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The Beauty of Scientific Writing

phyllobates's picture

Last Thursday in Paul's section we were discussing how we felt about scientific writing.  The majority of the class seemed to agree that scientific is boring and not accessible to the public.  While initially I disliked reading scientific papers, over the course of this year scientific writing has really grown on me.  On of the things that I find important in scientific writing is the effort made to keep everything objective.  Personally, I have a really hard time reading something and interpreting  it in one way.  I often get lost on the connotation of words and I feel myself choosing the meaning I think fits best.  While I still face this problem when I read scientific papers, I encounter it less often and in these instances I find it easier to choose the proper meaning.  This is really important to me, especially when I am trying to learn and then reapply the concepts in the article.  I think that this objective style of writing also gives the source more credibility, in terms of on a large scale more people can come away with the same meaning as opposed to getting different interpretations.  As I mentioned in class, one of the things I find most distressing about reading scientific articles that have been 'spiced up' to interest the audiences is the way the true meaning and method behind the research gets misrepresented.  By adding in more accessible and fun words the true meaning gets clouded over and on the large scale individuals come away with different interpretations.  

The other aspect of scientific writing that I cherish is the organization, or predictable structure.  When I am trying to write a paper on a chemical reaction or on a specific enzyme I usually end up reading over 30 articles.  In order to do this efficiently I use the predictable structure of the paper to look for the information that I need.  I always start out reading the abstract to make sure the paper is applicable to my topic.  I can then skim to the back to examine the results and make sure they are legitimate.  During the research process in order to generate new articles I know I can always use sources cited in the introduction. To me scientific writing is beautiful and it takes a lot of effort and skill to create an article that provides millions of individualized people with the same message. 

Comments

cwalker's picture

You arguments are quite

You arguments are quite compelling, but I must agree with hlehman. Personally I am not a fan of scientific writing, I find it dry and tedious. Although I definitely appreciate its predictability, it is easy to decipher where to look for the certain information. But truth is, it's frustrating.  The other night I was talking to one of my close friends, she is a Biology major and she can spend hours reading science or psychology readings. She was telling me her lover for the straight forward information, she knows just what to expect, and where to find the data and conclusion, her favorite part undoubtedly is the abstract, she doesn't need to read the whole thing to figure out what information is in the text. I on the other hand cannot fathom the idea of spending any amount of time reading these texts. I am an Anthropology major and I quickly prefer reading in Social Sciences or Humanities. Although Humanities has a great variation in its writing, where as Social Sciences still manages to have some form of predictability. I like the mix between the predictability and creativity that a lot of Social Science texts tend to have.  Ethnographies for example tend to have an introduction about what the investigation is, then research methods and what information was gathered, and finally the concluding arguments. But within this predictability there is still so much variability. But both Humanities and Social Sciences use a language that is easily accesible. Science texts tend to use a language that is simply confusing. One needs to be completely  understand the topic to even begin to properly interpret the information. In other words my dislike for Science texts is not for its predictability but rather for the confusing jargon they are written in.

dfishervan's picture

Reading Scientific and Non-Scientific Literature as Non-Linear

I found your appreciation of scientific literature refreshing. It encouraged me to reflect on the traditional problems people tend to have with scientific writing, some of which have been highlighted above. First, I started re-thinking about ways that these issues can be remedied. Personally, I believe that people training to become scientists need more experience presenting to people of non-science disciplines and curriculums need to incorporate more projects like the recent psych presentation skindeep had to prepare. I then began thinking about the contents of my recent webpaper on reading mediums. In researching for my webpaper, one article mentioned that people view audio books as a lazy, easy way to read except when you consider scientific papers. Reading fiction is a linear process whereas reading a scientific paper is much more fragmented and non-linear. For that reason, it is extremely difficult to "read" a scientific paper via an audio book since the audio book seems to be more catered towards a linear read. As a bit of a visual learner, I agree that it is much easier to follow a scientific article when I have a tangible copy in front of me where I can make little notes in the margin and easily reference back to a previous section as opposed to an audio presentation of the article at a seminar. While I have previously thought about the differences between scientific writing and other forms of literature, I never thought the differences would impact my choice of reading medium.

It was at this point that I begun to think more about scientific literature as a non-linear source. Most non-scientists complain that it is more difficult to read a scientific article because they're not familiar with the terminology and to make any sense of the article, they have to frequently pause and look up terms and concepts. They contrast this experience with reading fiction which for the most part, they believe anyone can pick up a book and read it straight through. Maybe this assumption about fiction is incorrect. It is true that even though I have no background in English, I can still read through "The Canterbury Tales." Yet, as I do so, I am missing a lot of things which English majors would pick up on since I am not familiar with the intricate tools authors employ while writing. Authors of fiction use complex literary devices and motifs in the same way scientists splice complex scientific jargon and procedures into their articles but, their complex devices are much more subtle. Just because literary jargon is less noticeable, does that mean it is any less necessary for the understanding of the text? Perhaps the subtlety of literary jargon actually makes fiction harder to understand than a scientific article where the terms and concepts we don't comprehend jump out at as and demand that we look them up? Maybe we should try to read fiction in a non-linear fashion?

skindeep's picture

accessibilty of scientific articles

while i agree with your argument and have to admit that you've brought to light a side of scientific writing that many people (definitely myself included) tend to take for granted.

however, on the same note, the one problem i have with scientific writing is its accessibility - the jargon used makes it so that people outside the subject cannot fully understand or take away any message from the article unless they do a lot of extra background work to help them define terms and relate to what the article is talking about.

this problem became especially apparent to me while i was doing a research project for a psych class this past weekend - our project was catered towards helping a target audience, and we had to make sure that everything in the project, including article annotations was devoid of any psych jargon. it was only when i started doing this that i realized how easily some of the articles could become more accessible to a wider audience. and while i do know the value of having terms that are specific to the subject area and realize that it makes these article easier to read for professionals, i cant help but wonder if a large part of it is just to sound legitimate, and sound smart.

but with everything we know being so much more accessible now and with research and theories being easily available on the internet, i cant help but wonder if it would be easier to just have things written so that anybody who was interested could access it.

hlehman's picture

Finding a balance

 I understand what you mean about the frustration of academic writing and how difficult it seems for people to find the balance between trying too hard to relate to the general public vs. listing a complex discussion that only 3 people can actually understand. We discussed in class that there is a greater chance of community acceptance of “dry” science writing and it is selection pressures that cause people to take their abstracts in one direction or another, but I truly think there is a way to find a balance. First semester I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as our intro bio “textbook” but I was excited to see it was far from the dry science textbooks I used in high school. This book not only conveyed the important scientific information that we used to learn about cell biology and cancer in class, but we learned the interesting, exciting, background story of the woman behind it all. A few weeks into class I was also on the phone with my grandma and found out that she was actually reading the same book for her book club and was able to recount all of the scientific details and have a deep discussion about what she thought. I think that this is important because it shows authors don’t need to “dumb down” scientific writing, or take the easy way out by producing something dry and uninspired. I think that when it comes to publishing things on the internet we should still hold standards to our writing and not censor ourselves so anyone at any age can understand every detail. There is a way to be creative, write about science, and appeal to a large audience who will appreciate the writing for what it is, and I think that it is a realistic concept that is starting to catch on.

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