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Can science journals have beautiful prose?

5331998702_2e6ab9e5e8_zScientific journals are not known for being scintillating or inspiring reading. But could they be? A recent article in Nature elaborated on an online discussion started by Stephen Heard, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick.

In a guest post on the Tree of Life science blog, Heard argued that snappier, livelier writing could attract and retain more readers. "Style and beauty are not incompatible with scientific writing," he wrote. Papers could appeal to undergraduates, science writers, politicians, and the public.

But is a journal really an appropriate outlet for such writing? Blogs and commentaries might be better mediums for creativity and literary flair, as research articles often must adhere to a more rigid format and provide detailed descriptions of materials, methods and results. Participants in the online discussion have pointed out that clarity and order have a beauty in themselves, the inexorable logic on display in the progression from hypothesis to data to results. Others worried that stylishness would make science research less accessible to non-native speakers of English. Some mentioned (and critiqued) the conventional idea that whimsy and humor cover up flawed science and detract from clarity. And many others praised the idea of incorporating pleasure along with function.

In the original piece, Heard suggested three reasons scientists don't write beautifully more often:

It could be that writing beautifully in scientific papers is a bad idea, and we know it. Perhaps readers don’t respect scientists who resist the conventional turgidity of our writing form. I don’t think this is true, although I’m aware of no formal analysis.

Or it could be that beauty is a good idea, but well-meaning reviewers and editors squash it. In my paper I argue that beauty (like humour) can recruit readers to a paper and retain them as they read; but that reviewers and editors tend to resist its use. But again, there’s no formal analysis, so I was forced to make both halves of that argument via anecdote.

Or it could be we just don’t have a culture of appreciating, and working to produce, beauty in our writing. I think this is most of the explanation: it’s not that we are opposed to beauty as much as it doesn’t occur to us that scientific writing could aspire to it.

He sees three ways this could change: scientists can add some whimsy to their own writing, leave it in others' writing when editing, and praise it when they see it. He exclaims:

Wouldn’t it be great if there was an award for the best scientific writing of the year? I don’t mean the best science – we have plenty of awards for that – but the best writing to appear in our primary literature. Such awards exist for lay science writing; if one existed for technical writing I’d be thrilled to make nominations and I’d volunteer to judge.

Heard keeps his own science blog, Scientist Sees Squirrel.

Photo by Ashley Campbell

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