Susan E Connolly is a first year PhD candidate at the MRC Biostatistics Unit in Cambridge, UK. She holds degrees in Veterinary Medicine and Statistics from University College Dublin. She is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, as well as a coach of public speaking and competitive debate.
It was with great interest that I listened to Domhnall MacAuley’s recent Bradford Hill Seminar on The Future of Medical Publishing, particularly the area of his talk that discussed opportunities and efforts made by journals to widen the reach and spread of published articles. The ventures ranged from tweeting, Facebooking, and other social media avenues to companion blog posts and short video introductions. My first thought was that this sounded like substantial work for no doubt busy academics and researchers. My second was that while these avenues might be useful at making people aware of a particular paper, if the goal was to have a paper actually be read, they were likely insufficient. No matter the publicity given to a piece of work, if the actual content is not engaging, then the browser window is closed or the physical page turned over.
There is a stereotype of scientists as poor communicators who talk only in jargon and impenetrable techno-speak, and who are dull and boring and dry. Should one’s only exposure to scientists’ communication of their work be through their published academic writing, this stereotype would seem an accurate representation. And yet, I have been lucky enough to meet many brilliant scientists and medical professionals, who in their social conversation, presentations, and even formal emails are witty, hilarious and utterly engaging.
As an undergraduate, I knew many science and medicine students who were always guaranteed to draw a crowd. They were utterly brilliant, insightful and hilarious debaters, who would have the audience rolling in the aisles at the same time as they would rigorously analyse a complicated international relations issue or government policy. Even now, as scientific researchers and lecturers, their presentations are still engaging and utterly enjoyable, although with perhaps slightly less bombastic rhetoric. And yet, I must say that their academic writing is, though on topics I find fascinating, pretty tiresome to read. I cannot imagine that they are all exceptions, neither in their capacity to engage nor the counterintuitive dryness of their prose.
There seems to be an atmosphere or attitude coming from somewhere that to be academic, to be rigorous, to deal with complicated subjects, one must remove all fun and frivolity and levity from one’s work, at least once it enters the halls of ‘publication’.** And yet, if the goal of research and publication is to communicate, this seems absolutely counterintuitive. We are not robots. We require more than pure facts and detail to actually absorb information. Again, if our papers are not being read, we are failing, no matter how wide our technical ‘reach’.
That’s not to say that writing should contain irrelevancies. It would be unfortunate if a ground-breaking conclusion on the use of statins was overlooked due to its being embedded in an amusing story about a cat (unless the research is in the veterinary sciences, and the cat is hence material).
Neither am I advocating for the removal or diminishment of technical language from papers. New words are invented to express new concepts, and technical language is necessary for communication of complex ideas.
I am also not in favour of the ‘dumbing down’ or simplification of material – it would be nonsensical for a research paper to attempt to ensure that all of its elements are explained from a point such that they would be understandable to someone with no background in the field.
So what am I saying? What am I attempting to communicate? It is the idea that a central consideration when writing a paper should be its ability to engage, to keep people reading, and hence its capacity to perform one of its central purposes – to inform others of what we have discovered.
**This is not a problem unique to the medical or hard science academic fields. Between 1995 and 1998, the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest highlighted impenetrable academic prose, with winning writing coming from the fields of English, Philosophy, American Studies and other areas of the humanities. It’s equally amusing and confusing to read.