Do scientists want beauty? Or, why I wrote my weirdest paper ever

Last summer I published the weirdest paper of my career. It’s called “On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed?”, and it asks whether humour and beauty are possible, and advisable, in scientific writing. (If this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because I mentioned it here). I want to explain how I came to write and publish the paper. This is not entirely self-indulgent: I think story reveals some interesting things about us as scientists and about our publishing system. Bear with me and I’ll get to that.

I became interested in humour and beauty in scientific writing while working on my guidebook for scientific writers (Princeton University Press, Spring 2016; details here). Here’s how that happened.

One major theme of my book is that the scientific writer’s most important goal is to produce writing that’s crystal-clear and thus effortless to read. In fact, nearly every linguistic and structural convention we use in our writing – from punctuation to our IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) structure – exists only because it helps us achieve that goal. This is hardly a novel message: a long line of writers on rhetoric have argued for clarity, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, who put it this way: “The greatest possible merit of style is…to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought”.

But after writing 28 chapters hammering away at clear writing, I found myself wondering if I was missing something. Does this obsession with function leave us with text that’s clear but artless and dull? Or is it possible for scientific writers to offer their readers some pleasure along with functional text? And might this be a good idea?

I eventually decided “yes” and “yes”, and wrote up my thoughts to be the last chapter of the book. My editor was skeptical – and to be honest, so was I. With some trepidation, I included a segment on humour and beauty in a couple of department seminars I gave about scientific writing. My audiences seemed interested, and so were a few friends who read drafts of the book chapter. Next, I found myself registering for a conference (Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, 2014) and realizing that all “my” real research was being presented by the graduate students who actually do it. So I gulped and registered a talk called “On Beauty in Scientific Writing”.

I wasn’t a bit surprised to see my talk shoehorned into one of those “miscellaneous” sessions every conference has. I was a bit surprised to discover the session was in the venue’s largest room. I was even more surprised, when my time slot came around, to see the room full – closer to 200 people than the half-dozen I expected. Afterwards, people didn’t seem to be shunning me out of embarrassment, and quite a few even sought me out to chat – some even suggesting their own favourite examples of humour and beauty in scientific papers.

Also attending that conference was Lonnie Aarsen, editor-in-chief of Ideas in Ecology and Evolution, a really interesting journal that doesn’t shy from the unconventional. I rather tentatively suggested that I submit a paper based on the talk, and Lonnie agreed to consider such a submission. The reviewers didn’t hate it, and so the weirdest paper of my career was born.

I promised some insight into science culture from all this, and here it is. Scientific writing has a reputation (not entirely undeserved) for being turgid and tedious. But if our literature is tedious, we ourselves must be making it so. As writers, we tend to conform to the expectations we believe shape scientific publication. This means offering prose that’s functional but dull, and avoiding (whether consciously or unconsciously) opportunities to add touches of whimsy, humour, and beauty – because we think reviewers and editors will push back against them. As reviewers and editors, we tend to prove our writing selves right by supplying that pushback.

So there’s a paradox here: reaction to my talks about this suggests that we wish our literature included more humour and beauty – but we’re the very ones making sure that it doesn’t. Furthermore, we don’t even seem to talk about the possibility. At least, I’d never been part of such a conversation, or even overhead one, before I started instigating them. But what I’ve found out is that a lot of scientists want to talk about it: they like to share their favourite examples of humour and beauty in the literature, and they wish there were more.

Here’s how I’ve come to conceptualize this. Each of us is convinced that everyone else thinks our literature should be tedious. Therefore, those few people who actually do think so are able to speak loudly, while the majority who disagree do so silently. By broaching the topic in my weird talks and my weird paper, I think I was somehow giving people permission to say things they wanted to say but were sure they shouldn’t – to reveal their secret appetites for better writing in our literature.

So if you share that secret appetite, the good news is that you needn’t stay silent – you’ll likely find, as I have, that more people share your appetite than disapprove of it. In fact, breaking that silence is part of my paper’s prescription for (modest) change in our literature and in our publishing culture. We aren’t going to suddenly start writing papers as sonnets or comic operettas – and we shouldn’t! But in writing my weird paper, I discovered that there’s more interest out there than I thought in changing our culture to produce, and value, some humour and beauty in our scientific writing.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) April 14, 2015

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22 thoughts on “Do scientists want beauty? Or, why I wrote my weirdest paper ever

  1. Manu Saunders

    Scientific writing hasn’t always been tedious, which is kind of proof that we have ‘made’ it so! Many scientific papers published pre-1970 are a delight to read. But writing, literature & language are rarely an integral part of a science education today.

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  2. Axel Hochkirch

    For most non-native English speaking scientists, it is much easier to write something tedious. I am for example German and it even takes me much longer to write a tedious manuscript in English than in German (actually I even had to look up for the word “tedious” when reading this). I sometimes tried to get some humorous parts in papers (usually the title), but usually these were rejected by the reviewers or editors… But I also agree with Manu. I know a couple of older papers, which are quite delightful. In a faunistic paper on Orthoptera from Turkey, the author explained on a complete page, how long it took him to catch a well-flying Oedipodinae.

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    1. English only speaker

      This is such a great point! Clever / humorous / literary writing really makes it hard for an international audience. Keep to the science and results, or try submit your paper to a mandarin only journal.

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  3. jeffollerton

    Following up on Manu’s comment, Stephen, during the research for your book did you get any sense of when, and more importantly why, it became less acceptable to write in the first person? Much of the older literature is quite personal in tone but that became less acceptable over time, until third-person writing was considered the scientific norm. Why did that happen?

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Jeff – I did indeed. In the 17th and 18th centuries, first-person was the rule, and this was deliberate (and connected to the practice of “virtual witnessing” I discussed at http://wp.me/p5x2kS-1M. During the late 19th century, though, the reasons a scientific finding had authority began to shift as part of the professionalization of science. It became important that a writer was a scientific professional, with a degree and an institutional appointment, etc. This came along with an emphasis on professional objectivity – Daston and Gullison (2007; Objectivity. Zone Books, New York, NY) talk about “knowledge with no trace of the knower”. The passive voice lets you suppress any mention of the person who did the work, and scientists thought this made the prose sound more objective. This thinking really took off into the 20th century, and as you know, we’re still teaching undergrads to write this way! Fortunately, opinion is shifting back; nowadays, most writing guides (including mine!) counsel the active voice, and most editors and journals prefer it.

      A much more extensive discussion of all this is in Gross et al. (2002; Communicating science: the scientific article from the 17th century to the present. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK).

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  5. Macrobe

    As a scientist (retired) and free-lance writer, I welcome your post and applaud your not-weird-at-all paper! In fact, it would be required reading by undergrad and graduate students in my lab. Also, an excellent candidate for journal club reading and discussion. Thank you for pointing out the obvious.
    Communication is not a strong point in the science community, and thus a serious contribution to the wide chasm between science and non-scientists.
    Let’s welcome back the first-person so people can see that we are all a part of discovery, interpretation, and reporting!

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  6. coogeesimon

    My pretty brilliant son is about to embark on a career in science and I know that writing, with or without humour, is of concern to him. Your posts are very helpful and,actually, reassuring in that there are issues but they are being, if not directly addressed, certainly questioned.

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