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.

No comments: