The best writing in science papers: Part II

(Photo: Polyommatus bellargus (Lycaenidae), by Ettore Ballochi – CC BY-SA 3.0) Over 2 years ago now, over at the Tree of Life blog, Jonathan Eisen posted “The best writing in science papers: Part I”. I stumbled across that post and searched excitedly for Part II – only to discover there wasn’t one. So I wrote one (which Jonathan kindly let me guest-post there). It’s gotten a fair bit of attention, which is fun – so it’s time I posted it here.

I’m still titling it “Part II”. Jonathan’s Part I identified the butterfly-taxonomy papers of Vladimir Nabokov as containing flashes of beautiful writing, and I agree (although my favourite bits differ from his). But Jonathan wondered if picking Nabokov (an acclaimed novelist) was “a bit unfair” and he later told me he’d never done a Part II because other examples were too hard to find! Actually, other examples can be found, and not only in the papers of scientists who are also accomplished novelists. I collected a few in my recent paper “On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed”. For example, here is Nathaniel Mermin on a surprising result in quantum mechanics:

      “There are no physical grounds for insisting that [Alice] assign the same value to an observable for each mutually commuting trio it belongs to – a requirement that would indeed trivially make her job impossible. The manner in which the nine-observable BKS theorem brings Alice to grief is more subtle than that. It is buried deep inside the mathematics that underlies the construction that makes it possible, when it is possible, to do the VAA trick.”

Here is Bill Hamilton setting up a simulation model of antipredator defence via herding:

      “Imagine a circular lily pond. Imagine that the pond shelters a colony of frogs and a water-snake…Shortly before the snake is due to wake up all the frogs climb out onto the rim of the pond… [The snake] rears its head out of the water and surveys the disconsolate line sitting on the rim… and snatches the nearest one. Now suppose the frogs are given opportunity to move about on the rim before the snake appears, and suppose that initially they are dispersed in some rather random way. Knowing that the snake is about to appear, will all the frogs be content with their initial positions? No…and one can imagine a confused toing-and-froing in which [desirable positions] are as elusive as the croquet hoops in Alice’s game in Wonderland.”

And here is Harry Kroto describing the structure of C60 buckyballs:

   “An unusually beautiful (and probably unique) choice is the truncated icosohedron…All valences are satisfied with this structure, and the molecule appears to be aromatic. The structure has the symmetry of the icosahedral group. The inner and outer surfaces are covered with a sea of π electrons.”

Finally, read this by Matthew Rockman – too much, too good, to even excerpt here. So, “regular” scientific writers can achieve beauty, too (and please share your own favourite examples in the comments). But I’d have to agree with Jonathan that we don’t do so very often. Why not? I can think of three possibilities:

  • 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.

All of which makes me wonder: if we wanted to make beauty more common in scientific writing, how could we do that? Well, that could make for a really long post. I’ll mention a few thoughts; please leave your own in the comments.

First, we could write with small touches of beauty in our own papers. Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds, because most of aren’t trained or oriented that way. To oversimplify, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: most of us come from science backgrounds that lack a culture of beauty in writing. Perhaps we even came to science as refugees from the arts and humanities where beauty is more valued. That’s true for me, at least; and I know a fair bit about how to write functionally, but almost nothing about how to write beautifully. But if there’s a path to writing beauty, it probably starts in reading beauty, wherever it can be found. Nabokov? Sure… but also science blogs, lay essays and books about science and nature (for a start, sample the science writing of Rachel Carson, Lewis Thomas, Karen Olsson, Barbara Kingsolver, or John McPhee), and really, anything we can get our hands on. And when we read, we can be alert for language that sparkles, so as to cultivate an ear for beauty and to build a toolbox of techniques we can deploy in our own writing. (For some other thoughts on this, see Helen Sword’s book “Stylish Academic Writing”).

Second, and much easier, we could encourage beauty in the writing of others. As reviewers and editors, we could decide that style and beauty are not incompatible with scientific writing. We could resolve not to question touches of style, or unusual but beautiful ways of writing, in the work we are judging. Finally, we could publicly recognize beauty when we see it. We could announce our admiration of beautiful writing to the authors who produce it or to colleagues who might read it. What Jonathan and I have done with these posts is a small start on this, and I’ve promised myself I’ll praise wonderful writing whenever I can. Thinking bigger, though, 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.

As Jonathan and I both found, examples of beautiful scientific writing do seem to be unusual; and those that exist aren’t well known. I don’t think it has to be this way. We could choose to change our culture, a little at a time, to deliver (and to value) pleasure along with function in our scientific writing.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) Jan 16 2015; first appearance at phylogenomics.blogspot.ca


By the way: I became interested in beauty in scientific writing while working on The Scientist’s Guide to Writing,  my guidebook for scientific writers. You can learn more about it here.

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19 thoughts on “The best writing in science papers: Part II

  1. dusharauli

    I think a “beautiful” science writing is unnecessary luxury (meaning, for research articles). Just write it as simply as possible.
    Books are different. For me, for example, “The omnivore’s dilemma” by Michael Pollan, has the best scientific language.
    Still, beauty is in simplicity. Why is E=MC2 formula so popular and “beautiful”? Because it is so simple to remember, even though 99.99999% of humans, including myself, have no idea about physics or mathematics behind it.
    No one would deny that “beautiful” writing, whatever it may mean, is good, of course. The problem is that “beauty” is a subjective idea and not a constant property. We need to look for “strategies” that are objective.
    Looking for “simplicity” in science writing is easier “strategy” rather than looking for “beauty”. However, reduction of complex topics into simple concepts would require deep subject knowledge.
    So, logically speaking, “beautiful” writing flows naturally from the minds with the deep knowledge of the subjects. Its as simple as that.
    The idea that there are great scientists with poor communication skills is a total fabrication. What is real, however, is that there are lots of poor scientists. Poor scientists would communicate poorly due to lack of deep knowledge. Its all.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      [The following reply is from an anonymous commenter. I did not approve the reply because it included disrespectful (to dusharuali) language. Disagreement (with me or with commenters) is encouraged; rudeness is not! The substance of the reply, though, is as follows – SH.]

      Beautiful writing, by your definition, is simple. You reference a mathematical formula to explain how simple writing should be. The problem arises when you try to apply this to fuzzy concepts such as questions in ecology. There you are commonly dealing with complicated ideas that require some explaining. The simplest explanation will by definition require a simplification or summarizing of the background. This can make it very difficult to understand. Though “simple”, it doesn’t give understanding. Use of metaphor (carefully!) or humour can help keep bored attentions focused, or give insight into otherwise dense ideas. We pursue ideas because we are interested in them. If some “beauty” in the writing can help hold or increase our interest, then it has achieved the goal of conveying the information in the paper to the reader.

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  2. barry goldman

    there’s journalism and then there’s poetry. now, i love a rich and beautiful poem as much as the next guy, but when i’m reading journalism, it’s because i’m in a hurry and i want the info NOW, without getting bogged down in the writers dense artistry. when i’m relaexed and have time to luxoriate i’ll read a poem. I get fed up with a lot of newpaper writing and pop jnl articles with authors getting all literary and cutesy when all i want is the infos now with minimal waste of time. argghh

    I suppose there are levels to beautiful writing. There can be beautiful and ELEGANT (often meaning sleek) writintg but then there is writing where the author gets carried away with his own artistry. Now i can enjoy that kind of wrting when i’m in the mood for writers’ artistry, but not when i primarily want to absorb information so that i can produce my OWN artistry out of it.

    In science writing… i suppose a research article is like journalsim. the artistry is in cleverness of setting up th eexperiment well and interpreting it. I wouldn’t mind research articles elegantly written nor an occasional flash of literary artistry, but i’d be annoyed if the literary artistry got in the way of me getting to the data.

    There are plenty of opportinities for science writers to combine their scientifc art with their literary art, and i can enjoy those. John Janovy Jr.’s writing comes to mind i.e. “yellowlegs”

    Usually, if the sceince writer is explaining things (and i certainly don’t mind GOOD writing aas oppsed to poor and unclear writing) well, and if he’s chosen cool things to write about, the ideas themselves are satisfying enough to me and sometimes even orgasmic, that i don’t need extra literary artistry.

    so it’s a complicated issue.

    I certainly thinnk there can be a lot less BAD science writing, by which i mean the writing is not clear, not vivid, metaphores chosen are not helpful, etc…

    I think a science writer has to have strokes of genius to successfully mix literary artistry with mindblowing science communication. like, say, Hofstadter’s Goedel Escher Bach, or i recall “why big feirce animals are rare” or Margulis’ “5 kingdoms”

    we definitely need better popular science communication!

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  4. Peter Apps

    Certainly, writing that is beautiful takes more effort and skill than writing that is purely workmanlike. Paradoxically, the same can be said of the ugly, turgid, convoluted text that most scientists adopt as their default style when publishing their findings. They put effort into using big words instead of little ones, three words when one would do, and sentence constructions that take multiple readings to disentangle. Why ?, presumably because they think that is how you have to write to be taken seriously as a scientist.

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  5. baskin2013

    With few exceptions, scientists are not trained to write ‘science’. Intead they learn by imitiation. This is paradoxical because what most of us do all day long is write. And problematic because the models are poor and the endless cycle of imitation makes things worse and worse. My feeling is that rather than beauty, the focus needs to be clarity. Write so your words can be understood. Introduce whimsy, beauty, ehgo as a way to enhance understanding (in my view it can do so). Also, we need to ditch the idea that writing ‘popular’ science is different from writing ‘regular’ science. The audiences are different but the mechanics of writing are the same. It is not helpful to demand clarity in writing for lay readers and yet accept turgidity when writing for scientists.
    Finally, in the spirit of the selfie culture, I will nominate a recent article of mine as an example of science writing, hardly beautiful, but at least coherent. It’s open access and just one page (smile). http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jipb.12107/abstract

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Tobias – I agree completely with you – the _focus_ certainly does need to be clarify. The interesting question, though, is whether adding touches of whimsy or beauty need be antithetical to that, or whether it might sometimes help (as you suggest). Thanks for commenting!

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