Monday, September 23, 2013

How To Write A Boring Scientific Paper

Someone sent me a link recently to a 2007 paper entitled, "How to Write Consistently Boring Literature", by Kaj Sand-Jensen (Univ. of Copenhagen). I met the author many years ago and can quite imagine him writing such a tongue-in-cheek article.

The first line of the abstract reveals his motivation for writing it: "Although scientists typically insist that their research is very exciting and adventurous when they talk to laymen and prospective students, the allure of this enthusiasm is too often lost in the predictable, stilted structure and language of their scientific publications."

The paper is divided into four sections:

How to turn a gifted writer into a boring scientist
Why are scientific publications boring?
Ten recommendations for boring scientific writing
Alternative writing style and variable outlets

The first two sections are quite short and serve to introduce the main content in the third section. Here are the ten recommendations guaranteed to make your writing dull, incomprehensible, and impersonal:

1. Avoid focus.
2. Avoid originality and personality.
3. Write l  o  n  g contributions.
4. Remove most implications and all speculations.
5. Leave out illustrations, particularly good ones.
6. Omit necessary steps of reasoning.
7. Use many abbreviations and technical terms.
8. Suppress humor and flowery language.
9. Degrade species and biology to statistical elements.
10. Quote numerous papers for self-evident statements.

I find most of these suggestions to be quite useful if your goal is to write a boring paper. Not so sure about the "flowery language". I find that boring writers are adept at producing ornate and excessively verbose narratives. Perhaps what is meant is "colorful", "entertaining", or "provocative"?

There are some additional recommendations I might add:

11. Include all data collected, no matter how irrelevant, and describe it in excruciating detail.
12. At the beginning, fail to articulate your questions, objectives, or hypotheses.
13. At the end, fail to address the questions, objectives, or hypotheses posed at the beginning.

The latter two are essential if your goal is to be incomprehensible.

In the final section, the author suggests some alternative outlets for scientists who wish to have more freedom in their writing styles: books and essays. To those suggestions, I might add: blogs.

Although the article is humorous, it has a serious message, articulated in the last line: "In an atmosphere of increasing competition among educations and scientific disciplines, I argue here that we desperately need more accessible and readable scientific contributions to attract bright new scientists and produce integrated understanding."

If you would like a good laugh (and also learn something about how to avoid being so boring in your scientific writing), you might take a look at this paper. Here's a link to it.

In the next post, I will talk about a new app and book (by Randy Olson) for communication-challenged scientists.

Image Credit: photograph by DrDoyenne; quote from the paper reviewed in this post.

Friday, September 6, 2013

How to Read a Scientific Paper

I remember the point in my graduate training when I realized that I was capable of reading and understanding scientific articles outside my field, even those that involved methods and terminology I was not familiar with. This was quite a revelation to me at the time because I was under the misapprehension that, once I completed my training, I would only be able to critically review papers in my own field or closely related fields.

What changed my mind was a course I took (plant biochemistry) in which the professor assigned published articles on a variety of topics to us to read and discuss. Quite a few of the papers involved molecular and other techniques that were as mysterious to me as the process of flying might be to an elephant. Being a conscientious student, however, I endeavored to teach myself how to read and understand scientific papers about unfamiliar topics. To make a long story short, I developed a procedure not unlike the one recently posted by Jennifer Raff, a Research Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Texas (which I'll get to in a moment).

With my method, I was able to effectively critique all the assigned papers and to enthusiastically participate in class discussions (we were graded on our class participation). I discovered that not only could I hold my own with the rest of the class (mostly biochemistry grad students who were more familiar with such articles), I was able to point out critical flaws in the studies that no one else saw. My strong background in statistics was particularly useful in poking holes in experimental designs (to my surprise, most of the assigned papers reported no statistics whatsoever, not even standard error bars). When the professor began calling on me for my assessment of a paper's experimental approach and whether the conclusions were supported by the data, I knew I would never wonder again whether I could understand any scientific paper and whether its findings were valid.

If someone with scientific research training can feel inadequate when faced with an unfamiliar topic, imagine how non-scientists must feel–particularly science writers who are assigned the task of writing a newspaper or magazine article about a new discovery reported in a scientific journal. To help such folks, Jennifer Raff has written a nice blog post called "How to read and understand a scientific article: a guide for non-scientists".

Her post is not only a good guide for non-scientists, it is an excellent primer for science students and even scientific researchers wanting to improve their skills at reviewing papers.