Marissa Schafer, Editor
If the scientific community were polled, I wonder how many would claim to truly enjoy reading primary literature. Probably not many. Let me be clear, I expect most scientists would be quick to divulge that they love reading the newest discoveries, and they really love dissecting publications—identifying clever new tactics or finding holes in experimental designs. But what I am referring to is the writing used to deliver the science—the strings of words and punctuation that drag us through the introduction, results, methods, and finally, to the discussion. I find that often, although there are many exceptions, this type of writing is somewhere between dull and detestable.
Why are many academic publications so dreadful? Often, the problem lies not in the science but in the language delivering the science—although, nothing sinks a publication like lousy science. Within academic publications, authors seem to treat the writing as an inferior priority, relative to the science. I often observe: ‘although this isn’t pretty, it gets the point across’, but what are the origins of this rushed mediocrity?
I think poor writing usually stems from the prioritization of publication speed over publication quality. ‘Let’s get this article in press before our competitors do’ is a mentality that all scientists share. Especially in the current academic climate, even the most prolific researchers cannot afford to get scooped. So when there is minimal time to write, much less re-write, the writing suffers.
Lousy writing is also the predicted product of an author that is inexperienced or simply does not possess good writing skills. In the short-term, this challenge can be overcome through collaboration or outside help. This issue is especially crucial for trainees, and it is the responsibility of a good mentor to help the mentee become a dexterous writer.
Another problem I commonly observe in inexperienced writers (including myself) relates to the author’s proximity to the subject. Because we spend so much time planning, conducting, and thinking about our research, we are very, very close to every detail. This presents an objectivity problem; it can be hard to step back and separate what must be stated from what should be thrown out. We over-write because we think every element is crucial to understanding the whole story or simply because we want the world to fully comprehend the extent of our labors.
The most irritating origin of poor writing is obfuscation. The authors write cryptically because they want to leave something out—an experimental detail or error that they don’t want the world to know. This is often identifiable and frankly, just poor form.
The result of these issues is lifeless writing that is read solely for the sake of consuming facts. I find this lack of literary rigor in stark contrast to the personalities of the writers. By nature of their work, scientist must be meticulous, determined individuals to fight through difficult problems and experiments at all hours of the day or night, for years on end. Intrinsically, we are not bland or lazy people, so why force our hard-fought discoveries into insipid bounds?
I am not implying that primary literature should take on an op-ed or memoir-like slant. Academic writing should be standardized—presented in an unbiased, clear format. I am, however, suggesting that the author’s voice should come through more clearly; publications should not read like they were authored by poorly programmed robots. Like all good writing, science publications should be crafted deftly, with style.
As I see it, the flaws in academic writing are the same flaws that appear in all non-fiction writing—the author writes in passive voice, or worse, the author changes tense unexpectedly. The text is cluttered, wrought with unnecessary words. The logic or descriptions are not presented linearly. Or simply, there is no flow or cohesion within the language.
The solutions to these issues are simple and intuitive; we must write, re-write, and then re-write again. We must be very mindful of what we’re trying to say, and we must write it as clearly as possible. Within our research communities, we must read each others’ writing and provide critical feedback. Like all pursuits, only hard work and diligence will improve our writing skills.
Science is an exciting and majestic field pioneered by passionate, interesting people. Our pursuits are grueling, challenging, and rewarding, so why drain all of that life from our descriptions? Our research can only be as good as its presentation. We must strive to communicate our message with greater clarity and grace and stop sacrificing the writing for the sake of the science.
Marissa Schafer is a PhD candidate in the department of Cellular and Molecular Biology at the NYU School of Medicine. Contact her at: Marissa.Schafer@nyumc.org.