Photos: Chlorocypha aurora (male; above), and Pseudagrion tanganyicum (male, below) © Jens Kipping, used by permission. These are two of the 60 beautiful new species described in Dijkstra et al.
Social media (notably Jeff Ollerton’s blog) brought a wonderful paper to my attention last week: Sixty new dragonfly and damselfly species from Africa, by Klaas-Douwe Dijkstra, Jens Kipping, and Nicolas Mézière. If you’re an entomologist or a biodiversity scientist, you’ll be excited by the news of so many new species in a group we think of as well-known. But even if you (horrors!) don’t care a whit about African dragonflies, you should download and read* this paper for what it demonstrates about language and style in scientific writing.
Actually, there are two language-and-style points I want to pick up on: etymologies in scientific naming; and beauty in scientific writing.
Naming first. I’ve been fascinated by “Latin” (scientific) names and their etymologies for a while (see this series of posts). Latin names can have rhythm, can celebrate an organism’s beauty, can reference fascinating backstories of discoveries and discovers, and much more. The new African odonates include some wonderful examples. There’s Umma gumma, for the Pink Floyd album**. There’s Malgassophlebia andzaba, with its Batéké-dialect reminder that Latin names need not be Latin (“andzaba” means “red water”, for the tint of the dragonfly’s native streams). There’s Eleuthemis eogaster, the “dawn belly” Eleuthemis, which is poetic in both Latin and English. And perhaps best of all, there’s Pseudagrion pacale, for “peace”, named in hope and in contrast with the recently bloody history of the area it inhabits. These, and more, reward those of us who like to think of Latin names as having stories to tell.
Now, on to beauty in writing. Our literature has a reputation for being turgid and dull. Much of it deserves that reputation, and in fact we tend to normalize, and even enforce, the writing behaviour that’s responsible. I think this is a shame: in fact, there’s no reason that the text of a scientific paper can’t include stylistic elements of grace and beauty (I’ve collected some examples here and here). Dijkstra et al. are to be praised for writing with style and flair (and Odonatologica’s editors are to be commended for allowing them to).
The bulk of Dijkstra et al.’s paper consists of technical species descriptions, range notes, and so on, and here the writing is admirably clear and functional, technical enough for precision but not laden with unnecessary jargon. The paper begins, though, with an Introduction that comments on things like patterns in biodiversity, the importance of taxonomy to conservation, the value of natural history and collections, and connections between naming and human society. Here the writing is often lyrical. A few sentences that caught my attention:
Flying over sunny crystal-clear streams in Gabon, the sleek Goldsmith Threadtail (Elattoneura aurifex) and slight Nugget Sprite (Pseudagrion aureolum) glimmer like gold.
Like birds, males impress mates and rivals with colour, none more so than the jewels with their frantic aerial dances: the Dawn, Flame, Great and Garnet Jewels (Chlorocypha aurora, C. flammea, C. maxima and C. granata) are each a different shade of red.
Lurking motionless in the gloom by rainforest falls, its larvae clinging to the rocks in the gushing water, the Black Relic (Pentaphlebia mangana) is as dark as the manganese ore that is mined within its Gabonese range.
The hooktails Paragomphus cammaertsi, P. clausnitzerorum, P. darwalli, P. lemperti and a slew of other species honour those who deserve it most: the taxonomists and facilitators that ensure (often as volunteers) that the world can at least be aware of these species and their fates.
This isn’t your typical scientific writing. Perhaps we don’t want every paper to read like this all the way through, but I don’t understand why we try so hard to stamp out all traces of style and individuality in our literature. I don’t think I’m imagining the opprobium: many of us can tell stories about jokes or metaphors or turns of phrase that didn’t survive the gauntlet of review and publication.
It’s possible that you think the sentences I admire are too florid. Style is a bit individual: some people really do like Hemingway. But here’s what I think is interesting about that: as scientists, when we write with style, we worry that some readers will find us too flashy. When we write conventionally, we seldom have the corresponding worry that some readers will find us too dull. Why do we privilege one worry over the other?
I’ve been praising the paper, but I can’t let one clunker – one really, really unfortunate bit of phrasing – pass without comment. In the very first sentence, we are told that “Man knows just one fifth of the nine million species of animal, plant, fungus and protist thought to inhabit our planet” (emphasis added). Really? “Man”? In 2015? Now, it’s a single noninclusive word and most likely a slip of the pen – and none of us would want to be judged by the single word we most wish we hadn’t written. But there’s a lesson here: we should pay attention to language and what it suggests, because slips like this can, unfortunately, influence the way people think about scientists and our scientific enterprise.
One clunker aside, though, I enjoyed this paper as much as anything I’ve read in a long time. Because I did, it will stick with me, and that means its writing has enhanced its impact. Kudos to Dijkstra, Kipping, and Mézière for giving us pleasure in their writing as well as in their new odonates. Let’s do more of this.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) December 17, 2015
- The best writing in scientific papers
- Do scientists want beauty? (on our attitude to writing with style)
- On jargon, both good and bad
- The most recent in my Wonderful Scientific Names series
*Well, maybe “dip into” rather than “read”. It’s 236 pages long and the number of people who have read every word may never crack triple digits. But read the Introduction, and then sample at least a few random pages of the body.
**Far from my favourite Pink Floyd album, but how could you not love a song called “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict“?