Biology in the News Explained

Why the public doesn’t get science

Finally, a paper that is fun to read: Sand-Jensen, K. 2007. How to write consistently boring scientific literature. Oikos 116: 723-727.

Dr. Sand-Jensen has hit the nail on the head with this one. The ten rules below are his for making a scientific paper as inaccessible as possible – a problem frequently encountered by those of us trying to make the scientific literature more accessible to a general public which is not science literate.

1. Avoid focus
2. Avoid originality and personality
3. Write l o n g contributions
4. Remove implications and speculations
5. Leave out illustrations
6. Omit necessary steps of reasoning
7. Use many abbreviations and terms
8. Suppress humor and flowery language
9. Degrade biology to statistics
10. Quote numerous papers for trivial statements

Sand-Jensen needs to make it clear he is being tongue-in-cheek, however; honestly, it would not be surprising for some of the scientists out there to take his advice seriously. So he summarizes his views:

Because science ought to be fun and attractive, particularly when many months of hard work with grant applications, data collections and calculations are over and everything is ready for publishing the wonderful results, it is most unfortunate that the final reading and writing phases are so tiresome.

Most of these problems could be alleviated by the authors themselves. Why are they not? Because papers that have these characteristics continue to get published. In fact, if one were to attempt to remedy “rule” no. 8, it is likely that most reviewers for most journals would send the paper back in order to have all entertaining language removed.

But this is the proximate cause of the problem. What is the ultimate cause? Most people are never taught to write, including Ph.D.’s. They adopt the absurd jargonist language of their field because they were taught to write when training for that field. The crisis in our educational system does not end at the university level. Students are not trained to write in high school; a literate 10-page paper turned in for a typical college course is currently so rare it can be considered an endangered species. College professors then are left with two options: either to try and make up for basic skills that students should have learned in high school, or to join the ranks of the bitter cynics and hand out passing grades and thus degrees as rewards for students showing up to class. And guess which professors get the better evaluations, and therefore, less hassle from administrators.

Thus, many students who are bright enough in a certain field and interested in going to grad school still lack basic communication skills, and the cycle is perpetuated when they become professors themselves and teach their students to write specifically in the jargon of their field.

So getting back to why all these terrible papers get published in the first place, is it simply because standards are so low for good writing? Or even that people so rarely see good writing that they don’t recognize the bad? This is part of it, but while the existence of the bad writing in the first place was a catalyst, the whole equation also includes the ego factor – there is the distinct subtext in many unnecessarily complicated papers of, “if you don’t understand my paper, it’s because you are not as brilliant as me.” There is no other possible explanation for the slew of poorly written and mistake-ridden modeling papers in ecology. Reviewers must be afraid to tell editors that a paper does not make any sense, not realizing that if this is the case, it is the writer’s fault, not the reader’s fault, when the reader is an educated and well trained professional in the field.

From this insecurity-soaked process then emerges a kind of code language for professionals within a narrow field (and the narrowness of some of these fields is suggested by some of the journal titles out there, such as “Journal of asynchronous learning networks” and “Journal of aquatic ecosystem stress and recovery” just to pull out a couple from the thousands of journals available from a typical university library). This spirals inward sometimes to the point where there are only four people out there who can read a particular paper, and it gets published because those people are the reviewers – because no one else can understand the paper.

This is a particularly important issue with human health because from papers that are often horribly written, leave out important methodological information, use bad statistics, etc., the public is spoon fed a misleading press release that makes bold new health claims that are not at all substantiated by the paper, but that give publicity to the journal and sell newspapers.

So the problem identified by Sand-Jensen – but always known to the few scientists who care about proper scientific communication – reaches much further than the frustration of a scholar having to wade through a morass of bad writing. It affects the public’s attitude and education about science, which in the U.S. couldn’t be much lower for an industrial country. And it makes even those of us who did go into science as a career feel sometimes like closing the journal, turning on the TV, and watching Law and Order reruns for the rest of the day. Dr. Sand-Jensen speaks for me when he says, “It has been a great relief from time to time to read and write essays and books instead.” That is the raison d’etre for this biology blog.

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