Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Journal headaches

by PhilipJ on 7 May 2006

Alex Palazzo of The Daily Transcript rants on the things he hates about journals (though I wish he added that they aren’t all open access!). I agree with most of his complaints, and I’ll add a couple of things.

Science and Nature articles (and those that emulate them, like the Biophysical Journal’s Biophysical Letters section, or Rapid Communciations in the Physical Review) are definitely frustrating to read, partly because of the ultra-short word count, but also because scientists just can’t write very well. Raise your hand if you’ve had any formal training in how to write a good science report. I know I haven’t.

Supplementary information sections are rarely read, with important data often “thrown down the drain” as Alex mentions, but I think there’s a bigger problem: they are dreadfully written, and mustn’t be edited to the same standards required for regular articles. I think this does everyone an injustice as the real meat of the papers are often found in the supplemental section, but they’re impossible to read. Not only that, most journals have their published articles available as PDFs, while supplemental information is often only available as Microsoft Word documents. Why everything isn’t offered in PDF format I will never know, as I (and lots of other physicists) never use Word for any reason, and I don’t even have it installed on my computer anymore!

I’ll second that experimental method references are a wild goose chase: in my own field of optical tweezers, some papers reference methods and instruments that are very different from the instrument used in their current papers, so it amounts to an effectively useless reference if I wanted to reproduce measurements using as identical a setup as possible.

Finally, though I don’t necessarily agree that journal covers are getting too funky, I would like it if they offered nice, high resolution PDFs of covers without the text on them—they would often make cool desktop backgrounds!



  1. luke Quinton    4124 days ago    #

    just re-read your original post. What a nice collection of commentary on what is probably my favourite bone of contention with Academia. This happens in all disciplines by the way- it is by no means relegated to the sciences- although, having read and critiqued a few astronomy-related papers, I will say they are more of a mess than most.

    I haven’t read the rest yet, but I loved Limeric’s commentary for having precisely what he says other writers lack: incredible commitment to clarity.

    I will never understand why such a supposedly “open” profession produces a culture where its writers fear criticism and avoid it by hiding behind unnecesarily complicated jargon and obscurity.


  2. Jeff Hodges    4124 days ago    #

    Off topic, but did you see this month’s Physics Today? Totally using the same image as your header for their cover.


  3. Andre    4117 days ago    #

    Thanks for the heads-up Jeff. I did see it. Did you read the article? They did a good job.


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