So, I’ve been doing a course on Academic Writing with work. I’ve found it really interesting, but it has got me thinking about one of the big, BIG problems that we scientists have in trying to explain what we actually do to people – the way that scientific findings are published.
Writing is one of the most important parts of a scientist’s job. In research science the culture is one of “Publish or Perish”. Basically, we need to write grants to fund the research we do. We then have to write regular reports to the funders, to justify the money spent. Then, to show that we have produced results that will have an “Impact” in the field, we have to publish research articles. And the success of these published articles will be used to assess the worth of the work, and so determine the credibility of further funding applications. That’s a lot of writing!
But there is a problem – at least as far as the general public is concerned. Most of this writing is unreadable. Go on, try it: go onto Google and search for “Google Scholar”. This is the “Academic” version of Google – anything you search for will only pull up the results published in academic books & journals. Now, on Google Scholar, type in “Cancer Research”. You will get a huge list of results. So far, so Google. But all of these results are scientific books and articles. So, now click on a couple of links and try and read what comes up. If you can manage to read more than a couple of sentences without wanting to stab yourself in the face, then I doff my hat to you! (Doffs hat).
It’s appalling. Honestly. I just did it myself, and the second link is to a paper entitled, “Human Gastric Carcinogenesis: A Multistep and Multifactorial Process—First American Cancer Society Award Lecture on Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention”. Catchy! And here is the first sentence: “Evidence from pathology and epidemiology studies has been provided for a human model of gastric carcinogenesis with the following sequential stages: chronic gastritis; atrophy; intestinal metaplasia; and dysplasia”.
Still awake? No? HOI, YOU! WAKE UP!
…And in case you think I’m just being sniffy about this particular paper, honestly, I’m not. EVERY paper is like this. And I’m just as bad myself. Here is the title of MY most recent paper: “Inhibition of the BER Factor APE1 Disrupts Repair of Double-Strand DNA Damage in Cells Treated with Low Dose-Rate, but Not High Dose-Rate X-Radiation”. Super-catchy! And here is my first sentence, god help me: “Radiotherapy is utilised in the treatment of many cancers, but its efficacy is limited by normal tissue toxicity and new radiotherapy techniques are thus urgently sought”.
Just rrrrrrolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
Why do we do this? Why do we continue to put out these boring, long-winded, impenetrable papers? Even as a scientist, they’re bloody hard to read. And, believe me, writing the sodding things is no picnic. Is it any wonder that the general public don’t really know what we do? How can they, when the way we try to talk about our work is as boring as this? Seriously, why do we do it?
The reason for is both simple, yet surprisingly hard to pin down. When we are writing up our results, there are a set of unwritten “rules” which we all follow. In the biomedical sciences, research articles follow a (relatively) fixed format:
Abstract: A short summary of the contents of the paper.
Introduction: This section explains the background and sets out the research questions the author is trying to answer.
Materials & Methods: This section gives details of the experiments that were carried out.
Results: Self-explanatory, really. This describes the outcome of the experiments and generally consist of a mixture of written text, graphs and tables.
Discussion: This is where the author discusses the results of their experiments and assesses whether the results confirm their original hypotheses or not.
Conclusions: A final, short (one to two sentences) summary of the findings of the paper.
References: Whenever you make a claim, you need to back it up with evidence. Therefore, this section is a list of the previous research sources quoted in the article.
Whenever you are doing this, the writing style has to be dry and impersonal. A scientist is expected to be objective, so the author will attempt to remove his or her personal opinions entirely. So, in your typical scientific paper, the author will present a hypothesis. The author then describes the experiments which they carried out to test the hypothesis and then discusses their findings. But, because of the need for Objectivity, even when they are describing their own results, the author is expected to use an impersonal style and the use of personal pronouns (“I”, “my” etc.) is frowned upon. Although, as scientific articles often have more than one author, the use of “we” and “our” is acceptable, as it suggests a consensual approach, rather than personal opinion.
Also, the language used in scientific research papers can be difficult for “outsiders” to follow. We are often accused of an over-use of technical terms and acronyms – the Technobabble of the title – and with some justification. You will often see acronyms in papers. This is used as a space-saving device, or to reduce word count. But, also, the full name can be incredibly long and is actually harder to read and understand than the acronym which replaces it. The most obvious example is the use of DNA rather than Deoxyribo-Nucleic Acid, but this is certainly not the only instance. One example from my own research would be my investigations into multi-drug combinations – it is far easier to talk about testing combinations of [131I]MIBG and PARP-1/Topo-1 inhibitors, than to talk about testing combinations of 131-Iodine-radiolabelled Meta Iodo-Benzyl Guanadine and Poly(Adenosine-di-phosphate) Ribose Polymerase-1 inhibitors / Topoisomerase-1 inhibitors. And if you managed to stay awake to the end of THAT sentence, then well done!
But, who is it who is imposing these “rules” on scientific writers? Often, we are doing it to ourselves. During the early part of our careers (i.e. undergraduate studies), every student is taught that there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to present essays and lab reports. This is continued through our postgraduate work, so that by the time a student is writing their PhD thesis, it is expected that he/she will use the “correct” style.
This continues as our careers progress. I do it myself. I would never even think of using a personal or informal style when writing a scientific paper. If I did, the editors of the journal I send it to would take one look and chuck it in the bin. Also, our work depends on Peer Review, where other, independent scientists look at a paper to make sure it is of the right standard. I’ve been a Reviewer myself, and I would be extremely surprised to see personal opinions or informal language in a paper I was asked to review. It would seem, somehow, “unprofessional”.
Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that the use of this dry, impersonal style is self-perpetuating: each scientist is taught the “rules”, therefore unconsciously expects to see them adhered to in the written work of other scientists and students, who in turn learn and adhere to the “rules” and therefore unconsciously expect to see them…….and so it goes on. And on. And on.
And the general public learn nothing….
McCluskey, A.G., & Boyd, M. (2015). Inhibition of the BER Factor APE1 Disrupts Repair of Double-Strand DNA Damage in Cells Treated with Low Dose-Rate, but Not High Dose-Rate XRadiation Journal of Nuclear Medicine & Radiation Therapy, 06 (06) DOI: 10.4172/2155-9619.1000269
AG McCluskey (2016). Technobabble 101 Zongo’s Cancer Diaries