How to write consistently boring scientific literature

Danish biology professor Kaj Sand-Jensen has a new Oikos paper (2007 – 116: 723-727) which provides advice on How to write consistently boring scientific literature:

A Scandinavian professor has told me an interesting story. The first English manuscript prepared by one of his PhD students had been written in a personal style, slightly verbose but with a humoristic tone and thoughtful side-tracks. There was absolutely no chance, however, that it would meet the strict demands of brevity, clarity and impersonality of a standard article. With great difficulty, this student eventually learned the standard style of producing technical, boring and impersonal scientific writing, thus enabling him to write and defend his thesis successfully.

I recalled the irony in this story from many discussions with colleges, who have been forced to restrict their humor, satire and wisdom to the tyranny of jargon and impersonal style that dominates scientific writing. Personally, I have felt it increasingly difficult to consume the steeply growing number of hardly digestible original articles. It has been a great relief from time to time to read and write essays and books instead.

Because science ought to be fun and attractive, particularly when many months of hard work with grant applications, data collections and calculations are over and everything is ready for publishing the wonderful results, it is most unfortunate that the final reading and writing phases are so tiresome.

I have therefore tried to identify what characteristics make so much of our scientific writing unbearably boring, and I have come up with a top-10 list of recommendations for writing consistently boring publications.

  • Avoid focus
  • Avoid originality and personality
  • Write long contributions
  • Remove implications and speculations
  • Leave out illustrations
  • Omit necessary steps of reasoning
  • Use many abbreviations and terms
  • Suppress humor and flowery language
  • Degrade biology to statistics
  • Quote numerous papers for trivial statements

Via Erik Andersson.

3 thoughts on “How to write consistently boring scientific literature”

  1. I am currently in the process of writing a literature review for my thesis. Two months into the process, with one month left to go.
    My draft has gone from being a series of insights and ‘steps in reaasoning’ that anyone could understand and most would agree with, to something choking with references, terminology, diagrams and tables. I now need to read some sentences twice over before I understand them.

    Is all of this happening because I’m a bad writer?
    I don’t think so – At the very worst, I’m average, and I have been told I put things well.
    But the process itself detracts from my ability to keep a fixed focus on what I am trying to say.
    Maybe with practice, I will learn how to blend creativity, humour and clarity into these papers, rather than having lists of references many many pages long.

  2. Steve Shapin gives a nice discussion of this problem as it affects writing in history of science (much of what he says is generalizable) in a paper that models and describes an alternative style of writing in Isis: “Hyperprofessionalism and the Crisis of Readership in the History of Science.”

    The abstract:

    There is a crisis of readership for work in our field, as in many other academic disciplines. One of its causes is a pathological form of the professionalism that we so greatly value. “Hyperprofessionalism” is a disease whose symptoms include self-referentiality, self-absorption, and a narrowing of intellectual focus. This essay describes some features and consequences of hyperprofessionalism in the history of science and offers a modest suggestion for a possible cure.

  3. Prof. Kar Sand-Jensen is absolutely right: if we as scientists don’t improve our abilities to communicate with ourselves and others we will, like the UN become, obsolete dinosaurs, stuck in our own elitism and of little use to others.

    Our false pursuit of perfect precision, as echoed in our published works, is compromising our humility and modesty. If we don’t submit to our human limitations, nature and history will wipe us out – our studies in ecology show us that fate.

    I am writing my PhD thesis in Pakistan with inputs from Oxford University, and shall try to pass the thesis with as much subversion of the current conventions of scientific writing in human ecology (my field) as I possibly can! Wish me luck!

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