least one more on the way. I won the award for Outstanding Biology Student every year I was at Purdue. It’s safe to say that I am more trained in biology than your average person, yet I still have to spend hours reading a biology paper to grasp even the most basic concepts.

I look back on all the times I asked people if they read the original research before passing judgment on a study. Or all the times I sighed at another bad piece of science reporting. Now I just sympathize. If I’m having such a hard time, how do we expect laypeople to understand science?

I’m but a lowly first year graduate student, so I obviously don’t have all the answers… But I’m also a blogger, so here’s my opinion on two things we can do to improve science communication:

Relax pointless publishing rules. Journals are so focused on word count, formatting, figure size, supplemental material… Are you really communicating in the best way possible when you’re worrying about having to spend hundreds of extra dollars for every page you go over? Or when you sacrifice clarity in a graph because it’s cheaper to get it printed in black in white?

One of my papers recently was rejected, and I cringed at some of the questions reviewers had. We clarified all of those points in the initial draft, but they were eventually cut due to word limit restrictions. This is made all the more ridiculous when you consider that most people access journals electronically now. Is the internet not big enough for that extra pdf page? We obviously want some limits so people don’t get excessively verbose, but this is just silly.

Encourage more scientists to be journalists. And I don’t just mean recruiting science majors after they’ve been taught how to write (though for the love of FSM, someone please do that too). I mean encouraging scientists to blog about what they know, and then utilizing those bloggers who have proved their communication skills. It’s hard enough to understand the primary literature, let alone translate it into something people can understand. We need to exploit that talent we have.

The thing that worries me the most? That this is probably just the first of many disillusionments I’ll have about science over the next couple years.


  1. Ben says

    I don’t think the problem getting to the general population is necessarily science writing itself, but that the MSM is just atrocious at reporting in general. Everything has to be sensationalised to the point of absurdity. Think there might be water on an extra-solar planet? Well, that’s proof we’re not alone in the universe! The particle-accelorator looking for the media-dubbed “God” particle breaks down? Well, it must be divine intervention. Find a genetic similarity in 3.5% of autism suffers? A ha! Autism is genetic and a cure is just around the corner!I think you get my drift. So long as the MSM is intent on reporting what they want to report rather than the facts there’s almost no hope of reaching the sheeple.

  2. pc says

    I so second the scientists as journalists idea, blogs like yours are great for getting sciencey thoughts out there!I’ve waded through my share of studies. It’s no wonder so many reporters resort to oversimplifying/distorting results, sometimes seeming to guess a study’s purpose based on the title, if that’s all they can grasp. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!

  3. says

    This is very true, and worse with specialist journals. I think the bar is often so low (not in terms of research quality, but in terms of writing quality) and editing is far too minimal. But there is a lot of good out there. Cosmos magazine here in Australia, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science in the UK, scienceblogs … there are good resources out there. It’s the real mainstream media that causes the errors in translation (see what I did there?), and PR people before them. I work as an editor for a medical journal and the problems we have with press releases… well, I do a lot of rewriting of them (note to PR people: the first sentence of a paper’s introduction is not its conclusion). And if something is missed, half the time that mistake goes to newspapers, verbatim.

  4. koipond says

    Just as a note, what you may see as pointless publishing rules are actually things that are in place because when you go to print a book that extra page is actually two extra pages (offset printing works on pairs) and it’s extra weight when you ship it (two extra pages in a book isn’t much, but when they’re in a box of 60 that’s 120 extra pages which is the weight of another book).Not to say that there aren’t ways around it, include the extended information in the online version but the redacted version in print for instance, but what is pointless to someone might be important on the other end.

  5. says

    Scientific papers can be a slog and there is a lot of fluff. Beware the conference proceedings, is all I can say. But don’t be despondent, there are really great papers out there and you just have to wade a little – the odd joke would help. Journals often put out a review of a topic, and you can get a reading list of the important stuff. Look for what get cited a lot, that helps.In terms of fonts and formats etc Latex, latex, latex. If you are using a wysiwyg editor (MS word) you are going to go insane. I never think of format, just download the style file and off you go.On another note, posting comments here is a mission. I use a script blocker and your site seems to require a billion lines of java just to post some simple txt!

  6. says

    I have the very same problem with my study of law; it’s often not that the material is boring, it’s just that the writer can make or break it depending on how they write about it. I recently read an article by H. Molotch who used public bathrooms to illustrate how equal rights work. It was greatly entertaining while still clearly informative. As someone who writes in my spare time, I sometimes cringe at some of the mistakes that writers of law make which would have been completely avoidable.Even judges make that mistake (here in the Netherlands). Especially the highest court can use so much lingo that you NEED to have studied law for a few years before their logic starts making sense.Online context-sensitive dictionaries might help, in that the lingo gets marked and when you move your mouse over the words, a quick description pops up. And… definitely writing lessons, including literary ones, for everyone. *nodnods*

  7. plublesnork says

    We need a (strictly policed) wiki journal.I’ve edited countless wikipedia webpages, and the vast majority of the changes I’ve made is simply rewording a sentence to say the same thing, but more clearly. I’ve heard from a couple of math nerd friends that they love wikipedia for explanations of maths concepts because hundreds of people before them have sanded down the rough edges and polished it to make it as easy to digest as possible.

  8. A-M says

    Please make science easier to read! I am not at all scientific, but I take an interest in advances in research, because some of those studies will affect all our futures. Perhaps it’s my background in languages (I have a 1st class degree in modern foreign languages), but I cannot bear to read long, poorly written articles. I get so distracted by trying to piece relevant clauses together, I miss the point entirely! I’m not even asking you to show stylistic flair (because that’s pretty hard to learn), just construct syntactically correct sentences! How do you even apply for funding if you can’t coherently explain your project? PS, my degree isn’t in English, and that’s my excuse if this post is full of bad grammar. :P

  9. Bunnycatch3r says

    It’s safe to say that I am more trained in biology than your average person, yet I still have to spend hours reading a biology paper to grasp even the most basic concepts.

    As one who is prone to fantasize about having the ability to read scientific journals this makes me want to f*ing cry.

  10. Akirk17 says

    It’s not just science. I’m a historian, and have similar problems – some papers are so dry that the undergraduates sent to read them are suffering from dehydration.

  11. bassplr19 says

    Regarding this and your previous Impostor Syndrome feeling, you should read The Double Helix by James Watson – it’s fairly bad writing and has some of the same complaints you have here.

  12. mcbender says

    Jen, if you think scientists are bad writers, try reading a few papers in engineering one of these days… I think we’re worse.

  13. says

    Thanks for the sanity here. Just recently I was having a discussion with a relative (a medical research guy). We were both agreed that we wish more people were knowledgeable about science. I told him, enthusiastically, that I read some scientists’ blogs, and that helped keep me apprised of some of the research and movements in a way that was personal and easy to understand. His response shocked me: “But they’re not peer reviewed, so it’s all crap.” Excuse me? Maybe you have hours to sift through papers, or work with people who keep you up to date, but if I even just try to click through from a news article that I know isn’t giving me the whole story, I often hit a paywall. Many things are moving toward open access, but something else this person said implied to me that he assumed that anyone who was interested had access to a research library that subscribed to journals. I don’t work in science or academia. How am I supposed to get good information without reading blogs (in addition to lay-person science books)? (I was a little ticked off… can you tell?)

  14. says

    Jen,My day job is teaching engineers to write and so I get to be on the front lines of such battles–at least at a very early level. I cannot speak for the journal level publishing stuff–but I can tell you that some of us are working hard to try and change the attitude towards writing in the technical community from the bottom up, although it’s not easy when you have a bunch of upper level professors whose understanding of writing is that it is punctuation and spelling–and who regularly bring up the idea of replacing the technical writing program with a computer program that would check for punctuation and spelling and be done with it.As a blogger–you get the idea that writing can == thinking and that good writing actually requires thought and attention.. Most technical folk often derive from that class of high school students who see college as a chance to indulge their love of math and science and NEVER HAVE TO TAKE ANOTHER ENGLISH CLASS AGAIN! At least that’s what they think (it’s what I thought going into Engineering) and I have to use all of my skillz as Historian of Technology (Ph.D!) with an engineering B.S. to convince them that unless they later want to become Marketing’s bitches, they better learn how to communicate orally and using the written word.In any case–it might actually help if more technical people had blogs… and wrote in them regularly.. Just practicing like that would start to change the culture… ps–I think your observation about most journals now being pdf’d anyway is really insightful.. I wonder how long it will take the publishing industry to break free of the paper shackles that they’ve lived with for 100’s of years, but now really don’t have to worry about..

  15. The Optimistic Pragmatist says

    …have you considered actively trying to set up blog discussions among scientists in your field? Quintessence of Dust, for example is written by a Christian Evolutionist professor who does genetic research and where there is one there might be more.Just a thought.

  16. chicagodyke says

    Jen, look up something called “The Little Red School House.” it’s a UChicago writing class, and it rocked my world, as a grad student. i was an straight A undergrad and thought of myself as a good writer, but that course taught me to be an even better one. i’ve often thought that most scientists could really use a course like that. heh, i remember the “writing for scientific publication” course i took while getting my bio degree; it was so counterintuitive and silly and i knew then that i would never be a good scientist because i couldn’t force myself to write that poorly. and what you’re really talking about in this post is Academe-wide. jargon, lingo, and pretentious fluffing of slight material is infecting almost all departments and fields, these days. i could wax long about it; indeed, give me a sec and i’ll do a blog post on it. i do enjoy reading your blog, it takes me back to grad school days. enjoy them, despite your frustration in many ways they are the best years of life.

  17. says

    Had a very similar experience when I was a Computer Science PhD, although this realization actually helped me in a way. I was going through something similar to you when you posted about imposter syndrome. I felt out of place, and reading these complex CS papers that I couldn’t even begin to understand made me feel like I wasn’t smart enough to be where I was. Over time, and I learned more and read a lot of the great, classic papers in CS, I started to realize it wasn’t that I was incapable of understanding these concepts. In many cases, the papers were incomprehensible by anyone, because they were so poorly written. That’s not to say it’s easy to read a paper by Knuth or Turing, but if you’re willing to read carefully and understand the math involved, you understand their reasoning and thought process after reading the paper. I hate to perpetuate the stereotype that computer scientists are socially inept people who can’t communicate with the outside world, but there are lots of CS papers that are god-awful. I find it quite rare to find a well-written CS paper, even in the top-tier journals.

  18. Grumpy Mr Gruff says

    David Mermin has a nice talk on wacky editorial constraints in physics (but it applies as well to most scientific literature):… Arguably, many scientists would be more engaging writers if journal editors would give them a chance.As for (speedy) lit comprehension – it comes with practice and repeat exposure. Once your brain is saturated with your subdiscipline’s jargon, you’ll get through papers in a fraction of the time.

  19. says

    This is so true. It’s gotten to the point in my theory class that our professor expects a few of us to read them while drinking (alcohol of course) so that it helps make more sense. It’s often even worse in history since you do get the narrative historians that can provide brilliant and engaging pieces of work. Historic Journals though have me wanting to gouge my eyes out with a rusty spoon all too often.Speaking of back to reading some now………….and where did I put the all knowing bottle of rum.

  20. says

    Your recommendation to train scientific writers as journalists is sound. I worked at my school’s newspaper as an editor and copy editor and I worked with many of the (volunteer) writers who were mainly studying engineering and science. A lot of them had an interest in journalism, but most of them were terrible writers in almost all respects–their grammar was atrocious AND they had no sense of clarity and brevity. I was responsible for working through their first articles and showing them how to do better. Admittedly, some just couldn’t be helped with my limited time and resources (I’m only one woman, after all). However, most left their experience at the paper (whether it lasted only a few months or their entire time at the school) much better writers in all areas than they were when they came in. Only part of it was due to my guidance (and later the guidance of people I’d trained); most of it was due to their opportunity to just be able to practice clear, concise writing in a low-pressure situation. (Low-pressure in the sense that they weren’t being graded and that not a whole lot was dependent on getting it just right.)

  21. Janitor_of_lunacy says

    I noticed that the more draconian the typesetting rules, the more space references took. A conference that gave you ten pages, single column would allow numbered footnotes [1], but one that gave you only eight pages, two column, with a generous intercolumn space required full name of primary author, plus four didget year [Foonman1987b].

  22. Jeff says

    Totally agree on this one Jen. Maybe our generation can push things to be more interesting. The longer the papers, the harder they are to read, and that is a problem. It’s definitely not a problem constrained to Bio. I’m in Psychology and I run into the same problem.Blog about it. I haven’t updated mine in a few days but I think that this is a good topic to address. Set an example and when it’s time for you to write, make sure it’s something people will want.

  23. Guest says

    I am a junior scientist at a large life sciences company. I hold a B.S. Biology and have worked in a research lab for three years. I have two published papers and more are currently in peer review. Despite that I find it already takes far too long to translate your work to text (1-2 year peer review anyone?), I find I am in the dreadful place of performing white paper searches and summaries to support my ongoing research. Currently I’m looking at molecular biology and primer design. Some of these papers just make me want to die! I feel like I need three dictionaries and a thesaurus just to decipher some of these papers and then beyond that, we have words that don’t exist in common language! I think more scientific people blogging about their work would be wonderful to see! I know that scientists are generally an animated population. I love to talk about bacteria and cell lines. I just wish the ban-hammer didn’t come down on us whenever we try to talk about research outside of industry. Industrial papers can be incredibly dull and even our in-house wiki is so privatized, it’s a real shame! How can we learn, and share information when we are all frightened of losing our IP or worse, our job if we make a slip to the wrong person internally about what we’re working on. *sigh*

  24. says

    Ugh. Yeah. Don’t get me started.Honestly, I’m glad I burned those two years as an English major. One of my friends asked me to proofread something he was sending in. The jargon density was so high that my already-busted eyes choked and nearly suffocated on it. Learning that this was standard made me panic.I can’t think of any way to change it, though. It’s like trying to teach calculus to your average high school student.

  25. says

    You think you have it hard? Imagine how it is for people like me who had to deal with papers written in english and german – none of which is my native language…

  26. Katsuhiro says

    Writing for most science papers is truly awful. I’m having to read a lot of geology papers right now, between gearing up for my research and the two classes that I’m taking. Many of the papers are so badly written they literally put me to sleep.I think part of it is that there’s not really much emphasis put on good writing skills to begin with. The program where I did my undergrad required a one-credit “writing in the geosciences” course, which is rather unusual as far as I know. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do with one credit hour, and I was pretty unimpressed with the content of the course to begin with. If I had to pick a number one problem with papers, it wouldn’t even be the tortured grammar of run-on sentences. It’s the fact that nearly every paper out there is written with a passive verb voice. (eg: “The data were collected and added to a spreadsheet.”) I do a lot of fiction writing; in fiction, more than sparing use of passive voice is the kiss of death. That’s because passive separates the reader from the writing; it makes events seem as if they happen without any sort of personal human intervention. I couple of days ago, I read a paper out of Sedimentary Geology that wasn’t written in passive. It’s crazy just how well that paper stuck with me, and how much easier it was to read. Imagine: “We collected the data and entered them into a spreadsheet,” or whatever. I think it’s the urge to make scientific papers sound impersonal that leads to all this use of passive, but ugh. That writing style makes it so much harder for a reader to connect to what’s been done.

  27. Azkyroth says

    Journals are so focused on word count, formatting, figure size, supplemental material… Are you really communicating in the best way possible when you’re worrying about having to spend hundreds of extra dollars for every page you go over? Or when you sacrifice clarity in a graph because it’s cheaper to get it printed in black in white?

    The simple fact that they demand like $25 MINIMUM for a PDF copy of an article (= costs them nothing) for personal use should be all the evidence you need that most journals are run by grubby little [gender-neutral] whores who couldn’t possibly give a shit less about whether science is communicated as long as they get their cut.

  28. Azkyroth says

    And if not, scientists are forced to pay journals to add the scientists’ work to the contents of things journals sell for the journal owners’ profits. And as I understand it scientists are generally forced to pay for a copy of the finished product, too.(How the fuck did that happen, anyway?)

  29. n0b0dy says

    Part of it is cultural. I can’t say that I’ve ever had the experience of finding a paper hard to understand, but I have had the experience of thinking the author was a fucking lunatic. I’ve been shocked by the number of my peers (and professors) who will start to something that is delightfully written and well within the word limit then revise it to sound “more academic” because they think it will increase their chance of acceptance. It’s problematic. I’ve seen best paper awards go to the most fluffed up crap and not the most coherent. I’ve been chastised because my writing is too clear. There’s the sense from some people that if I can make people understand the concepts in one go then they must not be difficult concepts so my research must not be that original. But my papers get more citations than theirs and rated more highly by reviewers, so I think I’m on the side of right. Nonetheless, people with this obfuscatory attitude represent a significant chunk of academics. Catching one of them as a professor at the wrong point in your academic career can derail future writing clarity.

  30. rabbitpirate says

    I’ve just started a degree in Psychology and am having a similar problem. We are constantly told to write in a way that a non psychologist could understand, and yet when you read the various papers we are directed to they might as well be written in another language. That is if you can locate the papers in the first place as apparently searching using words that actually relate to what you are looking for doesn’t seem all that effective. You need to know the inside code, the specific way of saying something that the particular author has chosen to use. Doing my nut.I became interested in psychology reading the work of psychology bloggers and authors, like Richard Wiseman for example, who present the ideas in a clear, detailed but easy to understand way. I am now reading about the exact same concepts and finding myself at a complete loss as to what the papers are going on about.

  31. Stephan Goodwin says

    Where I went to undergrad (Wright State in OH) they required grad students in Biology to take a Writing in the Bio Sci course. If you couldn’t get through that course, you didn’t get your Masters.It seems harsh, but I think more schools should be doing that. It isn’t like the ability to write a science paper that is readable is a some natural artistic skill, it is a learned behavior. Make scientists learn it. I bet, most, like me, will be thankful for it.(I took the course as an undergrad, and I’ll always be thankful to Dr. Hull for that class.)

  32. says

    Over here in the social sciences, reading journal articles usually entails boiling down the article to its core elements. Usually, that’s a sentence or two. During grad school, you figure out how to do that.As for the rest of us who don’t specialize in your field: that’s what blogs are for. Interpret the bullshit for us! :)

  33. Robert the Skeptic says

    I must say, I am very impressed with the writing of my father-in-law, a retired Agriculture professor from Oregon State. He wrote a book (Temperate Zone Pomology) using simple terms as he wanted it to be a practical guide for orchardists and nurserymen. Apparently he was successful, the book has been translated into many languages and is used all over the world. It likely would not have been so if he had written it in “academic speak”.

  34. J.S. says

    You are a very smart woman, and you have a bright future. But I do want to bring to your attention that these epiphanies you are having are the same ones most graduate students experience at first. The articles you read are going to get tougher–much tougher than the articles you were required to read for undergrad. Moreover, you are going understand them better as your training progresses, you become familiar with the jargon on a deeper level, and you possess more knowledge. Your criticisms of the mystifying and opaque nature of many articles is not limited to science journals. It is not the reason people dislike and mistrust science: it’s because they dislike and mistrust scholarship and esoteric language, with which science writing is fraught, not to mention math, formulas, etc., which one literally can not understand at all without the proper training. It’s almost like you know and are learning a foreign language.And publishing limitations are in place for many reasons, some of which have already been outlined for you. There is, of course, the concern about content. An article-length paper is required because, well, the publishers want to make sure that they can fit the article in their journal, as well as ensure that at least a modicum of effort went into the composition of the article before they waste their time reading it and ascertaining its quality. I’m certain not all of your readers went to grad school, but for those of us who have, your observations probably (I can speak only for myself) incite nostalgic reflections on our first semesters, before we were jaded and tired of being destitute and overworked. Oh, and enjoy those articles. They don’t get any more exciting, and the format will probably not change noticeably in our lifetimes. People love tradition!

  35. Livingonsteak says papers should be written in such a way that they can be submitted to simple wikipedia. Write them in the normal way too of course, but if there is any chance the general public will read it, write it so the general public CAN read it.

  36. Julie says

    Between my animal behavior research project and paper and my independent study on captive zoo animals, I figured that I read over 70 published studies over 2-3 months. I became very good at skimming the abstract for any potentially useful information and then cherry-picking the introduction, results and discussion for relevant bits to include in my research. The materials and methods were usually the most cut and dried, sentence-fragmenty-of-doom parts of any paper I read and I quickly learned to just skip them unless sample size or methodology was a concern I had about a particular study.Oddly enough, the grad student who read my behavior paper said that my materials and methods section was more well-written than many that she had read, even though it was easily my least favorite part to write and took me at least twice as long as the introduction or discussion even though it was a quarter of the length of either because it was so damn boring.

  37. Georgia Sam says

    > Most scientists are terrible writers.Truer words were never written. This is, if anything, even more true in my field, social science. And education research — Oy! Don’t get me started.

  38. says

    Yup. And it’s not just papers, it’s presentations at conferences too, as far as I’ve seen. And it means that I don’t get good examples to learn from.

  39. says

    Completely agree! Political Science has a problem of not being able to relate to the layman. I blog mostly, because that is a problem and I like politics as a hobby. I know my writing has improved by blogging, and I know others can do the same in social and hard science fields!

  40. JM says

    There seem to be a couple of topics here. One is writing for journals and reading those articles. I haven’t had to do that for years, thankfully. The other is scientific illiteracy. The latter is partly a matter of really poor standard of average education, by which I mean that you don’t really have to have learned much to get a high school degree, and you tend to forget most of it shortly thereafter. That applies to all subjects.Another component of scientific illiteracy is related to the reason for this blog in the first place. Science is logically demanding and that simplifies what makes sense or doesn’t in some ways. Most religion demands a high level of belief in the illogical. I really do think that the conflict affects how many people think. If your religion or your emotional needs require you to believe in something illogical, how ready are you to understand that not everything obeys the same requirements?If one study shows something different from commonly accepted science, lots of people don’t know how to tell if they should pay attention to the difference. Some media science writers may know and include the caveats in their article, but once it’s cut to 2 inches, the caveats are gone. Never mind the 15 second blurbs on the radio or television.

  41. says

    This is the reason for my firm belief that humanities education should not be optional at the university level. One of the biggest issues I have with the ‘two cultures’ divide is that liberals-arts and scientific thought are considered to be mutually incompatible. But the humanities teach effective communication and, most importantly of all, critical thinking skills. If every university program included a mandatory first year great-books program, for example (accounting for, say, half of all credit hours in the first year) that was heavy on analysis and paper-writing, students who went on to become scientists would do so with a firm grounding in critique and written expression.

  42. says

    That’s cool. I’m an engineer and have a love/hate relationship with writing. And I’ll admit, I was one of those that were happy to be done with engilsh classes in college, although I do enjoy sciency papers when they’re not too technical. I have noticed as I get into higher level classes in my engineering program, the teachers get worse at explaining themselves. They seem to think you’ll just fill in the blanks. As much as I don’t like writing, I’d be willing to take some more english classes if they’d be willing to take some teaching classes.And even though I am an undergrad, I do have a blog also, and plan on writing sciency stuff, when it comes up. :)

  43. says

    While that is true, the science major’s required classes are so full that there’s no where to put it unless you get rid of other classes. Some friends and I are science majors (or have to take a lot of science classes) and the classes are killing us as they are. Instead of adding classes, I think they should fix the non-science ones that are already there to fit the goal (although I think the science and math classes have a lot of problems in them also).

  44. Ivo says

    There was a while ago an interesting discussion on Pharyngula about exactly this, prompted by the news that University of California was talking of boycotting Nature (the journal…), because of the unreasonable prices.Following the thread, I learned two things:1) This unfortunate situation is common throughout the sciences, and much more complicated than I thought (e.g., scientists themselves are partly culpable of perpetuating it by wanting to publish on already established and prestigious journals — it’s a brand thing!).BUT:2) The solution is on its way. There are many people (librarians at universities, computer scientists…) working on creating modern versions of the publishing system we inherited from our cartaceous past. Digital, open access archives, etc. Brave new ways of bypassing the paywalls and the antediluvian restrictions of the commercial publishers are being sought every day.As to how this happened, I suspect it is simply the technological time lag. And perhaps the panic of commercial publishers, which start to suspect that their editing, distribution and archiving services are quickly becoming obsolete…

  45. says

    Or we could restyle university education to be more like the CÉGEP system in Québec – finish high school in Grade 11, then spend a year or two doing one of a variety of pre-university or pre-college (community college for you Americans) programs. If we had a mandatory pre-science humanities, not only would we be teaching scientists how to write, but also to think laterally and critically (which I also believe is lacking in a lot of scientific education, a huge problem in itself). A huge problem, in my view, with the scientific climate right now is the lack of dialogue between disciplines on top of the problems communicating with non-scientists that Jen points out.Trust me, I’m well aware of the rigors of any science curriculum. But I do think that putting science back where it began, intertwined with humanities education, would be beneficial in a number of ways.

  46. LS says

    I’ve rarely read scientific primary texts. Partially due to laziness, and partially due to being completely unfamiliar with the basic concepts required to understand even the general direction of the paper. But I have read a lot of primary texts in philosophy. And the writing style in philosophical papers is the foundation of what is commonly referred to as “leagal-ese.” So I can sympathize. Hey, actually, now that I think of it, Alston is the chair of the philosophy department at UW! Could you punch him in the nose for me? Maybe shout something like “THE RELIABILITY OF SENSE PERCEPTION WAS NEEDLESSLY VERBOSE, YOU EXCEPTIONALLY TALENTED HACK!”At least I can read contracts better than most people.

  47. Andy Dufresne says

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for academic writing to become more accessible–especially in the hard sciences, where many-if-not-most working scientists view their writing as basically a loose form of stenography: style and elegance are just not what they think about. This writing is not for mass consumption–it doesn’t have to sizzle or captivate, the thinking goes–rather, it’s “about the data.”That’s why science journalists are so damn integral.

  48. Emily says

    I’m a first year engineering student. The professor for my intro class returned a group paper today with instructions to make it “more boring.” His reasoning is that this is how it’s done in the field, but it still makes me want to gouge my eyes out. Who says a paper can’t be informative AND well-written/entertaining? It’s like I have to unlearn everything!

  49. says

    Derrida is the hinge that allows us to see – but what do we mean, ‘to see’ – the limits of categories such as “the humanities.” As such, he both is, and is not – and is being is-not – the humanities.

  50. Rhino_of_Steel says

    I’m finding most Classical Studies journals don’t fit the same dryness as other historical disciplines. Sure, some of the literature stuff is a tad dull if you aren’t into it but one of my professors managed to call Ptolemy VIII, in a published journal mind you, a Hellenistic Jabba the Hutt. That trumps any boredom caused by reading an overly verbose Goldhill article.

  51. CS grad says

    Well , I definitely agree that research papers can and should be written better. However I disagree with the assertion that relaxing journals’ strict space constraints would contribute to that end. In the words of Pascal:’I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.’ Shorter papers are usually harder to write, but easier to read. In my field for example the main publication venue is conference proceedings, usually limited to 6-8 pages. Many authors add a reference to the full version version of the paper in their website – but this is for people who are even more experts in the field, not less.You have a good point though – most people today read papers as .pdf from the web. Journals and conferences can allow appendices, colored figures, etc., that will only be available in the online version of the paper.

  52. says

    Isaac–where do you go to school? I’m at UW-Madison and while everyone in the University here as Comm A and Comm B requirements that make sure they have at least basic and intermediate communication skills–what seems to be cool here is that the engineering college has its own technical communications program where we actually try to taylor the writing classes to the needs of the engineers–thus, teaching them how to write proposals and technical reports and the like.. Of course–we also fight battles against people who just want to disband us… while at the same time bemoaning the “continual problem of why engineers just can’t get ahead in the broader world because they cannot communicate well..” etc etc..What I’d tell you is keep blogging, read cool sci-fi or whatever you like to read for fun to broaden your language exposure, and always keep in mind that as a future engineer–you will almost certainly be writing various things–but also will be working with people from diverse fields–and if they have better natural or trained communication skills–they have an advantage in getting the bosses to do what they want.. Thus–as self-preseveration–but also because I do believe engineers should have a greater say in things–get your writing and speaking skills strong so that you can fight the good fight.. Good luck!

  53. Daktar says

    It seems most science reporting is either ridiculously over-sensationalised and dumbed down or full of jargon to the point of impenetrability. You might be able to get the info out of the impenetrable stuff if you work at it, but what kind of layman has time for that these days? The sensational stuff might be readable, but it invariably comes to a ridiculous conclusion, or is based on biased research like the recent study of how wind could have parted the Red Sea, which is mighty convenient if you believe in the biblical account of the Exodus (… in case anyone is interested).On a more positive note, and excellent example of how to do it is Ben Goldacre and his Bad Science column over at the Guardian (…. Although even this isn’t really reporting on science, more reporting on bad reports about science.

  54. says

    I totally understand. I have a degree in astrophysics from Berkeley, but I read way fewer astro journals than I do in other topics. Why? Because journals in physics and such take impenetrability to a whole new level (though I also find genetics to be hard to get through, but I always figured it was that I just wasn’t familiar enough. It’s not encouraging to hear that *you* find them dense and impenetrable.). I find that a lot of other subjects (most notably macrobio – so evolution, paleo, etc) are much more readily readable. But really, take a cruise through arXiv some time. It’s kind of frightening.

  55. pete084 says

    This is not unlike technical authoring, where in my line of work I have to plough through manuals for equipment and translate them into simple instructions for the end user. In the world of technical authoring it is undoubtedly beneficial to write loads of BS to justify the cost of their labours, but for people like me who have to read through technical manuals it’s a waste of money. Why use a thousand words to say what can be said in 100 words?PeteCurrently in Sudan, where technical manuals are thankfully thin on the ground.

  56. says

    Kidding aside, the fact that academic writing is just as bad in the humanities as it is in scientific & technical fields is doubly shameful – you’d expect people in the humanities to know better.

  57. says

    I agree with you that the academy generally needs to pay more attention to its dependence on jargon and to the kind of self-congratulatory review process that gave us Derrida. (Not that I don’t have a special affection for Derrida – you can only be in the philosophy department so long before you get drunk one night and realise that you actually might understand what he’s saying, and that he’s totally brilliant. Sadly, the enlightenment tends to wear off along with the booze.)That being said, I think the fact that we expect folks in the humanities to be intelligible but give scientists a free pass, as you point out in your comment, is what got us into this mess in the first place. The expectation that somehow science is an expert endeavour, relevant only to experts, permits and encourages scientific writing to be geared away from a lay audience, but the humanities disciplines are expected at all times to justify themselves to the world because they’re now considered to be less relevant and therefore less important (because their effects are less direct).It’s easy to see how this attitude has been constructed over the last hundred years or so (and hilarious to think of it in contrast wiht the natural philosophers who began to ‘do science’ as we now understand it, who were constantly in the position of publicizing science and trying to make it accessible to a lay audience).Having now been in academia in both the humanities and the sciences, I’m really starting to wish C.P. Snow would make a comeback.

  58. says

    I have seen unmodified Excel graphs in published papers from respectable journals before. Gray background and everything. Printed in graytone. My boss is lucky he didn’t walk into the lab to find me sharpening spatulas into shivs that day. I know not everyone has access to proper graphing programs, but that’s not even necessary. You can make Excel graphs look infinitely better by removing that damn gray background, and in versions before Excel 2007 thickening the data lines so they’re more visible.I’ve also seen pseudo-3d graphs that were damn near illegible because the graph’s x-axis was angled just so you could see the bar graph was THREE DEE!.

  59. Tina Henne says

    Dear Jen,You might find it interesting that at least in the microbiological world, efforts to make journal articles more attractive are being recognized. You would probably enjoy the following piece from the ASM website. But I generally agree that science sucks every last bit of creativity out of your soul. As for the “you put your methods where” phenomenon, some journals actually have authors put methods at the end of the article, while others will push them to the supplementary material. Par for the course.

  60. says

    As a fellow beginning grad student at UW, I feel your pain. Writing is on my mind lately because of the (seemingly) endless stream of proposals and fellowship applications due this quarter.I have started keeping both a private and public research log/blog. Forcing yourself to summarize the week’s worth of work or that paper you just read is useful practice. It also keeps you on track with your goals, and prepares you for the inevitable advisor meeting.Unfortunately, it’s frowned upon in many labs to post publicly about research progress (lest someone steal your unpublished ideas..). One can compromise by using an access-restricted blog site, or sending out weekly progress reports. It’s something that my lab does and it’s helped me stay on-task tremendously. There’s the bonus of being able to look back and know exactly what you did in the last week, month, year.. and seeing your progression as a researcher is cool.

  61. says

    How the frick has no one thought to mention the flipping hypocube! I thought us nerds were better than that. For a better look into how this gets science in trouble with the population at large, look up Feyerabend, a famed philosopher of science. Was he a medal winning soldier Nazi soldier in WWII? Yeah, but that doesn’t mean his logical approach to criticizing science (it’s absolutely infuriating by the way) isn’t worth addressing.Essentially, as long as you realize that it’s not the intent of scientists to obscure what they’re doing, it’s a lot easier to take a step back and forgive. Efforts to change the way scientists write about science are commendable, and I’d like to see what can be done.

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