Why do scientists write so well?
Category: Society Published: December 19, 2014
From my experience, scientists do not write spectacularly well. As a peer reviewer of physics journal articles, and as a supervisor of student dissertations, I have often been shocked at the poor grammar, spelling, and formatting of scientists' manuscripts. Too often, my evaluation of a paper as a peer reviewer has effectively stated, "The science in this paper is solid, but the English is unacceptable. The following changes must be made before I can recommend this paper for publication..." Of course, this observation is a generalization. There are scientists who are amazing writers, and there are those who are failures. But, on average, scientists are not particularly amazing writers in my experience. Perhaps scientists are so interested in the actual science they are presenting, that they fail to devote much attention or energy to the quality of their writings. Or perhaps they are just human. In any case, the quality of the language matters. The purpose of a scientific paper is to convey information. If the language is poor, it will fail to properly convey the information, no matter how amazing the underlying experiment may have been. How can the writings of scientists seem so well constructed if scientists don't write particularly well? There are perhaps two reasons: peer review, and technical terms.
Peer review is used so that scientists do not publish bad science. When several people check the scientific results and derivations in a paper, the experimental mistakes, mathematical errors, and unjustified leaps in logic can be identified. While peer review is mostly used to weed out bad science, it also has the effect of weeding out bad writing. By the time a paper makes it into a journal and in front of the readers' eyes, it has typically been through two rounds of peer review. The first round is initiated by the author himself. Typically, the scientist puts together a paper he wants to publish and then has his collaborators and colleagues proof-read the paper. The author does this to ensure the paper is neither misrepresenting their contributions nor propagating bad science that may taint them by association. The second round of peer review is carried out by the journal. The journal selects a few anonymous reviewers that are scientists in the same field as the paper and forwards the submitted paper to the reviewers. After all the changes are made that the reviewers requested, the paper is published (assuming it contains research worth publishing). In each step along the way, a human reads the paper and identifies language mistakes that need to be corrected. In this way, the final product has far better language than a single scientist could produce.
The other effect that may lead you to think that scientists are good writers is the proper use of technical terms. In science, certain words and acronyms are given strict definitions and attached to complex concepts. This creation of a technical language that is specific to a field enables very rapid communication of very complicated ideas. For instance, instead of writing that, "the laser used that effect that happens when electromagnetic waves hit the interface between two materials and excite a quantized collective oscillation of electric charge on the surface that becomes self-sustaining through self-interacting electromagnetic fields," we can just say, "the laser used surface plasmons." When people who work in a certain technical field hear a phrase from their field, they immediately have a wealth of information conveyed to them. Simply learning a science gets you acquainted with the technical terms of that science and makes you able to use those terms, without you being a particularly good writer. In contrast, someone who has not really learned the science (but thinks he has) will use the technical terms incorrectly, or may even not use them at all. But a scientist who is educated in his field uses the technical terms correctly without much effort. For this reason, a paper written by a scientist looks like it contains advanced language, when it really just contains advanced science which has built-in shortcut phrases for complex ideas.
Here are some common English mistakes that I have seen scientists make (myself included) and that we would all do well to avoid:
- Mixing up "than" and "then". You should only use the word "than" if you are comparing objects (e.g. "the final mass was greater than the original mass"). In all other instances, use the word "then" (e.g. "if the solution has not converged, then perform another iteration").
- Mixing up "loose" and "lose". You should only use the word "loose" if you are describing how an object is not tight or not fixed, or how an object is becoming that way. In contrast, use the word "lose" to describe the act of not winning or the act of forfeiting ownership.
- Mixing up "farther" and "further". You should only use the word "farther" if you are talking about a physical distance, otherwise use "further".
- Placing double spaces between two words instead of a single space.
- Using inappropriate superlatives. The scientific results should speak for themselves if they are indeed so amazing. There is no place in a scientific paper for phrases such as, "These results are revolutionary!"
- Using run-on sentences. You should put different ideas in their own sentences.
- Using quotation marks for emphasis. You should instead italicize a word to show emphasis.
- Using "it's" to represent a possessive pronoun instead of "its". You should only use "it's" to mean "it is".
- Failing to capitalize proper names. Even if the word is being used to refer to an object in science, it should be capitalized if it came from a person's name, except for the special cases of units, particles, and elements (e.g. "Fourier transform", "Gaussian surface", "Coulomb's law", "20 watts", "boson").