Science is interesting, but not exciting… according to our papers

I used my laptop to scan the text of 360 scientific papers for use of the word exciting (and excited and other variants). I got 195 matches. That’d suggest that scientists imbue their writing with their own excitement for science. Except that 191 of those matches are physics jargon (as in wind excites ocean waves) rather than the everyday meaning. Remove those and we’re left with ~1% of papers indicating any excitement.

That’s a weird thing to look into is what you’re thinking, so two bits of context. First, there’s lots to be learned about scientific writing by looking at word usage statistics; see my two previous posts. Second, I came across one of these rare uses of exciting with its everyday meaning, and it stood out! Which is messed up. It’s a common word, yet it struck me as out of place in a scientific paper. Not because I think it should be, but because it is.

For comparison, I looked at the words interesting and interestingly. The result: 237 matches, all of which correspond to their everyday usage. (Including interest and interested in my search more than doubles the number of matches.)

Interesting is similar enough to exciting that web pages exist to clarify their differences. Why, then, is interesting 50–100 times more common in scientific papers? Probably because too many people buy into the myth that scientific writing should be dispassionate.

Should we edit out emotion?

The top Google result (at the time of writing) for the search phrase “dispassionate scientific writing” is an electrical engineer’s guide to technical writing aimed at PhD students. He notes that “emotional words have no place in your thesis or papers”. He goes onto give an example for rewriting a sentence containing this ill-advised emotion. Can you guess what word ends up being cut? Exciting, of course. To be replaced with significant. As in exciting developmentsignificant development. To me, this is bad advice1 for two reasons. First, edits should be motivated by clarity, yet changing exciting to significant has no effect in this sense. Second, significant is about as overused a choice of adjective as you can get. It’s up there with important.

Though I disagree with this engineer on whether we should remove emotional words, he’s correct on whether we do remove them (or avoid them in the first place). Here are the tallies for more words like interesting or exciting:

Word usage across 360 scientific papers (from physical oceanography and related fields). Most variants of words are also counted. For example, “formidably” would be added to the tally for “formidable”.

Of these words, the most common—surprising, dramatic, and remarkable—are all somewhat objective. It’s possible to describe a finding as surprising or a change in a measurement as dramatic without implying any emotion. In the middle are the more subjective words: impressive, compelling, and fascinating. Although these might appear only once or twice in every 100 papers, they’re still there, implying their presence in a paper is not unreasonable. Though sometimes the presence of these words is qualified or downplayed. For example, the single appearance of entertaining came from the following sentence: “Movies made from such frames are entertaining to watch but can be difficult to interpret”.

Speaking of entertaining, the most entertaining part of my search was picking words that likely wouldn’t show up. There’s some words, say exhilarating, that you can guarantee won’t be found in a scientific paper. But there are other words like amuse, engross, or stunning that had an outside chance. As expected, these three words didn’t appear, but with a bigger selection of papers, they just might.

An opportunity to add flavour to scientific writing

If scientific writing were food, it’d be plain porridge (aka oatmeal). It’s healthy and will fill you up. But it’s bland. Most people fix this by sprinkling some brown sugar or honey on top. The result might not be as healthy, but at least it’s now enjoyable.

Some sweetening could also help scientific writing. Let me give you an example. It’s not from a scientific paper, but it is about science and is written by an academic:

If they repeated this over a decade, they could determine whether the oceans were warming and the result would be entirely independent of terrestrial or atmospheric records. Sweet. – Naomi Oreskes, Science on a Mission

Notice the sweetening? Better yet, notice what’s not included. There’s no significant. No important. No unprecendented, novel, or innovative. Instead, Oreskes uses an interjection, a word that is defined as an expression of emotion.

At 700+ pages, Oreskes’ book is a long one. However, she doesn’t use “Sweet.” anywhere else. That’s why it works. And therein lies the take home message: because scientific writing is so devoid of emotion, when it does appear, it gets noticed. Though it might be an acquired taste, which requires exposure to develop and, sadly, readers of scientific papers aren’t getting much of that.

Footnotes

1Apart from removing words with emotional connotations, I agree with most everything else in this engineer’s technical writing guide. In fact, it’s enjoyably pedantic on matters such as (i) hyphens vs en dashes vs em dashes, (ii) that vs which, (iii) when and when not to use italics in mathematics, (iv) why we need the Oxford comma, and (v) that the number of Google results is an appropriate metric to decide on how to spell a word that has changed over time: e.g., infrared beats infra-red.

Author: Ken Hughes

Post-doctoral research scientist in physical oceanography

4 thoughts on “Science is interesting, but not exciting… according to our papers”

  1. I recently proofread a thesis with this sentence:
    Intuitively, it may seem odd that the load on the turbines can decrease while the array power increases but this is the magic of tidal turbine tuning.

    It had passed by all the reviewers and I was delighted to see it there!

  2. Ken, did you notice how often these emotional words are used to describe the author’s own work, vs. how often they’re used to describe other people’s work? A while back, I checked the frequency with which some emotional words were used in scientific papers, though I did so casually and didn’t bother to keep track of the numbers. But I remember being struck that, when I encountered those rare uses of words like “fascinating” or “exciting” or etc., it was almost invariably to describe other people’s work. Sometimes, it was almost as if the author was trying to bask in “reflected glory”–indirectly talking up their own work by talking up related work by others.

    1. I looked back at the rare words (<10 occurrences) from my list above and in most cases, they're used to reference a scientific field or problem. As in "subfield X is at an *exciting* juncture because …", "problem Y is *daunting* due to …", or "location Z exhibits an *incredibly* rich range of phenomena".

      In hindsight, I don't think I made it clear in the post that these are the kinds of cases I'd like to see more of. Based on your 'Friday links' post, I think we agree that it can be off-putting having authors use words like fascinating to talk up either their work or that of others. But I have no problem with such words being used to describe processes and phenomena.

      And to answer your original question, there were certainly a few cases where people were talking up work by others as "impressive" or "compelling", but they were in the minority.

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