Field of Science

Science writing versus writing like a scientist

It is a fact that I have written more fiction in my life than science writing and more science writing that I have scientific papers. When my advisor has asked me to write I am able to naturally come up with an abstract and an introduction like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I summarize the current state of the field neatly and present our results as the natural evolution of what comes next. Then when it comes to writing out the details of the research and the work I slow down. My advisor has a bit of criticism about the introduction (it is not specific enough they say), and plenty of criticism for the rest of the writing as if my entire style is not adequate. What is with the style of science writing in grants and research papers?

It as if scientists are bound to a certain kind of writing that is dry, concise (and it has to be when we have to pay per page published in most research journals), and standardized. I think many scientist would agree that our language doesn't have to be dry as long as it is standardized. Expository writing is different from other kinds of writing sure, but we have to ask ourselves how and why? Science writing for journalism is different than that of science writing for papers of grants even though they are both technically expository writing. I wonder if this is because they must be or because mediocre writing has become the style in science papers. Adam Ruben has written a wonderful opinion piece over at Science magazine mocking some of the quirks of scientific paper writing. The piece is worth a read and he includes a list of science paper tropes which are hilarious. Here is an excerpt:

Image of a book, by Flickr user romling1. Scientific papers must begin with an obligatory nod to their own relevance, usually by citing exaggerated figures about disease prevalence or other impending disasters. If your research does not actually address one of these issues, pretend it does, because hey, that didn’t stop you on the grant application. For example, you might write, “Twenty million children die of scabies every day. OMG we built a robot kangaroo!”

2. Using the first person in your writing humanizes your work. If possible, therefore, you should avoid using the first person in your writing. Science succeeds in spite of human beings, not because of us, so you want to make it look like your results magically discovered themselves.

3. Some journals, such as Science, officially eschew the passive voice. Others print only the passive voice. So find a healthy compromise by writing in semi-passive voice.

ACTIVE VOICE: We did this experiment.

PASSIVE VOICE: This experiment was done by us.

SEMI-PASSIVE VOICE: Done by us, this experiment was.

Yes, for the semi-passive voice, you’ll want to emulate Yoda. Yoda, you’ll want to emulate.

Read on you will want to, like a scientist you must write.

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