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PORTSIDE  March 2012, Week 4

PORTSIDE March 2012, Week 4

Subject:

How to Write Like a Scientist

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How to Write Like a Scientist

By Adam Ruben
March 23, 2012
http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2012_03_23/caredit.a1200033

     'Using the first person in your writing humanizes
     your work. If possible, therefore, you should avoid
     using the first person in your writing.'

I didn't know whether to take my Ph.D. adviser's remark
as a compliment. "You don't write like a scientist," he
said, handing me back the progress report for a grant
that I had written for him. In my dream world, tears
would have come to his eyes, and he would have squealed,
"You write like a poet!"

In reality, though, he just frowned. He had meant it as
a criticism. I don't write like a scientist, and
apparently that's bad.

I asked for an example, and he pointed to a sentence on
the first page. "See that word?" he said. "Right there.
That is not science."

The word was "lone," as in "PvPlm is the lone plasmepsin
in the food vacuole of Plasmodium vivax." It was a
filthy word. A non-scientific word. A flowery word, a
lyrical word, a word worthy of -- ugh -- an MFA student.

I hadn't meant the word to be poetic. I had just used
the word "only" five or six times, and I didn't want to
use it again. But in his mind, "lone" must have conjured
images of PvPlm perched on a cliff's edge, staring into
the empty chasm, weeping gently for its aspartic
protease companions. Oh, the good times they shared.
Afternoons spent cleaving scissile bonds. Lazy mornings
decomposing foreign proteins into their constituent
amino acids at a nice, acidic pH. Alas, lone plasmepsin,
those days are gone.

So I changed the word to "only." And it hurt. Not
because "lone" was some beautiful turn of phrase but
because of the lesson I had learned: Any word beyond the
expected set -- even a word as tame and innocuous as
"lone" -- apparently doesn't belong in science.

I'm still fairly new at this science thing. I'm less
than 4 years beyond the dark days of grad school and the
adviser who wouldn't tolerate "lone." So forgive my
naïveté when I ask: Why the hell not?

Why can't we write like other people write? Why can't we
tell our science in interesting, dynamic stories? Why
must we write dryly? (Or, to rephrase that last sentence
in the passive voice, as seems to be the scientific
fashion, why must dryness be written by us?)

I once taught two different college science writing
classes in back-to-back semesters. The first was
mainstream science writing; the students had fun finding
interesting research projects and writing about them.
One student visited a lab where scientists who were
building a new submarine steering mechanism let her
practice steering a model sub around a little tank.
Another subjected himself to an fMRI and wrote about the
experience.

But the second semester was science writing for
scientists, in which they learned how to write
scientific journal articles -- and it was a lot less
fun. "Keep it interesting!" I told my students during
the first semester. To my second-semester students, I
said, "Well, you're not really supposed to keep it
interesting."

We're taught that scientific journal articles are just
plain different from all other writing. They're not
written in English per se; they're written in a
minimalist English intended merely to convey numbers and
graphs. As such, they have their own rules. For example:

1. 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.

4. The more references you include, the more scholarly
your reader will assume you are. Thus, if you write a
sentence like, "Much work has been done in this field,"
you should plan to spend the next 9 hours tracking down
papers so that your article ultimately reads, "Much work
has been done in this field [1,3,6-27,29-50,58,61,62-65,78-315,952-Avogadro's
Number]." 
If you ever write a review article, EndNote might
explode.

5. Grammar textbooks contain elaborate rules about when
to use numerals and when to write out numbers. But
numbers are really the only reason you're writing your
paper, and you don't want readers to think you're into
something as lame as words. So make sure every single
number is written in its numeral form -- otherwise, 1
day, you'll awake 2 find that you're 4got10.

6. Most journals use the past tense. To add flair to
your writing, try writing your entire article in the
Third Conditional Progressive Interrogative tense.
Instead of, "We did this experiment," you'd write,
"Would we have been doing this experiment?" This may
seem more convoluted than simple writing, but your
article probably won't be any less comprehensible than
most other scientific journal articles.

7. Always write "we" instead of "I," even if you
performed the research yourself; the plural ensures that
no feelings will be hurt when credit is attributed. For
example, "We investigated these results, but then we had
to use the bathroom, which is where we sat when our
spouse called."

8. Remember your audience. It consists primarily of
graduate students who, 10 years from now, will include
your paper in their own voluminous collection of
superscripted references. So remember them, and make
your name easy to spell.

9. Starting sentences with "obviously" or "as everyone
knows" demonstrates your intellectual superiority. If
possible, start sentences with, "As super-intelligent
beings like myself know," or "Screw your stupidity;
here's a fact-bomb for you."

10. Your paper will be peer reviewed, so include
flattering descriptions of all of your peers. Scientists
call these "shout-outs" or "mad props."

11. Too many results are reported using SI units. (For
those unaware, "SI" stands for "Sports Illustrated," and
it is a system of measurement using units like RBI, Y/A,
and, once a year, cup sizes.) Liven up your results by
reporting them in furlongs, chaldrons, and fluid
scruples.

12. If you're co-authoring a paper, most of your
notoriety will derive from the order of authors and not
from the content of your paper -- so make sure to have
vehement and petty debates about whose name goes first.
Here are the general rules for authorship:

FIRST AUTHOR: Weary graduate student who spent hours
doing the work.

SECOND AUTHOR: Resentful graduate student who thinks he
or she spent hours doing the work.

THIRD AUTHOR: Undergraduate just happy to be named.

FOURTH AUTHOR: Collaborator no one has ever met whose
name is only included for political reasons.

FIFTH AUTHOR: Postdoctoral fellow who once made a chance
remark on the subject.

SIXTH AUTHOR: For some reason, Vladimir Putin.

LAST AUTHOR: Principal investigator whose grant funded
the project but who hasn't stood at a lab bench in
decades, except for that one weird photo shoot for some
kind of pamphlet, and even then it was obvious that he
or she didn't know where to find basic things.

Many scientists see writing as a means to an end, the
packing peanuts necessary to cushion the data they want
to disperse to the world. They hate crafting sentences
as much as they hate, say, metaphors about packing
peanuts.

But there's a reason scientific journal articles tend to
be dry, and it's because we're writing them that way. We
hope that the data constitutes an interesting story all
by itself, but we all know it usually doesn't. It needs
us, the people who understand its depth and charm, to
frame it and explain it in interesting ways.

This is, in fact, one of the most appealing aspects of
science: We're more than just the people who push the
pipette buttons. We're advocates who get to construct
and tell the stories about our science. I can't think of
a better lone career.

---

Adam Ruben, Ph.D., is a practicing scientist and the
author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go
to Grad School.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1200033

___________________________________________

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