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Because it's Friday: Please don't write like a scientist

David Smith's picture

When Adam Rubin was a PhD student, his advisor accused him of "writing like a poet" for using a non-scientific word in this thesis:

The word was “lone,” as in “PvPlm is the lone plasmepsin in the food vacuole of Plasmodium vivax.” It was a filthy word. A non-scientific word. A flowery word, a lyrical word, a word worthy of — ugh — an MFA student.

Rubin goes on to provide 12 tips to follow if you want to avoid accusations of literary or poetic writing in your scientific papers, such as:

Some journals, such as Science, officially eschew the passive voice. Others print only the passive voice. So find a healthy compromise by writing in semi-passive voice.

ACTIVE VOICE: We did this experiment.
PASSIVE VOICE: This experiment was done by us.
SEMI-PASSIVE VOICE: Done by us, this experiment was.

Yes, for the semi-passive voice, you’ll want to emulate Yoda. Yoda, you’ll want to emulate.

... and ...

Most journals use the past tense. To add flair to your writing, try writing your entire article in the Third Conditional Progressive Interrogative tense. Instead of, “We did this experiment,” you’d write, “Would we have been doing this experiment?” This may seem more convoluted than simple writing, but your article probably won’t be any less comprehensible than most other scientific journal articles.

You can read the rest of the tips in his Science Careers article.

But in all seriousness, from someone from outside the academic community who still has to read scientific articles, please don't follow this advice, tongue-in-cheek though it may be. I really don't understand why science (and yes, that include mathematics and statistics) can't be written in a more natural and easy-to-read style. It's not as though a more literary style necessarily comes at the expense of clarity and accuracy.

If you've ever read any of Isaac Asimov's non-fiction popular science books, you'll know what I mean. I devoured his books as a teenager, and despite having no background in astronomy, chemistry, ecomomics, religion or any of the other myriad topics Asimov wrote about. I learned a lot about topics I'd never got to study, and had a good read while doing so. (If you have a teenager yourself, the books still make a great read, even though the science is a bit dated now. Bill Bryson appears to have taken up the eclecticism mantle for the 21st century.) So it is possible to make esoteric topics easy to understand, and without assuming extensive background knowledge on behalf of the reader. Popular science, of course, can't get into the depth of a journal article, but even there Asimov made the effort ... and ran into familiar problems. In his 1979 autobiography he wrote, 

The trouble was that I hated writing research papers … writing a research paper is a tedious and stylized job. You cannot write as you wish; you cannot use English; you cannot have fun...

It really did spoil my fun and erased any pleasure I could have had in the dissertation. Nor did it really help. Once it was done and under consideration, one professor was reported to have said, "It reads like a mystery story." And he didn't say it with approval.

Isaac Asimov did not publish another research paper after 1953.

Science Careers: "How to Write Like a Scientist" (via @peteskomoroch)