Save for the occasional pun in the title, scientific papers seldom contain intentional humour. But there’s entertainment to be had if you have the right mindset. Let me show you.
Relatability can be the basis of a good laugh. And as a scientist who routinely uses time series data, I can relate to the struggle of unwanted gaps in a dataset. So I was entertained when I came across the following sentence:
No data are available for 1991 and 1992 because the volcanic eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991 contaminated the signal. (ref)
Why, exactly, am I entertained, you ask? Partly, it’s the notion of a very expensive satellite being thwarted by a bit of ash. More so, it’s that the sentence is the epitome of scientific writing. A freakin’ volcanic eruption messes up two years worth of data, and yet it’s described in the same matter-of-fact tone as the other technical details like the satellite’s pixel resolution. Good luck finding any other types of writers who recount a long-lived effect of a natural disaster in a single sentence.
Journalism and science have very different time scales. A week-old newspaper is barely worth reading. A week-old scientific paper is still warm from the photocopier. Journalism neglects this discrepancy and pressures science to hurry up. Numerous headlines with the eye-roll-inducing opening “A new study shows” imply that only the newest (or weirdest) science is worthy of attention. Google declares about 2000 times as many results for that phrase compared to “an old study shows”.
To make sense of the differences between science and its representation in the media, it first helps to figure out what does and doesn’t make news, and what does and doesn’t get widely shared or discussed. With that established, we’re better positioned to overcome the challenges of communicating all scientific research, not just the sexy aspects that make good headlines.
Scientific literature is like social media: its content disproportionately comprises successes and achievements. Just as social media seldom features mundane necessities like trips to the supermarket, scientific papers seldom feature abandoned experiments or fruitless pursuits. In fact, we generally work backwards from the results and conclusions when writing these papers. We start with the answer and present only the relevant methods. To a non-scientist, this may sound dishonest and deceptive, but it’s not. Its for the reader’s benefit: a linear narrative is much easier to follow than the actual story with its many tangents, setbacks, and realisations.
Anyone exposed to the process of scientific research quickly learns that it seldom follows the so-called scientific method, those dispassionate experiments meant to objectively test hypotheses. Science is better described as Ready, Fire, Aim. Yes, in that order. This phrase, borrowed from Neil Gershenfeld, concisely captures how science is an iterative procedure without a specific target. Put in some groundwork to figure out the general direction (Ready), but take what might otherwise be a shot in the dark (Fire), then spend time making sense of what you hit (Aim). You may well fail and hit nothing, but as Gershenfeld elaborates, you can’t hit anything unexpected by aiming first.
If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery – Enrico Fermi
The benefits of replication studies in science seem obvious and intuitive. Yet they are not particularly prevalent nor encouraged. The typical reasoning is that there’s no value for being the second scientist or group to observe a result. Some1 take this to suggest that the current scientific publishing system is flawed and promotes papers with provocative results rather than technically sound methods. Journals like PLOS One that disregard perceived importance are the exception. There are, however, a number of advantages of the status quo.
Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it quipped Richard Feynman. The oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer1 provides a similar, albeit less memorable quote, when describing his early work on water slabs (aka snarks), which had relevance to both military and pollution issues: such practical matters did not interest me. I found snarks fascinating, even beautiful in their own right. The introductions to many scientific papers, however, are framed in terms of practical results. Hence the rhetorical question implied in the title: are the rationale we as scientists publish convenient little white lies, simply a way to validate undertaking the science that we find personally interesting and intrinsically satisfying?
E-readers are no good for reading scientific papers.1 They’re grayscale, they’re too small, and flipping back and forth between pages takes time. That said, my e-reader has two key benefits for me as a scientist/academic. It provides a truly offline method to read content later and it lets me read books that are only available as PDFs.
Catching up on the literature is a daunting aspect of graduate studies. As a physical oceanographer, I regularly cite work from 30 to 40 years ago. In that time, and all the way back to the turn of the 20th century, the scientists before me got to answer all the low-hanging-fruit problems and write the papers that will be cited thousands of time. They leave behind the messy, complex, and esoteric questions for the current grad students. Surely, then, I would think the 60s or 70s or even earlier would have been the best time to be a grad student?
A webpage or CV with a list of publications serves two purposes. A useful one: to help readers discover papers related to one that interested them. And a less altruistic one: to say ‘Hey, look at how many publications I have’. These days, the latter is somewhat necessary, but shouldn’t overshadow the former. Furthermore, discovering related papers should be an easy task, but too often isn’t.
Too many publication lists that I come across these days obscure the title—surely the most important part of the citation—by bracketing it with the authors’ names and journal details. While this form is necessary for a reference list in a paper, it makes no sense in a CV or personal webpage.