Raising the Bar on Scientific Writing

I recently read a scientific article published in a respected peer-reviewed journal. At first, I was slightly annoyed to find a subject/verb agreement error in the abstract. I mean, it stands to reason that as one’s co-authors are editing any scientific paper prior to submission, the harshest scrutiny is directed to the first half of the article and inevitably dwindles the deeper one gets into a manuscript. So if one can’t get the abstract right, is there hope for the rest of the article?

My optimism (or maybe just my curiosity on the subject matter) got the better of me, and I continued reading. Then, a slang-fest ensued: “ a metabolite of some legit medications,” which was followed shortly thereafter by, “discriminate between legit or illicit use.” More errors followed. I was stunned. This was a peer-reviewed journal, one that could even be considered a staple in some circles. But “legit?” This language is, in my book, not at all legit.

I posit that this type of language dilutes the collective quality of the scientific literature and doesn’t reflect well on us as scientists, many of whom have terminal degrees in their fields. We are big-boy and big-girl scientists, and it’s time to start acting (and writing) like some. Here are a few tips I’ve discovered over a few dozen publications to help us along the way:

  1. Spell check and grammar check are your friends. It costs you nothing but a couple of minutes to run these bad boys on your manuscript. Do it. You’ll be surprised what you might find.
  2. Students, don’t neglect language courses. Most students who are science majors view humanities courses as a necessary evil, a few boring checks-in-the-box that must be accrued before your university will hand you a degree. The idea is that these courses will make you well-rounded and blah, blah, blah. Um, actually, yes, they do. That’s the point. Humanities courses teach us to read, write, and discuss real issues like adults rather than cavemen or overtired toddlers. So if you’re a chemistry major dreading your English literature course, embrace the chance to soak up a snapshot of how the pros set up a narrative. If you’re a bioinformatics major dreading your creative writing course, embrace the idea that you can hijack this course to advance your writing abilities both in and out of the creative realm. We learn by example, so don’t ignore the wonderful examples knocking at your door.
  3. Peer reviewers, there is no edit too small. Some journals have staff on hand that can render first aid to articles that need it. However, some journals just don’t have the staff or inclination to clean up minor mistakes. This means that the responsibility to fix mistakes is on everyone involved in the publication process: the authors, their colleagues who read the manuscript draft, and the peer reviewers. There is no edit too small. So if you’re a stickler for dangling participles, go for it. Subject/verb agreement? Have a field day. You’ll be doing us all a favor.
  4. Publishing an article written in anything other than your first language is a saintly feat, a feat which I have virtually zero chance of achieving in my lifetime. Do not be afraid to enlist help in this enormous endeavor. Many journals even offer services in this vein. Bug your colleagues, your boss, your spouse, or even your children. They will be flattered that you asked their assistance in publishing your super-amazing manuscript.

So save the slang for the social networks – or your snarky blog posts – and unleash your inner editor. The social status of scientists isn’t what is used to be, and our inability to express ourselves articulately isn’t helping. If we work together to raise the bar on the quality of scientific publications, we can elevate the status of our profession as a whole – and save our sanity while we’re at it.

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Mark Hammer

Sociolinguist Basil Bernstein distinguished between what he called “restricted” and “elaborated” codes in discourse ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basil_Bernstein ). We use restricted code when communicating with others sharing common knowledge and context. “Want some?”, “Nah”, “You sure?”, “Yeah”, has little grammatical structure, but is chock full of meaning for the conversants, because they are sharing a common context and background knowledge. (Adolescent discourse is almost entirely restricted code, not only because of shared experience, but also because of its goal of forging social identity by excluding those who do NOT possess the same background knowledge and context. That is, restricted code is used not only because people perceive themselves to be similar, but sometimes in an instrumental fashion when they wish to be distinct.)

Elaborated code is communication that stands on its own, and conveys the intended message, even when the recipient does not possess relevant contextual or background knowledge. “I am sitting on a very comfortable adjustable chair” is elaborated code.

Scientific writing is ideally elaborated code. That does not *preclude* the use of informal terms or idiomatic expressions to supplement and enrich what is being conveyed. And I find that part of making expository writing feel familiar to the reader, and draw them in, is often the use of such terms or phrasings that might require “air quotes” in oral conversation. But reliance on such terms/language to accomplish the brunt of what needs to be conveyed is extremely risky.

One should not confuse elaborated code in scientific writing with dense technical terminology. Those terms exist for good reasons – chiefly precision – but are their own sort of slang that requires mental translation and burdens the reader, if the reader is not familiar with them.

So, elaborated code always. Plain language, always. Technical terms when appropriate and helpful. Idiomatic expressions, sometimes, when it assists colleagiality.