In computer programming1, code smells are “surface indications that usually correspond to deeper problems in the system”. Duplicated code is one example. Copying a code fragment into many different places is generally considered bad form; Don’t Repeat Yourself is a well known principle of software development. However, duplicating code can be beneficial if, say, it makes the code easier to read and maintain.
Never, for example, start a Conclusion with ‘In this paper, we showed . . .’ or ‘The main conclusions of this paper are . . .“. The first few words of a Conclusion (any section, in fact) are precious. Don’t waste them reminding me that I’m reading a paper in which you’ve shown or concluded something. Tell me something profound—something about your science.
“In this paper, we showed . . .” is a signpost (aka metadiscourse). It’s writing about the writing. And it’s a main reason that so much of science writing, like any academic writing, is so boring.
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 tolook 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 previousposts. 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.)
Novel writers use an average of 100 clichés for every 100 000 words. Or about one every four pages. That’s what Ben Blatt found by comparing a range of novels against a list of 4000 clichés. How does scientific writing compare?
In one sense, scientific writing avoid clichés. A scientist isn’t going to write that their new results put the nail in the coffin of the outgoing theory, that they were careful to dot their i’s and cross their t’s so as to follow the methods of Jones et al. by the book, that Brown et al.’s finding is a diamond in the rough, or that two possible interpretations are six of one and half a dozen of the other.
In another sense, scientific writing is full of clichés. Our writing often feels like a fill in the blanks: the results of this study show X, these findings are in good agreement with Y, or Z is poorly understood and needs further study. Need more examples? Checkout the Manchester Academic Phrasebank, a collection of phrases from the academic literature that are “content neutral and generic in nature.”
“There is this scientific convention of: ‘You put the images on one side, then you put the text to decipher it on the other side.’” That’s Jonathan Corum, science graphics editor for the New York Times, politely critiquing one of the ways in which a typical scientific paper creates unnecessary work for the reader, or “cognitive overhead.”
Decipher is the key word above (and a word I’ll use again below). If deciphering is necessary, it will precede understanding, but that doesn’t mean it is necessary. “No one intends to build a product with large cognitive overhead, but it happens if there isn’t forethought and recognition for it.”
Every writer leaves a hidden fingerprint in their texts whether they know it or not. It’s hidden in the relative usage of words: some words appear more than average and other words less. Imagine there’s a rumour that a well established author has written a new book under a pen name, but they’re are pretending that this is not the case. One piece of evidence that the authors are one in the same is to count the number mundane words like and, but or -ly adverbs used within the new book and then compare the numbers to the author’s past works. Authors use surprisingly similar numbers of each word over the length of a book. Don’t believe me? Then check out Ben Blatt’s book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve.
The title of this post is a nod to Blatt’s book. In this, he statistically analyses word frequency in a range of texts from literature to fan fiction to New York Times bestsellers. He uses numbers to teach us about writing. Early on, he shows how a reduction in usage of -ly adverbs correlates with a book’s appeal. This is but one of many predictors of a text’s success based only on word frequency. In the same vein, I’m going to scrutinise my own scientific writing to find room for improvement. Navel-gazing? Yes. Will you learn something if you read on? Also yes.
Web developers and programmers have a lot riding on the quality of their product. If it behaves in an unusual manner, it’ll frustrate users. If it’s unattractive, it won’t attract users. If it’s no good, it will lose users. Users are the primary concern. Consequently, there are fields dedicated to this concern: User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX).
Because web developers and programmers have a much wider potential audience than scientists, they have a better handle on the importance and behaviour of the end user. Scientists could learn a thing or two about UI/UX.
This article is going to describe … would be a terrible opening for this article. It’s six words that convey nothing. You already know this is an article, and you already know that it’s going to describe something. We don’t see this, fortunately, because the importance of a strong and compelling opening sentence is well recognised. At the paragraph level, however, it’s easy to forget the importance of the first sentence. In scientific cases, a symptom of poor or lazy writing is opening a paragraph with Figure n shows.
When it comes to visualising your data, the most important question to ask yourself is what’s your point. Wording a paragraph by starting with Figure n shows will not convey the point. It tells me what you did, but not why I should care. Using this phrase would be like putting the Methods section of a scientific paper before the Introduction.
My favourite aspect of a Nature paper is the figure captions. Not the paper’s innovative science. Not the paper’s succinct length. The figure captions. Why? Because the journal’s simple act of bolding the first sentence of a figure caption can force authors to clarify the purpose of the figure. This is one of several seemingly minor formatting issues that ultimately improves a paper’s readibility.
A summary that merely repeats previous material is prohibited for the journal Nature and would be be edited out. Other journals are less strict, but perhaps they should follow Nature’s lead and recommend instead that the conclusion offer something new to the reader. This is often easier said than done. Scientists default toward endings that are typically cliche, uncompelling, or just tail off. Let’s look to factual but more expressive forms of writing, such as long-form journalism and narrative non-fiction, for examples of better endings that could be applied to scientific papers and talks.
Journalists arguably have a little more freedom than scientists in how they word the ending of a piece. A memorable quote or a clever joke, perfect fodder for a popular article, would be out of place in a scientific article. Yet there are several forms of conclusion that we could borrow from journalists to provide a more engaging ending. I’ll borrow my examples primarily from The Atlantic, but any decent popular publication can help.