Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Science Writing

I promised a re-think of the raw ideas about science and communication that showed up on Pharyngula a few days ago, and here it is. Science and policy comes later (another promise, I restrict myself too much some days).

The core of the discussion seems to be centered on two things:
1. Formal science writing, as appears in peer-reviewed journals, has a particular style based on precise language and is consequently difficult or uninteresting to read for the majority of non-scientists.
2. Some science writing, typically that directed specifically at non-scientists, is very entertaining writing, and ranks as excellent writing by most (subjective) scales of measurement.

The problem, as much as there is a problem here, is that in order to make science exciting to a large number of non-scientists, certain conventions of scientific writing must be abandonded. I'd like to argue here that we (scientists) should not abandon these conventions, only relax them slightly, and that such highly-precise language can still be highly entertaining.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that people are easily distracted by nearly-meaningless words and phrases, which (as a result) have been carefully excluded from the normal language of science. Non-science writing is full of these words, phrases and conventions, and once someone (e.g. me) has read a large enough number of good scientific articles, the popular press becomes a morass of un-cited sources, 'spin', and propaganda. If I must adopt these morally-questionable writing styles in order to popularize my work, or just to have a conversation about my work with a non-scientist, then I think I will not bother. Honesty is probably the highest ideal of any scientist - which is why an honest mistake is never* reflected too poorly upon a scientist.

Returning to point 1, above, I have seen (even in my short time as a scientist) a shift in scientific writing style. It's easy to see a large shift in style over the past 100 years - some journals (and journal-archive sites like JSTOR) maintain electronic archives of scanned-in articles stretching back into the 1800's. The shift over the last, say, 25 years (yes, I often read papers from at least that long ago) seems to have been away from passive voice ("experiment X was performed") to active voice ("we performed experiment X"). It's a relatively minor shift, I think, but it does seem to make scientific writing a little easier to read. I also like it because passive voice often gives the impression that the happy little nocturnal lab-elves did the actual work, and the authors of the study just typed the results into their computers in the morning. Active voice makes it clear that the nocturnal night-elves succumbed to the lab pest-control fumigants decades ago, and anybody scribbling in a note-book at 2:00am is most likely a graduate student.

I don't think scientific writing conventions should be sacrificed to reach a broader audience. Some efforts can be made in making some work less dry-seeming, particularly where the target audience is extremely unlikely to conduct replication of the experiments, and hence doesn't need nearly the usual level of detail about materials and methods. Interestingly, Nature has just announced expanded M&M sections in future publications, driving them in the opposite direction - a shift probably motivated by the fact their audience is almost entirely actual working scientists, who are interested in those methodological details. In any case, if one is writing about one's own work for the local paper, it seems unwise to chew up column-space with careful descriptions of the addresses of the manufacturers of one's microcentrifuge tubes.

I have seen many examples of easy (dare I say "fun"?) to read science writing in proper, peer-reviewed articles. My favourite example is the entire collected writings of Susumu Ohno. I haven't read all of his stuff, but one example I'll show came from a 1974 paper (1). Page 23:
This then is the process of diploidization. Since quantitatively one of each of these newly created pairs of gene loci is redundant, it is free to accumulate formerly forbidden mutations. As a result, it may be silenced. Alternatively, on rare occasions, it may as mentioned in Chapter 1, emerge triumphant as a new gene locus with a previously nonexistent function. Thus a diploidized tetraploid becomes endowed with a far greater possibility than its diploid ancester to sponsor a large evolutional change.

Notice the use of language! A gene emerges triumphant! An organism becomes endowed with a great possibility! Mutations are no longer forbidden! I love this stuff, and it's not at all imprecise, or conveying the wrong impression.

Non-scientific writing is typically imprecise and laden with unnecessary descriptors. I've been marking undergraduate essays for the last week, and I have marked a great many undergraduate lab reports over the last two years, so much so that I now find myself resisting the urge to circle offending words - like "extremely", "very", or "critical" - with a red pen when I see them in books or newspapers. These extraneous modifiers now serve only to annoy me - I like to read writing that has been pared down to the minimum information, as I consider a well-turned minimalist phrase the height of "elegant"; high praise in scientific writing, from many sources.

Replacing 'jargon' with words of ambiguous or multiple meanings when converting a scientific paper to "popular" reduces transmitted information. Adding modifiers usually transmits no additional information, except perhaps little warning flags that say "this author is hyping!". I do not think that 'dumbing-down' a phrase like

"We found a positive relationship between body size and total number of eggs produced, as well as body size and number of eggs per egg mass."
is equivalent to
"We found that the larger the snail, the more eggs it produced and the more eggs were in each egg mass.".(2)

The second sentence is superficially very similar to the first, but omits some information and unnecessarily channels the reader's mind into one direction of movement along a variable's axis. In this case, the distinction between two separate correlations (body size & egg number and body size & number of eggs per egg mass) is collapsed into one three-way correlation (body size & egg number & egg number per egg mass), which implies non-independence of several other variables like number of egg masses. The reader's mind gets channeled into moving only upwards on the body size variable by the "...larger the snail, the more..." statement - the first sentence more accurately conveys that this relationship is properly linear, and one may examine the relationships between X and Y at any point along the line.

Another idea that came from the discussion at Pharyngula concerns motivation - what incentive is there for a scientist to write for a non-scientific audience? I think it would be great, personally, if I could convey my work, and how I feel about it, to my non-scientist friends and relatives (especially relatives - my aunt would prefer I work on "something cute", even after I pointed out that work on "cute" animals typically involves invasive surgery). I think some modest recognition in the popular press, perhaps at the level of recognition one gets for writing a well-recieved letter to the editor of a major newspaper, would also be quite wonderful. Any improvement in 'society's' opinion of scientists and/or graduate students would benefit me, even if only in a small way. Certainly there are possible reactions more pleasant than "Oh, you're a grad student. What are you doing for the summer? Do you have to get a job?"**.

Some incentives were proposed at Pharyngula, including a high-profile prize for excellence in communication of science to non-scientists. I think this is a good idea, but that if implemented will have little effect on generating the next great scientist/writer, and zero effect on convincing normal scientists to practice writing for a non-scientific audience, for the same reasons that the Nobel prizes have almost no effect on generating excellence in research (nobody works on their thesis*** because they think they'll get a Nobel 20 years later) and no effect on normal researchers (I have no chance of a Nobel - so I'm not going to work harder just because they exist). I still think it's a good idea, for the same reason I think the Nobels are a good idea - some research, and some scientific writing, is so good it deserves very broad recognition.

If there are to be incentives for scientists to popularize their work, they need to apply to most working scientists, not only the extreme high-performers. The Public Library of Science journals have started a modest incentive scheme along these lines, though perhaps it was not intended as an incentive scheme when devised. Each article is presented with a short summary article to introduce the work to non-specialists, which often translates into an article that popularizes the work for the general public. The people who write these introductory articles are not the authors of the research paper - but they are working scientists, often people who might have reviewed the work in question - in other words, the "peers" of "peer-review". I don't know how much prestige is attached to these popularizations - probably very little at this point, though of course authors are free to include those articles on their C.V.s. I know of one case of a similar popularizing article, in Nature, written by an assistant professor I know quite well and have worked with in the past, that at least generated some interest among his colleagues at his home university.

Currently, these popularizing articles are written by other experts in the field. To popularize one's own work, which is a worthy goal, similar schemes need to be implemented in which scientists write their own editorial copy. Normal scientific conventions against 'spin' or 'hype' need to be enforced, and these could still be peer-reviewed, maintaining their stature in the eyes of scientists. There are a few scientists who do this well, but there are thousands of scientists who have never formally tried.

I'd like to propose an idea now, at the end of this overly-long blog post. I'd like to see a peer-reviewed journal, perhaps associated with a normal scientific journal, that publishes short descriptions (say, one page) of articles appearing in other journals. This popularizer journal would be available to a broader audience than the core scientific journal(s) because it would cost much less, and perhaps be given free of charge to public libraries and the like. I emphasize public libraries because university and other institutional libraries already have access to the core journals, and their users are often scientists who don't want to read popularizations. I'm imagining one journal that publishes popularizations of a number of associated core journals, thus reaching a broad audience and including a wide diversity of subjects. What do you think?

*well, at least such honest mistakes do not have serious consequences for working scientists in my happy little fantasy-land of perfect scientific harmony. How long until my candidacy exam, again?

**yes, I actually got that response once. I forget from whom.

***many Nobels are awarded for work conducted in graduate school.

Literature cited
(1) Ohno S. 1974. Protochordata, Cyclostomata and Pisces. Animal Cytogenetics 4(1): 1-92.
(2) Mona Albano, comment #20, Pharyngula post "Would Chuck Terhark like a job writing science abstracts?" February 17, 2007.

13 comments:

Carlo said...

I pretty much agree with everything you've said. I think that science should drop the passive voice for two reasons:

a)The primary goal of using it, as far as I've been led to believe, is to discourage ownership of one's work and encourage objectivity. I don't think I've ever met a scientist who believes that this actually works.

b)It's extremely obtuse. I've written a few publications now (whether or not they been published) and I find that passive verbiage can get quite difficult to maintain. It's unnatural and does not flow very well in discussion.

I'm 100% with you on the idea of a 'real' science magazine for enthusiasts. I'm sure that many scientists and the public would love to have a magazine, much like the Nature 'news and views' section, summarizing all kinds of interesting work and targeted towards lay-speak. It could potentially have the added benefit of really educating people about how the scientific method works, and showing them what statistics actually mean, something the popular press is terrible at.

TheBrummell said...

I'm simply impressed you read everything I wrote - that's 1900 words up there!

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of a real-science-summaries type of magazine. Who do we have to bug to get this going? What I've heard of most scientific publishers is generally not good (I'm thinking of YOU, Elsevier!).

We'd probably need to do this through one of the big journal publishers because it would make copyright and permission-to-use-figures et cetera much easier, and the publisher would probably like the opportunity to popularize some of their journals. Indirect effects on impact factors, and so on.

Carlo said...

Here's an article about communicating climate change to the public in the new issue of Nature. You may wanna take a look. Very on-topic.

TheBrummell said...

I just read that about 10 minutes before I saw your comment here. You get the table-of-contents in your email, too, eh?

It's an interesting read, but there is another article, a book review, in this issue of Nature that I found more intriguing. Tim Spector reviews The Science of Orgasm by Barry R. Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer-Flores& Beverly Whipple (it's a pretty negative review) on page 822 of today's issue:

Although good in parts, the book lacks continuity and the authors do justice to only a few of their stated areas. They pose major problems for themselves by trying to cover too much and targeting both academics and lay readers — they certainly fail to deliver for the latter.

How did Dr. Spector (prof. of genetics at King's College London) determine a failure to deliver to 'lay readers'? Did he get a non-scientist friend to read the book, too?

My post above is too long already, so I didn't include a section on underestimating the general public - I think people will usually understand more than most would expect. Especially considering the self-selection that happens in the purchase of science books - it's not Joe Sixpack (that fucking moron) buying Why Size Matters, it's a person with some interest and most likely significant (casual) background in the subject.

Brian said...

Excellent post, and thank you for your slew of comments over on my blog (it's far more attention than I usually get!) I actually had a similiar idea involving the notion of a "Nature Lite" or companion magazine to a journal that conveyed the gist of the papers to the layperson, hopefully as an introduction to getting them to read the journal on its own. I also have to agree that I'm not ahuge fan of the passive voice, and it gets tricky in ethology studies where intent and intelligence come into play (but then again, I'm not a strict behaviorist so I prefer the careful usage of the active voice there too).

In any case, for my own I part I feel that once I acheive my doctorate (a long way away being I'm still an undergrad) I'll have a responsibility to share what I learn/think with my peers and the public, interdisciplinary discussion in science also needing improvement in communication. I'm not necessarily suggesting a new Neo-Darwinian synthesis, but I think the more ethologists, ecologists, geneticists, zoologists, etc. share and integrate ideas the richer our understanding will hopefully become.

TheBrummell said...

Welcome, Brian, and thanks for your comments.

Interdisciplinary communication in science is a whole 'nother supersized can of worms. A larger amount of communication within Biology, between various sub-disciplines, is a great idea, and I think that would help to promote some really interesting research. Actually achieving that, however, is probably really hard - it takes years of specialization to get to the minimum acceptable level of competence in any one field, so people are probably naturally reluctant to really grind through several more years just to get familiar with the current literature in another area. It can be done; I have met more than one scientist with high levels of expertise in multiple fields, but it's still pretty rare.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is realistic to expect already overworked scientists to peer-review an onslaught of summaries of recent work in addition to reviewing the actual papers (not to mention writing them). Maybe graduate students rather than scientists per se have the time and could volunteer for this.

More likely what you need is qualified science writers who can summarize the work accurately without dumbing anything down. You'd also need it to be more widely accessible than a print publication in local libraries.

Therefore it would appear that a superior solution is free online science summaries. As these already exist in abundance, one might be forgiven for considering this discussion an attempt to re-invent the wheel -- in square form. :-p

TheBrummell said...

Maybe graduate students rather than scientists per se have the time and could volunteer for this.

I object to your implication that graduate students are not actually scientists. My definition of scientist is based on publication of peer-reviewed work, and continued research, not on degrees obtained or institutional employment status.

Moving on...

...already overworked scientists to peer-review an onslaught of summaries...

My idea is that the author(s) of the actual article summarize their own work. The summary could be included with the submitted article for review, and be reviewed by the same people, as part of the package. I'm not thinking of long summaries - these should be strictly limited to one page. Yes, this would increase the workload for reviewers - but not by much, I think.

More likely what you need is qualified science writers who can summarize the work accurately without dumbing anything down.

I think that would be a good idea, but is completely beside what I'm proposing - scientists who write THEIR OWN summaries.

You'd also need it to be more widely accessible than a print publication in local libraries.

I never suggested restricting it to only public libraries! It just occured to me that public libraries would be a good place to start.

Therefore it would appear that a superior solution is free online science summaries. As these already exist in abundance...

I like the free on-line summaries - but they are NOT what I had in mind, since they're generally written by somebody other than the authors of the article being summarized. Further, I disagree that such "already exist in abundance" - a handful of journals regularly provide summaries of a fraction of the articles appearing in any given issue, and the PLoS journals are the only ones I know of that provide summaries for everything.

My idea is not to have scientists write "my colleagues are doing interesting work", it's to have scientists write "we have just done some interesting work".

Carlo said...

". As these already exist in abundance, one might be forgiven for considering this discussion an attempt to re-invent the wheel -- in square form. :-p"

While this may be an entirely separate topic, if these are easily accessible and in abundance, then why is the public information about science so terrible? Just look at the terminology used in, say CNN, news articles about scientific discoveries. Even co-called popular press science magazines like Scientific American (while by no means always are) can be quite sketchy on scientific reporting.

The idea that I'm most interested in is peer-review. It's not that science authors are poor at writing, it's that science can be so complicated that I honestly think it requires more than just editorial correction.

Anonymous said...

"I object to your implication that graduate students are not actually scientists. My definition of scientist is based on publication of peer-reviewed work, and continued research, not on degrees obtained or institutional employment status."

No offense intended, but I consider myself a scientist-in-training as a graduate student, and indeed that's what I am. I would never make a claim that I am a professional scientist even with a couple of pubs, and I am totally aware that I have lots to learn yet. For the most part graduate students are doing the peer-review, which is what I was getting at, so you would be asking professional scientists (strict definition of 'not in a training program anymore') to do the work, and I actually suggested that graduate students could take a more proactive role instead of asking others who are already busy to do more. I also agree completely that having at least a couple of peer-reviewed articles listed in Web of Science (or PubMed or whatever one's field uses) is necessary, but I am not convinced that it's sufficient.

I didn't really mean open access journals or their own stories, but I was referring to things like ScienceDaily and the multitude of other daily science news lists. There are literally thousands of journals -- you really want every author of every paper to write a summary? Who would read them? I think you need people who have a good sense of what the public is interested in to write public-oriented summaries that are freely available. And we have those, though I agree we need more (and more people need to be aware of them, clearly).

Anyways, interesting topic. Peace out.

Anonymous said...

quick correct: "... graduate students are NOT doing the peer review". My bad.

Carlo said...

"There are literally thousands of journals -- you really want every author of every paper to write a summary? Who would read them? I think you need people who have a good sense of what the public is interested in to write public-oriented summaries that are freely available."

I think it's pretty obvious that such an idea couldn't report everything.

If there's one thing that I agree with with Platonic philosophy, it's that if you just tell people what they want to hear, they don't necessarily learn anything.

I guess my take on this would be to communicate more than what the public thinks is interesting in order to show them that there are interesting things about science that they didn't even realize.

How many people still honestly believe that evolutionary biology has absolutely no application in medicine or comp. sci.? The degree of spin on these things is sometimes appalling.

Your comments are well-taken however.

TheBrummell said...

There are literally thousands of journals -- you really want every author of every paper to write a summary?

No, that's not really my idea, but is a good point. I was thinking these self-summaries would be on a voluntary basis, and would often be written by a subset of the many authors on multi-author papers - or the same fewer authors in a different order, or just one out of the mix, or whatever.

Who would read them?

No idea - is there data out there on who reads what? There are plenty of opinions, sure, but does anyone have a good, recent dataset about real people and their real reading habits?

I'm sure there are hundreds of magazines on every possible topic that have failed in the last decade for lack of readership. Clearly, the publishers of those magazines guessed wrong when asking that question. That doesn't mean I'm guessing wrong, though. It also doesn't mean I'm guessing right. But I claim no access to secret or obscure data about marketing.

I didn't really mean open access journals or their own stories, but I was referring to things like ScienceDaily and the multitude of other daily science news lists... I think you need people who have a good sense of what the public is interested in to write public-oriented summaries that are freely available. And we have those, though I agree we need more (and more people need to be aware of them, clearly).

I think NOBODY has "a good sense of what the public is interested in". How would one gain such a sense? Where are the data? What are these psuedo-experts basing their decisions on? Sales of print magazines of various types? How do they know WHY somebody buys a copy of Scientific American or National Geographic? For that matter, Nature is sold on news-stands - who buys those copies? I think there is a serious lack of hard data in the field of 'knowing-what-the-public-wants'. And what is "the public", anyways? I haven't read The Long Tail, but there are probably ideas in there that are relevent to this discussion.

This ties to a collection of ideas bubbling in my head about under-estimation of people - if we always dumb down the sophisticated stuff, how will we know if the "average" person can understand it? They never see it!