Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Peculiar Writing Style of Scientific Journals

Most scientists I know are very good writers. But you'd never know it from the articles they publish in scientific journals, where the prose is turgid, convoluted, and downright scary. I'm not talking about popular science magazines like Scientific American -- I mean the journals where scientists publish their latest results -- places like Nature and Science, or, in my own field, Physical Review and Astrophysical Journal. These journal articles are the currency in which scientific research is measured -- they get us tenure, government grants, and an unrealistically inflated sense of our own importance. And the writing style in these journals is very, very odd.

In much of science writing, the passive voice reigns supreme, often to avoid the egotism of the first person pronoun. (Not "I performed an experiment" but "An experiment was performed"). I once reviewed a paper so aggressively passive (how's that for an oxymoron?) that I could not tell whether a result had been produced by the authors themselves or some other set of researchers.  (It turned out to be the former). And if the passive voice fails, single-author papers can use the royal plural instead (Not "I derive a new result" but "We derive a new result..."). A physicist once famously listed his cat as a co-author on a paper just so he could get away with using "we" instead of "I"!

Scientists qualify every claim. Parenthetical clauses can be endlessly nested, and nouns compounded without limit. The latter is probably due to the fact that German was once the dominant language of physics and chemistry, leaving a vague imprint on scientific writing in our own language -- German allows you to cheerfully chain together words into multi-syllabic masterpieces like an out-of-control kindergartner with a glue stick.

What does all of this actually look like? Suppose we decided to rewrite a science fiction story in the form of a scientific journal article.  Here's the first paragraph from my story, "Extra Innings":

           Jimmy Dyson pushed his bicycle through the sun-baked field behind Benny Krauss’s house, spraying clouds of dandelion seeds into the air and jostling the precious cargo in the basket mounted on the handlebars.  Withered thistles caught on the scratchy wool socks his mom always made him wear, even in the St. Louis summer.

And here's what it would look like in a science journal:

A bicycle was pushed by Jimmy Dyson through the sun-baked-Benny-Krauss-house-field.  Thus, dandelion seeds were dispersed into the air, and the cargo in the handlebar-mounted basket was somewhat jostled. Thistles (fairly withered: see discussion in Part II, below) were caught on Dyson’s socks. This story takes place in St. Louis, in the summer.

Happily, the quality of science writing has improved considerably even in the time I've been involved in research.  But I think it will always remain somewhat stylized.  It's a good example of how language can be a bit Darwinian - evolving in different directions in different environments.  IMHO.


Kathy said...

Feeling overwhelmed by the style of writing required in his doctoral dissertation, Asimov wrote a gag paper in the same style concerning "thiotimoline." A substance which dissolves in water a short instant before it is added to water. I think it's called "the Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline," and it was published in one of the pulp magazines of the day.

Later he wrote actual stories using the time-traveling substance. One I vaguely recall is "Thiotimoline and the Space Age," in which it is used for interstellar travel.

Perhaps the time is ripe for a gag journal article along these lines? The subject could be something outrageous or absurd, or perhaps some incredibly small, incidental and unimportant detail of a wider process.

Robert Scherrer said...

I already wrote such a spoof! It's called "Time Variation of a Fundamental
Dimensionless Constant," and you can read it at (there's also a link to this article in my very first blog post back in April).

For a long time now physicists have been posting April Fools papers on the physics arXiv (the main site for the posting of new papers before they are accepted by a physics journal). Lately, though, I think the administrators of the arXiv have been cracking down.

Kathy said...

I'll read it when I get home later today.

My idea was more along the lines of publishing it in analog or some other SF magazine, or on the web.

Journal editors, though, should know of the propensity of scientists to play practical jokes. It even ties in with the wacky names and acronyms given to their experiments.

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