“bad writing wastes good science”

I quite enjoy what Julian Cribb has to say… and in that vein, I’m enjoying the book he co-authored with Tjempaka Sari. Their discussion of the need for better science communication is convincing. They also offer incredibly sage advice on science writing:

Scientific knowledge is now said to double about every 5 years, but its distribution among the seven billion citizens of Planet Earth proceeds far less rapidly. While the number of scientific papers published grows dramatically with each passing year, the rate at which their essential knowledge is transmitted to ordinary people who might use it in their lives lags far behind. Indeed, it has been claimed that up to half the world’s published scientific papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, editors and reviewers – and 90 per cent are never cited.[see ref to Meho below]” (p.1)

A vast gap has opened between the creation and the sharing of knowledge. Because of this, a significant part of the world scientific effort is effectively stillborn, or fails to achieve its potential. The intellectual effort, time, money and human genius that is invested in research is lost because [-p.2] of a failure to effectively transmit the fruits of science to the people and places where it is most needed. Scientific knowledge, with the capacity to benefit billions, improve sustainability and protect environments, is often buried in specialised journals, electronic repositories, inaccessible language, IP and legal constraints, or is withheld by privileged elites. Deliberately or unintentionally, barriers have arisen between science and its adoption and use by the people.” (pp.1-2)

The art of good science writing:

Science is by its nature complicated, making it all the more important that good science writing should be simple, clean and clear.” (p.15)

Good writing begins with the need to pause and reflect on the audience. Who are they? What do they want from your science? How much time do they have for what you are about to tell them? What is their level of literacy or technical understanding? How do they speak and write themselves? What are the issues they are most concerned about or interested in? What will win their hearts or engage their intellects? / Finding out these things requires a skill at which scientists excel, but rarely, in this particular case, undertake: research.” (p.15)

Complex ideas do not need to be conveyed through complex writing. Indeed, they are most easily understood by the reader if the language used is simple and clear. This may seem self-evident, but how often this rule is ignored!” (p.16)

The true value of science to society depends upon it being explained in a simple, clear way that people can use in their lives, their work or their behaviour. Conversely, science that is explained in an over-complicated or obscure fashion stands a very good chance f never being used, or not being adopted as widely as it deserves. / In short, bad writing wastes good science.” (p.17)

The flaws [of bad science writing] are plain: long, tortuous sentences, specialised use of terms and concepts that obscure rather than clarify the meaning, piles of adjectives, pomposity, bombast and a general implied sneer at the intellect of the reader who cannot follow them. This reveals that bad writing can often be offensive as well as annoying. Bad writing is the opposite of communication – which is the sharing of meaning. / In all forms of writing – from poetry to journalism, novels and plays, to speeches and science writing – simplicity is strength. It is the foundation of good communication. Elaboration can come later.” (p.18)

The first building block in simple writing is to use short sentences. The full stop is one of the most useful devices in science communication because it allows the reader pause to digest a complex or important idea. This is essential, if science is to achieve full value.” (p.19)

Short sentences impose discipline on the writer. They compel you to ask ‘What am I really trying to say here? What is the most important statement to make first, which can then be qualified or explained in subsequent sentences?’ Short sentences encourage clarity of thought and expression. In science this is very important because, just as people tend to form judgements about other people if they wear ragged clothes, speak badly or have poor personal hygiene, people also form judgements about science based on how well it is communicated.” (p.19)

The art of writing a short sentence lies in reducing the number of subordinate clauses. This means keeping to a minimum the number of clauses beginning with ‘which’, ‘that’, ‘who,’ ‘when’ and other qualifying words. For example, we could easily have written the previous two sentences as a single sentence of 35 words, with the word ‘which’ joining them. We chose instead to break it in two, without harming the meaning but slightly improving the clarity. Short sentences do not devalue science. They enhance it. Using short sentences also obliges the writer to decide which is the most important fact and present it first, instead of running everything together in a single sentence and making the reader guess.” (p.19)

Common vices in science writing include the use of the passive voice instead of the active, the use of the subjunctive mood instead of the present or future tense, the over-use of adjectives to describe a single noun, and the use of professional terminology or ‘jargon’. It is quite easy to purge oneself of these bad habits without having to go back to school to study grammar and syntax.” (p.20)

The reason for overusing the passive voice probably lies in the desire of scientists to appear objective and impersonal when describing experiments and their results. However, science uses the passive to gruesome excess; this makes the writing ponderous and less easily digested than it should be. It adds unnecessary words…. Writing for the public should avoid the passive voice as far as possible (e.g. instead of saying ‘The passive voice should be avoided in writing for the public…’.). Even scientific editors no longer favour the passive. Search for it in your writing and convert it ruthlessly to the active voice.” (p.20)

The use of the subjunctive mood is a common feature of science writing, which makes it more turgid and its meaning more vague and uncertain to the reader. …Of course, science often wants to convey a degree of  uncertainty, and this is the reason for the ubiquitous ‘could’ and ‘would’. However, this is often faulty reasoning on the part of the writer. Uncertainty can be conveyed directly by stating that the conclusion is not certain, or open to different interpretations, and explaining why. This is more direct and honest than using syntax to obscure the meaning and the reader will appreciate it.” (p.21)

Another common vice of scientific (and bureaucratic) writing is to attach too many adjectives to a single noun. Sometimes as many as five, and even seven, adjectives may be piled onto one poor, struggling, inoffensive little noun. The words ‘one’, ‘poor’, ‘struggling’, ‘inoffensive’ and ‘little’ are the adjectives that describe the word ‘noun’. The use of such strings can [-p.25] perplex the reader, who has to decide which adjective is the most important in the context, and how each adjective affects all the others. The use of too many adjectives to over-describe an object is bad writing and unnecessary. If the adjectives are essential they can be distributed over several sentences. In reality, however, most of them can be left out without losing meaning. This improves both clarity and ease of reading. When pruning one’s work, it is good practice to remove all adjectives. Then go back and see which ones are truly vital and allow these alone to stand.” (pp.25-26)

Structuring the article

Cribb and Sari also point out that “The traditional scientific article begins with a few general statements about things that are usually well-known or accepted. It then outlines the background to the research, provides a description of the experiments carried out and their methods, reports and discusses the results, then finally draws a conclusion from them and discusses its wider implications. The reader must work their way through each of these steps in order to be rewarded with the finding.
A science article written for the media or a lay audience, on the other hand, adopts almost exactly the opposite structure. It reports the main finding and its impact on society in the very first sentence, then explains who did the research and why, adds further detail and finally, if there is room, goes on to discuss what most scientists would see as the main game [-p.22] – the research itself. This is because audiences are usually more concerned about how the science affects them directly than they are with the method by which it was achieved. They are users of science, not its practitioners.” (pp.21-22)

Scientists often assume the reason they are doing their work is self-evident, but this is often not the case. A good science article therefore makes clear, in its opening paragraphs, why the research is being carried out – to save lives, prevent environmental damage, improve industrial productivity, and so on. Indeed, it is on this simple fact that the importance of the article and its chances of publication depend. If it is omitted, the relevance of the science to the reader may well be lost.” (p.22)

An effective piece of science writing often has only one idea per sentence. …this gives the reader time to digest important facts.” (p.23)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Julian Cribb and Tjempaka Sari (2010) Open Science: sharing knowledge in the global century. CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood

Note: reference is to: Meho LI (2007) The rise and rise of citation analysis. Physics World 29(1), 32-36

Note also that Cribb and Sari suggest: “For those who …wish to refresh their memories of the basics of writing good English try:
(i) Blaxwell G and Winch G (1995) The English Language users Guide. Phoenix Education, Melbourne
(ii) Zinsser W (2001) On Writing Well. Quill (HarperCollins), New York.”  (p.213 [footnote 2, chapter 2])

“For those who wish to acquire the basics of good journalistic writing, the ‘bible’ is still Evans H (1972) Newman’s English: A Guide to Writing Lively, Lucid and Effective Prose. Heinemann, London.” (p.213 [footnote 3, chapter 2])

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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