genophoria

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Tag Archives: scientific writing

Confessions of a bad writer

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” –Jack Kerouac

I am a bad writer! And a piece by Steven Pinker in chronicles of higher education made me feel awful about it. I recommend that you read it too… and I’m sure you will feel self-conscious about your writing as well. I even went back and checked some of my papers. Examples cited by Steven Pinker are aptly chosen and I’ve come by many such convoluted verbiage myself in my day-to-day readings. For example:

The methods section of an experimental paper explains, “Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word.” After some detective work, I determined that it meant, “Participants read sentences, each followed by the word true or false.” The original academese was not as concise, accurate, or scientific as the plain English translation.

To be fair, I know scientists who write with an enviable clarity. My PhD advisor, Saeed Tavazoie, is one of those academics. The ease with which he finds the right adjectives and adverbs, even in the context of a casual conversation about his scientific ideas, has always baffled me. More importantly, I believe that the ability to deconstruct a complex notion into parts that can be simply conveyed is a measure of true understanding of scientific matter. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those scientists… at least not yet.

cjdno

Your writing is bad, and you should feel bad… Dr. Zoidberg is judging you!

There is one point, however, that I think should be discussed. Scientists publish two kinds of scientific material, on the one hand we write papers usually aimed at scientists in our own field (or even sub-field and sub-sub-field); on the other hand, we write blog posts, perspectives, insights, reviews and etc. The latter is meant for a broad audience and should be amply clear to everyone with or without expertise. There are no arguments there. However, when it comes to papers, I’m not 100% sure that writing for a broad audience should be our main goal… I don’t think it should even be on the list at all. I’m not talking about clarity, rather, I’m talking about assuming a broad readership. For example, Steven Pinker writes:

“A considerate writer will also cultivate the habit of adding a few words of explanation to common technical terms, as in “Arabidopsis, a flowering mustard plant,” rather than the bare “Arabidopsis” (which I’ve seen in many science papers).”

My argument is that writing a paper for a broad audience may create a false sense of comprehension. For example, if someone doesn’t know what Arabidopsis is, they should not be reading the text in the first place. Words like significantinformativeassociation, sufficientcausal and … have specific scientific and mathematical meanings that are distinctly different from their everyday use. Not knowing the scientific context in which these words are used, will clearly change our understanding of the text. While academics should absolutely engage in popular science writing, I don’t think scientific papers are the right medium for this endeavor. We as scientists may even want to use the language of the abstract to set a bar for who should be reading the paper in the first place. Public media is rife with examples were non-experts feel they have understood the subject matter in cases where they clearly have not. How many times have we discussed the misuse of “correlation” versus “causation” by the media originating from poor understanding of a published paper.

Again, I’m not talking about convoluted writing here, but rather technical writing. For example, as part of the qualification exams for my PhD candidacy, I was assigned a paper from Bernhard Palsson’s group. The abstract has phrases like “constraints-based in silico models have been used to calculate optimal growth rates” or “incorrect predictions of in silico models based on optimal performance criteria”. I was completely baffled by the text and I couldn’t even begin to understand  the problem the authors were trying to address (you can try this yourself by reading the abstract). It was after reading many MANY papers from this field that I began to understand the language and with that the science behind it. In other words, comprehending the language is serving as a gauge for the ability to understand the science behind it with minimal risk of unintended misunderstandings. As JRR Tolkien wrote, at the Doors of Durin, you should be able to speak friend to enter… scientific papers, akin to mines of moria, are dangerous territories.

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