Clichés of scientific writing

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.”

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Science in the ol’ days: A millennial’s perspective

Einstein had it easy as a scientist. His most famous paper had no references and his work was seldom peer reviewed. In one instance in 1936, he withdrew a paper submitted to Physical Review on the grounds that he had not authorised it to be shown to a specialist before publication. In another instance, he asserts

Other authors might have already elucidated part of what I am going to say. […] I felt that I should be permitted to forgo a survey of the literature, […] especially since there is good reason to hope this gap will be filled by other authors.

Einstein, of course, didn’t actually have it easy—being forced to flee his native Germany is the obvious counter example. And he faced stiff competition in the scientific arena. I mean, have you ever been to a scientific conference in which half of the attendees had or would win a Nobel prize?

A who’s who of physics in the early 20th century: 17 of the 29 attendees of the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927 had or would go on to win a Nobel Prize. Image: Wikimedia Commons
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The half-life of citations

Why are the references in your research so old? That’s feedback I remember receiving on my first bit of true research, my honours dissertation. The examiner wasn’t as blunt as my paraphrasing, but the gist of his comment was memorable enough. At the time, it seemed an odd comment. I now realise that it’s a valid concern.

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Scientific conclusions: a more journalistic approach

Conclude your science. Don’t summarise it.

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.

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What does scientific genius look like in the 21st century?

The names we typically associate with scientific genius are from several centuries or millennia ago. Think Newton, Einstein, Archimedes, Galileo, or Darwin. Even famed scientists that are modern by comparison (Richard Feynman, Francis Crick, or Linus Pauling) made discoveries many decades ago. Just as any sports fan will tell you it is pointless to compare athletes from different eras, the same is true, if not more so, for scientists. Whereas athletes are largely playing the same game as they were decades ago, science has changed. We aim to always answer new questions, address ever more complex and interdisciplinary issues, and occasionally develop experiments costing billions of dollars. How, then, does scientific genius manifest in the 21st century? Which circumstances are most conducive to developing scientific genius? And what traits does a genius in the modern scientific realm exhibit?

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