Scientific Style

Suggestions for writing science well abound -- we have a couple of sources cited in the Readings. What these sources have in common are certain approaches to writing with which not all scientists readily agree. First is that science is a "narrative". Second is that scientific prose should be clear, concise, and comprehensible (the 3 Cs -- some add a fourth: compelling). 

Is science a narrative? Let's start with science as an activity. Most would agree that we experience science while we are conducting it as a kind of story: strings of actions have consequences to which people react some more. This is the basis of a story: something happened --> something was done about it --> more things happened. When a scientist looks back on a project and talks about it, it usually has this narrative form because we humans are largely driven by narrative structure (okay, this is my personal belief based on years of studying language: sentence grammar seems to be a cognitively hard-wired system for communicating strings of actions and consequences). 

But is writing a science paper like writing a narrative? At this point, we really must say "NO". Why? Because all the stylistic decisions that make narrative compelling are exactly the decisions that would get a paper rejected immediately! Can you imagine the editors of Nature happily passing the following abstract to reviewers...

It was a dark and stormy day outside, but the lab was alight with the phosphorescent glow of particles XYZ, twinkly merrily from the mashed brains on the slide like tiny LED bulbs on the family Christmas tree. Through weary hours spent mincing maternal mouse hyppocampi, tortured by months of no-glow-at-all, the lab had finally triumphed! Cool as the plate we'd used to freeze the rats toes, our long hours of drinking alone in the dark, waiting for the hopped-up mamas to do their crazy dance, had rewarded us with positive images of brains gone wild as girls on Spring Break.

Clearly, scientific prose is not a narrative. 

So, why the frequent call for writing more narratively? This editorial suggests the reason nicely: 

Before you even begin, ask yourself the question, "Why should anyone care to read past the title of my paper?" A succinct, informative but also tempting title is essential, and is the first of the key features in a manuscript to come under editorial scrutiny. Next comes the most important paragraph of the whole paper: the first one. Even if it is a work of expositional genius, few among a broad audience are likely to read beyond it. So it is vital that this paragraph tells the central story of the paper, and makes clear why this story deserves to be told. Don't launch into technical details, or merely list what you did. Set the scene, explain the background — that will give the non-specialist reader a context in which to understand the significance of the work, but fellow specialists will also appreciate your telling them what you consider to be the relevant questions in the field.. (Editorial, Elements of Style, Nature Physics)

Aah -- it isn't that scientific prose is a species of narrative, then, but that readers comprehend better when story elements are used to convey the message. In the case of reporting research, the "story" elements provide the "...context in which to understand the significance of the work". In other words, the structure of the scientific paper creates a mini-world in which a problem is posed (the research topic with its pesky unanswered questions), an action is proposed (your experiement), a consequence is had (the results), new knowledge is formed (results + discussion) and more action is suggested (speculation in discussion). This is not necessarily the story of how the scientist experienced the work; it is the story of how the reader can best experience the research. Perhaps this is why the second person (you, you're, etc) is not used at all in science -- the research is not about the reader and only quietly about the writer.

Scientific prose should be clear, concise, comprehensible (and perhaps, compelling). The 3 Cs is the antidote to edict #1 (that scientific prose should be a narrative construction). Yes, taking advantage of narrative structure will help the reader understand the research, but it is the ideas themselves that have to be written clearly, concisely, and comprehensibly. Here is where "The Science of Scientific Writing" comes in, the main points of which are neatly summarized in "How to Write a Thesis": 

1. Follow a grammatical subject with its verb, as soon as possible.
2. Place in the position of importance (stress position) the “new information” you
want the reader to emphasize in his or her mind.
3. Place the person or thing whose story is being told at the beginning of a sentence
in the topic position.
4. Place appropriate “old information” (material discussed earlier) in the topic position
to provide linkage with what has gone before and context for what is to come later.
5. Make clear the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
6. Provide context for your reader before asking him or her to consider anything new.
7. Match the emphasis conveyed by the substance with the emphasis anticipated by
the reader from the structure.

Linguistically, the 7 principles fall into two groups -- those that address clear sentences and those that address clear text.

Principles for Constructing Clear Sentences

1. Follow a grammatical subject with its verb, as soon as possible.

5. Make clear the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.

Clear, informative sentences are dominated by verbs -- the relationship of the verb to its object, the relationship of the verb to the subject, the use of verbs instead of unnecessary nouns phrases. Ultimately, sentences are subsumed by paragraphs, but there are still some sound techniques at the sentence level that can make your writing easier to understand. 

Principles for Constructing Clear Paragraphs

2. Place in the position of importance (stress position) the “new information” you

want the reader to emphasize in his or her mind.

3. Place the person or thing whose story is being told at the beginning of a sentence

in the topic position.

4. Place appropriate “old information” (material discussed earlier) in the topic position

to provide linkage with what has gone before and context for what is to come later.

6. Provide context for your reader before asking him or her to consider anything new.

7. Match the emphasis conveyed by the substance with the emphasis anticipated by

the reader from the structure.

You'll see immediately that there are many more principles suggested for composing clear, logical paragraphs. Paragraphs are ground zero for comprehension: this is the level at which reader's understanding most frequently breaks down, leading either to mis-understanding or blatant non-understanding. Frequently, readers experience the communication breakdown as a personal failing -- they believe it's their own fault for not understanding what looks to be straightforward text. Then, they get angry because the writing has made them feel stupid -- or they assume that your work is simply too advanced for them to follow. Both cases kill the writer's citation count, and that is bad for a scientist's career.


A Final Note on Science Style (Editorial, Elements of Style, Nature Physics):

Explain, don't hype. The object is not to find fine words or turns of phrase that will convince the reader to care if normally they wouldn't; nor is it to push the boundaries of what is clearly supported by the evidence presented. If claims matter, they will be scrutinized, and if they're not robustly supported by the results, no amount of hyperbole will convince anyone — editor, referee or reader — otherwise.

Avoid clichés like the plague. Unless you are an archaeologist, it is unlikely that you've found the Holy Grail. Similarly, avoid hollow generalities. It may be that your work will open up new avenues of exploration in your field — but surely that is the point of most novel research? Instead, you might want to offer specific problems that could be addressed or new capabilities that might be enabled by your work.

Adjectives are best used sparingly and only when justified. Avoid using the word 'very' — it doesn't add information, only syllables. Similarly, it is better to be specific about the scales reached than to invoke vague superlative prefixes, such as 'ultra': with the duration of laser pulses increasingly measured in attoseconds, it's less and less meaningful to describe hundreds of femtoseconds as 'ultrashort'. Neither does the use of 'quantum', 'nano' or 'bio' score points: perhaps the paper does discuss phenomena that involve quantized energy levels, happen at the nanoscale or are seen in molecules that are also found in living organisms, but unless these aspects are at the heart of the reported research such prefixes should not be emphasized.


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