Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Why can't scientists write good?

by Andre on 9 March 2005

It should be clear that writing is important in science. Results that aren’t shared with the broader community may as well never have been recorded. So why are so many papers poorly written? Part of the problem is surely a lack of training. Undergraduate science curricula are already bursting at the seams in response to the increase in scientific information and an increased desire for interdisciplinary training.

If physics departments can’t fit in a course on continuum mechanics into their core curriculum and if biology departments are to increase their undergraduates’ math skills, how can they be expected to make room for more training in writing? One possibility is requiring more writing in the science courses themselves – a term paper gives students the opportunity to explore a topic of interest in more detail and to practice technical writing; another is offering a dedicated writing course at the graduate level.

The lack of training argument only addresses part of the problem though. Bad training is all too common. This university writing center page recommends using the passive voice to remove “some accusations of bias” and to give your writing an “air or feeling of logic”. Who reacts with accusations of bias when they read “I measured the voltage” but is convinced of objectivity when they read “the voltage was measured”? Does one sound more logical than the other? With that said, I certainly couldn’t insist on always using the active voice either. Absolute stylistic rules have no place in language (Physical Review Letters). This reminds me of my grade eight English teacher telling me that I should never use “because” in my essays. That lead me to the wonderful habit of writing “due to the fact that” instead, which she somehow found acceptable.

This course page lists some nice articles about academic writing. I actually found myself laughing out loud while reading some of them. I would recommend the articles by Orwell, Williams, Gregory, and Moore. I especially like the examples of bad sentences that I feel like I’ve read a thousand times.


Vinothan Manoharan said…

I thought Mermin’s Lecture on Writing Physics was wonderful.

I’m fascinated by the emphasis on formality in scientific writing. I’ve noticed that there is much more informal prose (and even jokes) in the mathematics literature. Have a look at Donald Knuth’s or John Conway’s work, for example. Maybe we should take a cue from the mathematicians and strive for formality in our results, not our exposition of them. We need rules to enforce clarity in writing, but we could do without rules to enforce formality. Let’s face it: most of these are essentially large blunt objects used to beat people over the head. We’ve been beaten so many times ourselves that we can’t resist an opportunity to return the favor. But many of these rules, such as “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition,â€? exist only because somebody (in this case, Dryden) decided that the language should conform to their own arbitrary aesthetic standard. And then other people propagated the standard. They mass-produced the bludgeons. Stop the violence. I recommend Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax, which discusses grammatical rules, their origins, and when you can (and should) break them.

Philip said…

Hi Andre, Vinny,

First, I really hope the title is a joke. :) Second, I find there is a lot less formality in some of the biological literature as well, though perhaps that is mostly due to the fact that I read far more review articles than regular papers. Another major issue is that we science-types (or at least, me) often forget to read good fiction. I would love to take part in the conference Sean Carroll attended, but I just don’t read enough anymore. I haven’t been an avid reader of fiction since essentially the beginning of my undergrad degree, and things seem far too hectic to pick it back up again in force right now. I can feel my vocabulary shrinking day by day… Maybe I’ll harass my english major friend. Anyone have any recommendations?

Bates said…

Often it can be useful to write in the passive, especially if (in this writer’s opinion) an author wishes to present some generally accepted, well known, important fact. An example, “One can always choose the zero potential at an arbitrarily convenient position” However, I think that when we write in the active, things sometimes follow smoother and sentences tend to be more efficient. Trying to write in the passive often creates the need for more words. (Writing Styles) In cases where you are reporting experimental work, or a theoretical procedure, using the active is simply easier and sufficient. There is nothing wrong with carefully switching between the passive and the active as one sees fit, unless you are not confident enough. I have often spent time at the beginning of a latex file trying to decide on the writing style to work with; I never have an easy time with it. If you aren’t an expert writer you shouldn’t be too self-conscious as a science graduate student to spend some time looking through reading styles in different papers or even stopping by your university’s writing help centre for some advice. Philip may be interested in a very unique book on punctuation that could serve as a stepping stone into reading some more in depth books on writing styles etc. Eats, Shoots & Leaves is an easy read that gives you the ins and outs of punctuation without you even knowing it. It is a great book and a useful lesson in the basics. But you don’t have to take my word for it…

  1. JBC    3189 days ago    #

    “One can always choose the zero potential at an arbitrarily convenient position” is active, not passive.

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