Writing Science

By Adam Ruben:

I’m still fairly new at this science thing. I’m less than 4 years beyond the dark days of grad school and the adviser who wouldn’t tolerate “lone.” So forgive my naïveté when I ask: Why the hell not?

Why can’t we write like other people write? Why can’t we tell our science in interesting, dynamic stories? Why must we write dryly? (Or, to rephrase that last sentence in the passive voice, as seems to be the scientific fashion, why must dryness be written by us?)

I once taught two different college science writing classes in back-to-back semesters. The first was mainstream science writing; the students had fun finding interesting research projects and writing about them. One student visited a lab where scientists who were building a new submarine steering mechanism let her practice steering a model sub around a little tank. Another subjected himself to an fMRI and wrote about the experience.

But the second semester was science writing for scientists, in which they learned how to write scientific journal articles — and it was a lot less fun. “Keep it interesting!” I told my students during the first semester. To my second-semester students, I said, “Well, you’re not really supposed to keep it interesting.”

We’re taught that scientific journal articles are just plain different from all other writing. They’re not written in English per se; they’re written in a minimalist English intended merely to convey numbers and graphs. As such, they have their own rules. For example:

I give just two of his twelve good examples:

2. Using the first person in your writing humanizes your work. If possible, therefore, you should avoid using the first person in your writing. Science succeeds in spite of human beings, not because of us, so you want to make it look like your results magically discovered themselves….

4. The more references you include, the more scholarly your reader will assume you are. Thus, if you write a sentence like, “Much work has been done in this field,” you should plan to spend the next 9 hours tracking down papers so that your article ultimately reads, “Much work has been done in this field1,3,6-27,29-50,58,61,62-65,78-315,952-Avogadro’s Number.” If you ever write a review article, EndNote might explode.


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  • David Philpott

    This is definitely true. Most science writing is terrible. I always did well on my lab reports and that sort of thing in college – and often was told it was excellent writing when I did so little to make it good.

    I also find it sort of draining to write for science. So little creativity. More importantly, there is no way to communicate the wonder and awe that many scientists find in their work. Some of the discoveries that are routinely published sound so dry, and yet are fantastically interesting!

  • RJS

    Some science writing is terrible – but not most. The purpose of a journal article is not to communicate the wonder and awe – but the data and interpretation. So the goal is to communicate the importance and reliability of the results to those who are capable of judging the merit of the result and incorporating it into their own work. This can be done well, or it can be done poorly, but the kind of complaints expressed here are rather irrelevant to the issue. Whether or not one uses “we” in describing how an experiment was done is a trivial detail. A poorly written article has an argument that rambles and is difficult to follow and evaluate, that hides the key points and contains a multitude of irrelevant asides.

    Writing about science for a more general public is a different situation – and is something that is often not done very well. We need to write perspectives and overviews and public consumption pieces that communicate the wonder, the awe, and the ideas without the pesky little details. Here the use of we or I is not a trivial detail.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with principle thesis of RJS’s comment. Unfortunately, as was noted by Adam, it is recommended by some scientific societies, for example, by the Acoustical Society of America, that the weak passive voice be used by contributing authors. (Please read the forgoing sentence ironically.)

    Good scientific technical writing, on the other hand, strives not for grandiloquence but rather for clarity and precision. Moreover, the strength of diction and the logical flow can propel the argument or exposition. Indeed, all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)students can benefit from a mastery of clear writing, a fact that has been more and more recognized by many universities.

  • Just wanted to say “Amen” to this post and the commenters. Like so many others, I wish that science writing was more exciting. Like RJS, I know that the few journal articles that were worth reading really depended upon knowing the context, and what’s at stake. Science journalism is in a similar state of affairs as religious journalism: really unable to give enough history and context for the layperson to understand the significance.

    Take for example the recent dive by James Cameron into the Mariana Trench. It’s going, going, gone…which is too bad, as the many and varied kinds of science that will come from this single expedition will have some fresh understandings and discoveries brought to the surface… 🙂

    Does it matter that I’m a former engineer? I think so. I chafe at some of the science journalism. I’ll bet that most of the journalists on the science beat really wonder if anyone cares…unless it’s about their iPad 3 overheating…

  • C

    “We investigated these results, but then we had to use the bathroom, which is where we sat when our spouse called.”

    So true. Glad to know I’m not the only one who feels this way. “Why the hell not?…Why can’t we tell our science in interesting, dynamic stories?”