Your paper is not a Wikipedia article

Scientists don’t agree on all that much, but we agree that it simply isn’t possible to “keep up with the literature”. Our scientific literature is such a torrential firehose that there’s just no way. And if we’re aware of that as readers, you’d think that as writers we’d be taking special pains to be concise. Well, maybe you’d think that. Or maybe you’d think instead that we’d just like everyone else to be concise.

That last sentence was a little tiny rant, I know. It’s brought to you by several manuscripts I’ve seen lately and by their interesting common feature: they seemed to be constructed not as scientific papers, but as Wikipedia articles. They tried to be encyclopedic founts of information on every aspect of a problem, rather than telling a focused story that raises and then answers an important scientific question.* Here are some of the ways our manuscripts catch Wikipedia disease:

  • Comprehensive literature reviews in the Introduction. Not just enough to situate the work in the field and demonstrate the knowledge gap they intend to fill – but attempting to summarize and cite every paper that’s relevant, or even tangentially connected, to the work.
  • Encyclopedic description of the study system in the Methods. If you did a study on the interaction of a plant with its leaf-chewing beetles, a paragraph outlining the plant’s flowing phenology, pollination biology, and seed-dispersal strategy isn’t something your reader needs.
  • Methods presented in the kind of detail required for someone to exactly replicate the work. Yes, I know it’s shocking that I wouldn’t think that’s necessary; but 99.99% of your readers aren’t there to repeat your work. If you’re philosophically committed to the idea of replicable science, put those details in an online supplement where most readers can conveniently ignore them. (And see this piece, about the 450-year history of replicability and authority in science.)
  • Variables, samples, and measurements reported in the Methods but never analyzed or discussed. Yes, I know it was a lot of work to catch your fish, so while you had them in hand you measured eighteen morphological variables and seven blood-chemistry ones. But if answering your research question didn’t involve analyzing those data, they don’t belong in your paper.
  • Three possible explanations in the Discussion for every single result. Folks often think they’re supposed to “discuss their results”. But that’s not right, or particularly useful. Instead, discuss the ways the results answer the research question. You don’t need to recapitulate every thing that happened or every data pattern you noticed – just the ones that weigh for or against the hypothesis you’re testing.

I’m sure you can think of some more common offenders – please use the Replies!

Why does this happen? I think there are (at least) three important drivers.

First, it’s unusual for scientific writing to be taught in depth, or well.** Instead, it’s often taught through undergraduate labs, with dubious advice like “write like what you see in the literature” and “write so the reader could repeat exactly what you did”. And students may think (probably correctly) that there’s more grading risk to leaving information out than there is to putting extra information in.

Second, there’s perfectly normal human psychology: it was an enormous amount of effort to measure that variable, dig up that citation, or run that analysis – so darn it, I’m going to put it in the paper. We all feel that urge!

Third, there’s some understandable confusion, at least for early career writers, about the purpose of writing. As a graduate student, you’re writing (or, you wrote) for two reasons: to communicate information, and to communicate your knowledge of information. This is especially true of the thesis – which exists partly to communicate newly discovered knowledge, but also to communicate the case for awarding a credential that recognizes mastery of existing knowledge. Scientific papers don’t have that latter function. Yes, you have to demonstrate that you’re aware of crucial literature background or the most appropriate approaches to statistical analysis; but only so as to support your approach to the narrow research question – not your standing as an authority in the broader field.

So, scientific writers, please let Wikipedia be Wikipedia; and let papers be papers. Your readers will thank you.

© Stephen Heard  September 21, 2021


*^This is actually just one of two ways a manuscript might be too long: a matter of too much content. It’s also possible (and extremely common!) for a manuscript to use more text than needed to communicate a given amount of content. I explore this distinction, with recommendations for each case, in Chapter 20 of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.

**^You’d probably expect me to have strong feelings on this. You’d probably expect me to link to my book again, or to the syllabus for my own scientific writing course. But that would be terribly gauche, and I’m not going to… oh, OK, since you’re insisting. The book. The syllabus.

 

Taxonomy as activism

Once upon a time, the Latin names of species were always descriptive (and always in Latin, for that matter, which they needn’t be now.). That system didn’t work very well*, and in the mid-18th century Linnaeus invented our modern system of binomial nomenclature. It’s surprising how many folks don’t realize that, arguably, the most important feature of this system was that it allowed names to be constructed in ways other than description: a species name could now refer to geography (Betula alleghaniensis) or habitat (Abudefduf saxatilis), recognize a person (Heteropoda davidbowie), or could even be a joke (Ytu brutus).**

Linnaeus also gave us the ability to use species names as activism. I’m not suggesting that he had this in mind, and I don’t know that he ever did it himself – the examples I know all come from the last 30 years or so. So most likely it’s an unintended consequence; but it’s a fascinating one. Continue reading

Farewell (sort of) to Dynamic Ecology

Yesterday, the wonderful bloggers at Dynamic Ecology announced that they were hanging up their collective hat. Well, mostly; Dynamic Ecology will no longer have regular posts, but all its content will remain available and new posts may appear from time to time. (I hope!)

I want to take a moment to acknowledge just how good Dynamic Ecology was, and for how long. In part, that’s about content. There are so many posts on Dynamic Ecology that one could (one should!) keep going back to. Continue reading

Weird things scientists believe: that paying reviewers won’t cost us

Warning: a little ranty.

I’m fascinated by the weird things some scientists believe, in the face of what seems to me common sense and obvious constraints. There are many examples (like the common disdain for “nearly significant”), but the one I’ve chosen to offend people with today is a surprisingly common belief: that we could have journals pay their peer reviewers out of their profit margins without additional cost to authors. I see this claim frequently, most often on Twitter (although I’m not going to link to any particular exemplar, because the claim is too common to make it sensible to dunk on any one individual).

To get one thing out of the way immediately: I’m talking here about the notion that a journal could pay its reviewers. Continue reading

Music Mondays: By Endurance We Conquer

Once more, it’s Music Monday!

Today: the somewhat weird relationship between exploration, daredevilry, and science.

This is By Endurance We Conquer, the opening track from Science From an Easy Chair (the 2015 album from Have Gun, Will Travel).

The album tells the story of the 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Continue reading

Leadership lessons from the vaccination-mandate fiasco

My university, like dozens of others, has egg on its face this month. It’s unnecessary egg; and the egg (of course) isn’t the worst problem. All this has to do with the Covid-19 vaccination mandate we recently announced for our faculty, staff, and students – far too late, and after an embarrassing amount of foot-dragging and denial. It was an abject lesson in how to lead a university poorly. What’s interesting is that just about every university in Canada has experienced the same leadership failure (and as I write this, some are still experiencing it). That much concerted poor leadership suggests that there are general lessons to be learned. Continue reading

Music Mondays: Strangeness and Charm

Once more, it’s Music Monday!

Today: particle physics, from Florence and the Machine. Strangeness and Charm is a bonus track from the band’s first album, Lungs.

Strangeness and charm are also two of the six flavours of quarks in the standard model of particle physics; quarks occur tightly bound together to make up the subatomic particles that in turn make up matter in the universe. In the song, the quarks are a metaphor for attraction:

Hydrogen in our veins, it cannot hold itself, our blood is burning
And the pressure in our bodies that echoes up above, it is exploding
And our particles, they’re burning up
Because they yearn for each other
And although we stick together
It seems that we are stranging one another

There’s some artistic license here, as it’s up and down quarks that make up most everyday matter (neutrons and protons); strange and charm quarks are involved in more exotic particles like kaons and D mesons. In particular, a strange quark and a charm quark together make up a particle called a strange D meson, and that particle has a mean lifetime of about 5 x 10-13 seconds. So, those quarks can stick together – just not for very long. But Upness and Down wouldn’t have been a very good song title, I don’t want to make the mustard seed mistake, and I like the metaphor at a more general level.

And now for this week’s I-just-like-it bonus: Amy Millan, from her fabulous 2006 album Honey From the Tombs. This is Baby I:

There’s one week left of summer – or at least, I’ll define it that way, since my fall semester starts after Labour Day. So, I’ll see you next week for one last installment of Music Mondays.

© Stephen Heard  August 30, 2021

Image: Standard model of particle physics, public domain via Wikimedia.org.

Why are scientific frauds so obvious?

This post was sparked by an interesting e-mail exchange with Jeremy Fox, over at Dynamic Ecology. We’d both come across the same announcement of a (very likely) case of research fraud, and had some similar reactions to it. We both knew there was a blog post in it! We agreed to post at the same time, but not to share draft posts. My prediction: we agree on some parts, not on others; but Jeremy’s post is better.

Behavioural economics got a bit of a black eye last week with the revelation that a major study by some very prominent authors is, virtually certainly, based on fraudulent data. What’s really astonishing, if you read that post (and you should) is that the fraud was so stunningly obvious with even a rather shallow dive into the data. Just to pick one thing, a treatment effect in the paper seems to have been generated by taking one variable, and adding to it a random number pulled from a uniform distribution bounded by 0 and 50,000. (Seriously, read the post.) This is such an implausible distribution for a real experimental effect that, once it’s been noticed, it’s about the most flagrant red flag you could imagine.

It’s not just this paper, though. Continue reading

Music Mondays: Lonesome Friends of Science

Once more, it’s Music Monday!

Today: astronomy, but also wildlife biology, and a little different perspective on science from John Prine.

John Prine was an absolutely wonderful singer-songwriter. He wrote so many fantastic songs over a long career, and his last album, Tree of Forgiveness, was among his best. But I don’t quite know what to think of Lonesome Friends of Science: Continue reading

Tricks for reading and correcting proofs

Some parts of a writing project are exhilarating; some parts (at least for me) are grueling; and some are stubbornly perplexing.  One part is important but very, very tedious, and I’m deep in that part now:* checking proofs. Fortunately, there are some tricks to make dealing with proofs easier.

In case you haven’t yet had the pleasure: the “proof” is the all-but-final version of your piece of writing, typeset exactly as it will appear in the journal (or as a published book, or whatever). “Checking” proof means what it sounds like: going through the proof in search of any errors or other problems introduced during the typesetting process – or the (hopefully rare!) errors that have snuck through revision and copy-editing undetected.**

Checking proof is mind-numbingly boring, and it’s hard to do effectively. Continue reading