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.
We also have to bear in mind that many of our readers are not fluent in English, and may be struggling with the content. For these people, any extras which an Anglophone might appreciate are just unhelpful distractions. It might not even be immediately clear whether a passing remark is or is not part of the scientific content.
So often I find myself sitting enthralled in the audience by a speaker who is directly addressing me, instead of mumbling into the blackboard while covering it in formulae. Then I remember that for many people, the latter would be much more communicative.
Of course, everyone benefits from academic writing being more lucid. Pointlessly confusing circumlocutions just suggest that you, and maybe the whole field, have something to hide. But it takes a long time to clean up the argument of a scientific text until it’s a pleasure to read, and for most people it just makes more sense to spend that time on your research.
TLDR: Yes, but it’s sometimes bloody hard for an academic to gain the freedom (even in their heads) to write in a somewhat looser, open and more engaging manner!
Absolutely agree in principle, but I do find that in writing an article, rather than a conference paper for instance, there are several restrictions that impact upon the content and style. These are a combination of self-imposed restrictions and ones also unilaterally imposed by the discipline and journal within which the author is publishing – they can be stifling in their combined effect. Ones personally (humanities rather than science) are: the word limit (only so much you can include, so you cut and cut and cut!); using expected technical jargon (within limits!); the need to back everything up in detail and with appropriate references (it can make things clunky); the need to identify all relevant arguments and counterarguments (maybe not necessary, but it feels like you have to point out that you do know your stuff and aren’t ignoring anything even if not addressing it in detail!); the need to be formal as otherwise you’re not taking things seriously or being professional (I have been given out to/criticised for overly informal language before and it was only mildly informal in places! Also for references to Shakespeare or Douglas Adams. This occurred in both my thesis and in a journal article); and the related issue of the peer review process (taking a more engaging approach, if it conflicts with the norm is another thing that could be challenged/criticised and end up being the final nail in the coffin for an article – it just won’t sit well with some people and authors may not wish to take the risk). In the UK there is also the issue of REF (research excellence framework), which seems to have a knock on impact on the nature of research. Whether real or artificial constraints, they definitely do impact upon writing.
I wonder also is just re responsiveness. If I give a paper or a lecture, I use tone, body language, emphasis – all of which are easier to do in a short period of time and indeed instantly. If I write… I can do many of these things, but I cannot react. I cannot take the visual and other cues and respond to my audience. What things strike a chord? How should I develop a line of thought? What arguments will work or not work? Will they like my (bad) jokes?! In an article, the author is left attempting to persuade the reader in an objective (and potentially unfortunately dispassionate) manner of their arguments. They have to go carefully through the well-trodden issues in careful detail – providing all information that may be necessary, without the option of just saying ‘happy to provide details/clarifications on this later if desired’, and then finally get to their small contribution…
A perhaps more depressing thought is that, by the time the article is finally published, an academic just wants rid of it! Enthusiasm and passion on the topic may only last so long. Research and crafting the arguments can be wonderful, but editing… well, I hope editors enjoy their role but tweaking pieces to make them fit the above restrictions can be just plain annoying!
I like it, but I think a large part of the issue, particularly in science, is that the people who write these papers often haven’t had any formal writing training since their secondary school exams or equivalent, and that certainly wasn’t training of an academic nature. My friend is starting a PhD in January, and the longest paper outside of technical or lab reports he wrote all through his undergrad in a science subject was 1500 words, and even then he only had maybe 3 or 4 of those assignments. He just doesn’t know how to write to begin with, so writing something engaging or containing any type of witty observation is next to impossible for him, as the task of writing in itself is very challenging.