Myths of Science Writing

I’m mired in lab grading at the moment, which is sufficiently irritating that I usually have to decamp to someplace with no Internet access, or else I spend the day blogrolling instead. Or, really, just hitting “Refresh” over and over on Bloglines, hoping that somebody in my RSS subscriptions has posted something new.

A big part of the problem is that a large number of people have a badly mistaken view of science writing. I’m not sure where they get this from– the first-year students in the intro course already have a fully developed case, but many of them claim not to have written lab reports in high school. Whatever the source, though, there are a number of pernicious myths that I run into again and again.

Myth 1: First-person pronouns are forbidden in scientific writing. I have no idea where students get the idea that all scientific writing needs to be in the passive voice, but probably three quarters of the papers I get contain sentences in which the syntax has been horribly mangled in order to avoid writing in the first person.

I don’t know where they get this, but I know where I lost it: I had this beaten out of me in graduate school.

The research group I was in did most of their publishing in Physical Review Letters at the time (these days, they get a fair number of Science and Nature articles, but the constraints are the same), and PRL has a strict four-page limit: All the text, figures, and references need to fit onto four journal pages, with no exceptions.

Of course, to merit publication in PRL, you have to have a really solid experiment, with lots of supporting details, so we were almost always desperate for space, and active voice is almost always more compact than passive– even at the simplest level, “We measured X” is one character shorter than “X was measured,” and a whole paper worth of those can make a difference.

Myth 2: Scientific writing is indirect. This is very closely related to Myth 1, and is another thing I had beaten out of me in graduate school. Along with the tangled avoidance of first person, you get this weird reluctance to make direct statements. Rather than “We measured X,” you get “X was able to be measured.”

This is bad both because it eats up valuable character, but also because it’s poor presentation. At the risk of upsetting people with the f-word, a big part of what you’re doing when you write a scientific paper is framing your work to emphasize your importance. In doing this, you want to make the strongest possible case to the reader that what you’ve done is important, worthwhile science.

“X was able to be measured” is a horrible sentence for these purposes. Who was is able to be measured by? And did they actually do the measurement, or were they just able to do the measurement?

You’re talking about something that you did, so say that: “We measured X.” You weren’t just able to measure it, you did measure it. And you measured it, not some impersonal elves who snuck into the lab while you were playing Nethack. You should take credit for it– demand credit, even.

Myth 3: Big words sound scientific. After the third or fourth lab report containing a sentence like “In order to measure X, the Y technique was utilized,” I want to stab somebody in the eye with a red grading pen. “Used” is a perfectly respectable English word, with a long and honorable tradition. “Utilized” is an abomination, an unholy perversion wrought by pompous pointy-haired managers.

Not only do short, simple words save valuable characters, they keep you from sounding like an executive in a Dilbert cartoon. Not only that, but there’s seldom any ambiguity about what they mean, while longer words frequently have some shading or connotation that should be used with care. The goal of a scientific paper is to answer questions, not create them. If your reader is busy thinking “They said they ‘utilized’ Technique Y, but they ‘employed’ Technique Z– does that difference mean something?” then they’re not thinking about the brilliance of your results. You want them focussed on the science, not the language. Say what you want to say in the simplest, most direct manner possible.

Myth 4: Scientific results are supposed to be a surprise. This one is more structural than the others, and I think it’s a result of unduly rigid adherence to the artificial Abstract-Introduction-Procedure-Results-Conclusion format. I get tons of reports in which students tie themselves in knots in the Abstract and Introduction tryng to avoid presenting any hint of what their results were.

This is folly, for two reasons. The first is that framing thing again: Part of the point of a scientific paper is to sell your accomplishments, and to drive home to the reader what you did that is exciting and novel. You should mention your results in the Abstract, and again in the Introduction. You should discuss them in detail in the Results, and you should hammer them home in the Conclusion, just in case the reader managed to read that far without appreciating how cool you are. A scientific paper is not a novel, and there’s nothing gained by keeping the reader in suspense.

The other reason is simple courtesy. When I get a new copy of a journal, I don’t sit down to read it cover to cover. I’m looking for things that are interesting to me, and I don’t want to have to wade through the entire article to figure out whether the paper is itneresting. You need to put a short statement of what your results are, and why they’re interesting in the abstract of the article, so I can tell quickly whether I want to read the whole thing.

If you just say “A study of Effect W was performed,” that doesn’t tell me whether you measured Interesting Result X, or Boring Result Q, and I’m not likely to be moved to read the whole article to find out. The abstract needs to say “We studied Effect W, and measured Interesting Result X,” at which point, I’ll say “Hey, that’s interesting,” and read the rest of it. And even if you got Boring Result Q, you should say “We studied Effect W, and measured Boring Result Q,” which will leave me more kindly disposed toward you and your research program than if I spend an hour wading through the whole article just to find Boring Result Q.

There are a number of other tics that annoy me in student attempts at scientific writing, but these are probably the biggest and most universal. Are there any big ones that I missed?

Comments

  1. #1 x
    May 18, 2007

    What is Myth 1? Passive Voice?

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    May 18, 2007

    Myth 1 is that I know how to type.

    There was an unclosed tag on the original version that wiped out a paragraph. I’ve fixed it now.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    May 18, 2007

    You are correct that most journals have no objection to first-person pronouns, but I have encountered at least one that does: in the mid-1990s Physics of Plasmas asked me to eliminate first person pronouns in a paper revision. By then I had already published in Journal of Geophysical Research and Geophysical Research Letters, which have no such objection.

    The “big words” myth goes way beyond science writing. Too many people think that it makes them sound more intelligent. It doesn’t, as Daniel Oppenheimer showed in his 2006 paper “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly” (Applied Cognitive Psychology 20, 139-56), which won last year’s Ig Nobel Literature Prize

  4. #4 andy
    May 18, 2007

    In my day (1972), the passive voice was de rigeur. Good to see this abominable practice is no longer required. But many experimental papers in my field (I’m out of it now) still are so written.

  5. #5 Jason
    May 18, 2007

    Nice post. Unfortunately, I’ve had the opposite case of having these patterns beaten in to me at graduate school. Part of it comes from the extensive editorial process any paper goes through, I think. There is a pressure to make the language as non-offensive as possible.

  6. #6 Roy
    May 18, 2007

    Hear-hear! The whole point of making the abstract a plot-spoiler is to let the poor slobs pouring over the abstracts find what they’re looking for, not to keep secrets from them.

  7. #7 Pam
    May 18, 2007

    This post should be required reading for scientists everywhere. For serious. I am tempted to send it around my workplace (but OTOH, this would be tantamount to telling my coworkers they are crappy writers, so I probably won’t).

    Myths 1+2 are kind of the same, and I suspect that its origins lie in general-writing instruction. One is taught that “serious” writing where one is describing or analyzing things shouldn’t use personal pronouns. This transfers to science writing, because people think it should be serious and descriptive, BUT they forget that it is okay, even desirable, to use personal pronouns when describing things that *you* did.

    3. “Utilize” is my personal pet peeve. It *does* have a place, but it is *not* a simple synonym for “use.” It’s something like, “use something to an end, which is not necessarily its intended purpose.” It is almost always better to avoid it.

    4. One thing people are not properly taught is what the point of an abstract is. It is *supposed* to be a capsule summary of your paper. It seems pointless to have it sitting right in front of the whole paper, which is why students don’t know what to do with it, but what they don’t necessarily get is that people who don’t have ready access to a university library will see the abstract *without* being able to see the entire paper, and will be making decisions on whether or not to seek out (and possibly pay $$ for) the entire paper. I’m not going to pay Elsevier $40 or whatever for your paper unless I’m damn sure it actually contains the information I’m looking for.

  8. #8 Hermagoras
    May 18, 2007

    Very interesting post. Thanks.

    Three points from a science writing teacher:

    As to first person: Students rarely see “I,” but they do see “We” in science. They need to recognize that “We” in collaborative writing is equivalent to “I” in student writing (which is usually not written collaboratively).

    It’s interesting that your main example of active voice (“We measured X”) relates to methods. I find that in experimental papers, passive voice prevails in the methods even if it’s dropped elsewhere. In that sense, Myth 2 is not really a myth so much as a principle of objectivity misapplied and applied differently in different situations.

    Finally, the emergence of online supplementary materials with many journals has relieved the pressure to be concise. We may see a new slackness emerge as these supplementary texts get longer and longer.

  9. #9 Georg
    May 18, 2007

    Interesting post. Regarding the use of personal pronouns, I remember being told that in academic writing one should use “we” for “I” (as a pluralis modestiae), except in autobiographical passages or when expressing a private opinion (which usually has little place in scientific writing). The rationale was that it is more engaging as it tends to be more inclusive of the reader. I’m not sure how common that usage is, but I’ve certainly seen “we” used in single-author papers (in fact, I’ve used it in this way myself) and in monographs.

  10. #10 Matt Leifer
    May 18, 2007

    Myths 1 and 2 are most certainly *not* the same. It is possible to write passively whilst including lots of first person pronouns and also to write actively without them. Now that first person pronouns are allowed in most journals there is an opposing tendency to over use them. I like to stick to the following rule:

    - When talking about something you actually did then use “we” or “I”, e.g. “We measured X.” or “We ran a computer simulation to determine Y.”.

    - When the use of “we” actually means “you and I, dear reader” then it is better to try and rephrase things, e.g. “In section 5, we see that the Reimann hypothesis is true” could be replaced with “In section 5, the Reimann hypothesis is proved” or even better “The Reimann hypothesis is proved in section 5.”. The last phrasing is the most active, and cuts to the punch very quickly, even though it contains no first person pronoun.

    The difference is that in the first case, removal of “we” tends to make the sentence more passive, but in the second case it tends to make it less passive (at least if you spend some time thinking about how to phrase it properly). These two distinct effects tend to be confused by people, and I would say that the current scientific literature has a bad case of too many of the second type of “we”‘s.

  11. #11 Grant Goodyear
    May 18, 2007

    Myth 4 would be less common if it weren’t for the fact that so many scientific presentations seem to be structured as mysteries, with a big revelation at the end. I tend to go with the Columbo approach to presentations: here’s the big result, now you can either take a nap or learn how we got there.

  12. #12 mollishka
    May 18, 2007

    I took my first “scientific research” class in tenth grade. We had it hammered into us that scientific writing is always passive tense, but occasionally first person plural. I still find myself falling back on the passive tense crap when I’m really tire while writing; I “know” better now, but it’s a difficult habit to break.

    And you measured it, not some impersonal elves who snuck into the lab while you were playing Nethack.

    This reminds me of the apocryphal in college about the guy who didn’t sleep for a loooong time while working on some lab, and some of his data was given to him be some gnomes. His lap report included the gnomic data, including a description on how it didn’t seme to fit the model.

  13. #13 John Novak
    May 18, 2007

    Myth 1: Argh. I get that in industry, too. And I fight it tooth and nail all the way. No one has ever been able to tell me why I can’t present my results in first person, either plural or singular. Most leave it at, “It’s unprofessional!” to which I respond (being a better writer than about 90% of my group) “No it’s not! Nyah!”

    Some claim it’s arrogant or egotistical, to which I respond, “Hello, have we met? Do you know me?”

    Myth 3: AAARRGHH! Not only a peeve, but the same damn word– “Utilized!” Fuck that shit, man! Say what needs to be said in as few syllables as possible. You’re not writing poetry, you’re not writing an essay, you’re writing a report about (ostensibly) a very complicated subject. Don’t make me work overtime to understand you.

  14. #14 onymous
    May 18, 2007

    I was taught some of these myths in high school, and unlearned them when I started reading real scientific papers. I wonder why high schools seem to perpetuate them.

    My personal pet peeve is the use of “the author.” It’s as if people have been told not to refer to themselves, but realize they must anyway, but then run into the injunction against the use of “I.” The result is painful to read.

  15. #15 Leah
    May 18, 2007

    Interesting post, and as a recent graduate from biology I can pinpoint EXACTLY where the use of passive voice was forced upon us: my first chem lab (day one out instructor informed us that in none of our lab reports were we to use any personal pronouns). Now at my school all of our chemistry faculty is from the “good ol’ days” and I suppose that is where they learned that using the passive was the only acceptable format. In biology classes/labs however our prof’s emphasized the use of personal pronouns, and not surprisingly most of the biology faculty were younger, more recent additions to academia. I’m guessing this use of the passive voice is just an artifact of the older generations of scientists and will soon be phased out completely as newer generations move in and claim responsibility for their work by claiming “I did this”. Oh and as far as the “big words” goes it has always been my theory both with students and professionals, the goal is to confuse your reader so that they don’t see through to the fact that you don’t even really know what you are saying other than “Look at this cool thing that happened in my lab”.

  16. #16 outlier
    May 18, 2007

    Not to nitpick, but you should title the post “Scientific Writing” or “Sceince Research Writing.” The term “science writing,” as most people understand it, refers to writing *about science* that is published for a general audience, even a science-literate one like Sci Am’s readership.

    To nitpick: #12, you mean “passive voice.” There is no such thing as a passive or active tense.

  17. #17 mollishka
    May 18, 2007

    To nitpick: #12, you mean “passive voice.” There is no such thing as a passive or active tense.

    Yeah, that’s what I get for re-arranging my sentences and clicking “post” before re-reading everything.

  18. #18 mollishka
    May 18, 2007

    To nitpick: #12, you mean “passive voice.” There is no such thing as a passive or active tense.

    Yeah, that’s what I get for re-arranging my sentences and clicking “post” before re-reading everything.

  19. #19 I
    May 18, 2007

    Myth 1: First-person pronouns are forbidden in scientific writing.

    #14: My personal pet peeve is the use of “the author.”

    My father, a (now retired) humanities professor, had to train his students to write “I think” rather than “the author thinks” in personal essays.

    “They said they ‘utilized’ Technique Y, but they ‘employed’ Technique Z– does that difference mean something?”

    Oooh, the thesaurus technique is one of my writing peeves, whether the writing is scientific or not. Please please please use the same word when you mean the same thing. Whatever you were taught (or think you were taught) in middle school, arbitrary variety is not a sign of creativity, and it does not keep the reader engaged.

  20. #20 hobgoblin
    May 18, 2007

    With a few little changes, this list of myths would be just as relevant in my English classes. Students must think that academic writing of any kind is necessarily bad writing.

  21. #21 Mike Saelim
    May 18, 2007

    It seems that a lot of non-science students feel that science is very arcane and inaccessible. If so, then it wouldn’t seem that strange if the writing was similarly unreachable.

    Myths 1 and 4 were beat into my head throughout junior high and high school, myth 3 was implied, and myth 2 was learned gradually, especially because it seemed that you would get extra points the more “scientific” (read: obtuse) you sounded. I only realized that these were all nonsense when I became an undergraduate and actually read a scientific paper or two. I found that the best and easiest to understand dispelled with all these myths, so I dropped them all – except for my Honors Chem lab, which rigidly enforced all of them. Yay for physics!

  22. #22 Drew Thaler
    May 18, 2007

    Your advice on science writing is great and right-on. It applies to any technical writing.

    But to be fair, the pressures on students’ writing styles are complicated. When I was in school I remember getting literally opposing instructions on writing from different teachers. History profs want one style, English profs another, philosophy profs another, math/science profs still another. I was once told that my writing was too logical/bulleted, and needed to flow more and tell a story … while a different paper for another class, written that same week, was not logical enough. It was maddening. :-)

    My wife is a high-school teacher, and I was impressed by the way she always presents her students with a rubric describing exactly what an ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, etc paper looks like, with short examples. Something like that might be a worthwhile addition to any class — even a lab.

  23. #23 Christian Burnham
    May 19, 2007

    The advice presented on this blog page was found to be of interest to the reader. The above-mentioned reader realized that a great effort had heretofore been extended in order to eliminate first-person pronouns in said reader’s papers. In conclusion the reader mentioned in the previous text now realizes that the effort was a waste of that reader’s time and did nothing to add to the clarity of the text. In future work, the reader (discussed in sentences 1-6 of this text) aims to write papers in a more lucid style.

  24. #24 MaryKaye
    May 19, 2007

    Christian, the comment you wrote is freakin’ hysterical. *This* reader thanks you for the laugh ;)

  25. #25 Andre
    May 19, 2007

    Look no further than certain university writing centers to find passive voice promoted for scientific writing:

    http://depts.gallaudet.edu/englishworks/grammar/passive.html

    They even have a convenient 6 (!) step table showing you how to convert all your sentences to passive voice.

    Physical Review editors (not recently as far as I know) have also been known to enforce the use of “we” instead of “I” on single author papers:

    http://www.lassp.cornell.edu/%7Ecew2/KnightLecture.html

    Mermin’s discussion of his frustration and fun with editors enforcing these kinds of rules is at the end of the essay.

    I also wrote a few comments on these things at Biocurious:

    http://biocurious.com/why-cant-scientists-write-good

  26. #26 CCPhysicist
    May 19, 2007

    In the old days, the Physical Review journals definitely did not like first person singular. You would see “we” in monographs, and passive voice dominated. It can take several generations of professor/student cycles to kill that off.

    I know that our chemists try to enforce passive voice in lab reports. I push them to state the facts, up front, without any of the familiar student-weasel language.

    And I was also LOL at Christian’s example.

  27. #27 CCPhysicist
    May 19, 2007

    On a different point (myth 4). I was, like “outlier”, caught out by the title of this post but …. why shouldn’t scientific writing be science writing? I think that is the direction some have tried to take it. One reason might be that it helps all of the people who have to write scientific English in a foreign language, but it helps everyone.

    My suggestion is to replace “abstract” in your lab reports with “cover memo”. [When I find my blog about labs in the draft bin, I'll include that topic. But don't stay up late waiting for it!] This is what my future engineers will be doing: They must use the cover memo to literally sell the project to management. The report won’t sell it if the memo and equally short presentation don’t sell it first. tudents want to write a narrative, but that gets marked off. It must start with the answer. “We measured 10.2 m/s^2 for the acceleration of gravity in the lab. This is within 5% of the known value. We used a pendulum and a stop watch to do the measurements.” They might say more, but in classic “inverted pyramid” style they are now bored and move on to the rest of the report.

    If your kids read the NYTimes, have them look at a typical headline “stack” and emulate that approach.

  28. #28 Jim Lemire
    May 20, 2007

    Most people/students think that science writing HAS to be dry. Students sometime seem to go out of their way to write “sciency” as opposed to “creatively”. Of course, we don’t want overly flowery, stream-of-conciousness type stuff a la Faulkner, but readability and maintaining reader interest must have some place. I remember reading journal articles from the 1800s and early 1900s and thinking how well they read – the authors seemed to be educated in the art of writing. I think that is what we have lost as scientists – the art of writing.

  29. #29 brad
    May 20, 2007


    Myths 1+2 are kind of the same, and I suspect that its origins lie in general-writing instruction. One is taught that “serious” writing where one is describing or analyzing things shouldn’t use personal pronouns. This transfers to science writing, because people think it should be serious and descriptive, BUT they forget that it is okay, even desirable, to use personal pronouns when describing things that *you* did.

    I teach college writing, and I don’t know any instructor who teaches students to use huge words or write passively. In fact, I just made a handout telling students to use smaller words, eliminate passive constructions, etc., etc.

    #22

    But to be fair, the pressures on students’ writing styles are complicated. When I was in school I remember getting literally opposing instructions on writing from different teachers. History profs want one style, English profs another, philosophy profs another, math/science profs still another. I was once told that my writing was too logical/bulleted, and needed to flow more and tell a story … while a different paper for another class, written that same week, was not logical enough. It was maddening.

    You’re confusing structure and style here. Chad’s post mostly offers stylistic advice: don’t use unnecessary jargon, get to the point, etc. Philosophers, historians, and biologists might all want their papers structured differently, but good style should be good style regardless of the class.

  30. #30 yolio
    May 20, 2007

    We tend to write like what we read, even when we know better. Certain passive constructions and pompous words are used repeatedly in the literature, and as a writer I find myself using them, almost against my own will.

    Also, in our grad training, we are discouraged from sounding comfortable. For example, I like to start a paper on common ground, I try find something simple and obvious that I know the reader knows about and agrees with. First drafts of my papers usually begin with a very simple, obvious, possibly colorful or mildly provocative statement. My PhD advisor ALWAYS cuts these sentences in edits.

  31. #31 krishna
    May 20, 2007

    On one of my papers, the first person (in the acknowledgements, no less) was removed by the copy editors and replaced by “the author thanks ..”. It sounded awfully pompous. This was a chemical physics journal.

  32. #32 Andre
    May 20, 2007

    brad,

    Some college writing instructors do teach students to write passively. See the first link I posted in comment 25.

  33. #33 brad
    May 20, 2007

    Andre,

    I was referring to composition instructors, not science instructors, and to a comment someone above made about poor writing instruction generally, rather than poor writing instruction in the sciences. If science profs teach the passive voice, that’s their business; in the humanities and social sciences, we like and teach subjects and verbs.

    That link states “developed by Dr. Charlene Sorenson, Gallaudet University Department of Chemistry and Dr. Tonya Johnson, Gallaudet University English Department.” I assume the chem professor asked for the chart and sought out help, not the reverse.

    Incidentally, that is one of the stupidest charts I’ve ever seen. Wow.

  34. #34 brad
    May 20, 2007

    I should add that many of the words writers in a university–hell, on the planet–come from literature and other postmodern departments where writers have substituted ridiculous jargon for genuine insight. So I’m by no means trying to suggest that people in those areas write perfectly. All I’m saying is that we don’t teach passive voice (and I teach people to avoid unnecessary jargon, but I also used to work as a reporter, so I have slightly different feelings about how to use language than most academics, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.)

  35. #35 Simon G.
    May 20, 2007

    How appropriate!

    I just reviewed a great paper by Kai-Sand Jensen on “How to write consistently boring scientific literature, where he covers much the same ground.

    He points out ten things NOT to do:

    1) Avoid Focus
    2) Avoid originality and personality – this is very easy to do when writing the passive voice
    3) Write l-o-n-g contributions
    4) Remove implications and speculation
    5) Leave out illustrations
    6) Omit necessary steps of reasoning
    7) Use many abbreviations and terms (your myth 3)
    8) Suppress humor and flowery language
    9) Degrade Biology to Statistics
    10) Quote numerous papers for trivial statements

    The full paper is definitely worth reading (but only available to subscribers of Oikos).

    Science is fun and it should be fun to read.

    –Simon

  36. #36 Alex
    May 21, 2007

    I totally sympathise, I find the same thing in my own marking. It wouldn’t be so painful if you didn’t have to read so many contorted sentences in a row!

    When I was at school we had it drummed into us that science writing had to avoid all personal pronouns and be in the passive voice (although they never told us otherwise at uni). Interestingly, humanities students also have this attitude towards essay writing and we have to teach them to inject something of themselves into what they’re saying. So it seems to be a misconception that prevails across the board.

    Oh, and the use of grand-sounding words when a simple one would do is universal in student writing, from what I can tell.

  37. #37 Luis
    May 28, 2007

    I’ve also been always curious about why there is something like Myth #4. That’s why I love Steven Abney’s dissertation (1987, The English Noun Phrase in its Sentential Aspect, MIT Linguistics). Right at the beginning (chapter 1, section 1.1) he writes:

    “With flagrant disregard for the principles of good mystery writing, I sketch my solution here in the introduction. The rest of the thesis is a denouement where I work out the details.”

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