Are there really “only so many ways to write the Methods”?

Image: Gustav Flaubert, portrait by Eugène Giraud (1806-1881), via Public domain.  I bet you’re wondering why he’s relevant. All in good time…

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an old chestnut: whether you can, or should, reuse blocks of text when you write a new Methods section describing methods you’ve already published.  My suggestion that you generally can’t, and that often when you can you shouldn’t, raised a predictable number of people to a high dudgeon.  I won’t rehash that here, except for one objection that’s both common and interesting.  It’s this: the claim that “there are only so many ways you can write we prepared a one molar solution of KNO3*”.

This claim achieves an interesting trifecta:  it’s simultaneously irrelevant, false, and important.

First, it’s irrelevant. I don’t think (am I wrong?) anyone’s been arguing that you can’t reuse a single, simple sentence between one Methods section and the next.  The COPE guidelines, for example, recommend that journals allow such limited reuse; and whether it would constitute a copyright violation worthy of anybody’s time seems doubtful to me**.  The real issue, of course, is something else: it’s whether you can reuse whole blocks of text – paragraph-length descriptions of entire protocols and the like. Reducing the issue to reuse of a single simple sentence is, one assumes, an attempt to reduce it to one with an obvious answer.  And it has an obvious answer – just not the one we’re supposed to infer.  Which brings us to…

Second, it’s false.  English is a very flexible language.  There are plenty of ways to write we prepared a one molar solution of KNO3.  Here are five more:

  • We made a one molar potassium nitrate solution
  • We dissolved one mole (101g) of KNO3 in one litre of H20
  • We mixed KNO3 in water to produce a 1 M solution
  • We mixed potassium nitrate solution to one molar concentration
  • A one molar solution of potassium nitrate was prepared

That makes six alternatives, and if they aren’t all beautiful, consider that I spent less than three minutes crafting them.  They certainly don’t exhaust the possibilities.  Actually, there are many, many more possibilities if we’re allowed to back up a little and work with a bigger block of text, but my point here is that even with the strict constraint of sticking to a single simple sentence, it’s easy to rewrite.

Third, it’s important.  Not, I grant you, in the context of reuse vs. rewriting of Methods: if you object that my KNO3 rearrangements are rather trivial, I agree entirely.  I’m not arguing that picking a different one in each paper will make your writing better – only that, if you need to rewrite, it isn’t hard***.  But the only-so-many-ways claim is important in a broader sense, as a cause of considerable trouble for many scientific writers.  Many writers (especially early-career writers) are convinced that there’s only perfect way to write a passage.  Paralyzed by the fear that they haven’t found it, they don’t write anything at all – laying the problem to “writer’s block”.  Or, nearly as bad, they dither endlessly making minor edits rather than forging ahead and completing a draft they can polish later.

Which brings me, at last, to the owner of the fabulous moustache above this post.  Gustav Flaubert was a French novelist (1821-1880) who wrote Madame Bovary and a handful – but only a handful – of other novels.  Flaubert famously laboured to find le seul mot juste, “the only perfect word”.  He was legendarily slow both to compose and to edit, once taking three days (of mental agony) to make two small corrections to a draft.

Flaubert is revered as a great writer, but I wouldn’t propose him as a role model, because he was wrong about le seul mot juste.  There isn’t (usually) a single perfect word, or a single perfect phrase, or a single perfect sentence.  There are nearly always several good ways to write something (to be fair, there are always more-than-several bad ways, too).  Imagine how much more of Flaubert’s work we could have enjoyed, had he spent a little less time paralyzed by the quest for imagined perfection.  Imagine how many more papers I could have published**** had I understood earlier that le seul mot juste is a myth.

Any one of several ways to write “we prepared a one molar solution of KNO3” will do, as long as it’s clear.  That’s trivial, as a matter of rewriting instead of reusing Methods.  It’s profound, as a key to the craft of writing.

© Stephen Heard  April 17, 2018

The third part of this post is based on my treatment of writer’s block and of “bashers”, “swoopers”, and “draggers” in  The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (my guidebook for scientific writers).

*^The example here is taken directly from at least three different instances of this objection, varying only in the identity of the solute and the concentration of the solution.  (I’m not sure why this particular kind of methodological step is the go-to one.)  The phrase “only so many” seems to be a constant.

**^Usual warning: I am not a copyright lawyer, and copyright law varies across jurisdictions.  This brief bit from the US Copyright Office is about recipes, but seems relevant.

***^When the bits of text are bigger, then rewriting often does make your writing better, because each paper will likely call for inclusion or emphasis of different details (full argument in the original post).  The focus on rewriting a single simple sentence manoeuvres around this by defining which details matter right into the question – a nice rhetorical trick, but an unhelpful one.

****^Or, more realistically and more healthily: how many more walks I could have taken or books I could have read or curling bonspiels I could have entered, while writing the same number of papers more quickly and easily.

15 thoughts on “Are there really “only so many ways to write the Methods”?

  1. Schinia honesta

    Regarding the Flaubert part, I could not agree more. I have been using that same analogy first to teach me (during my Ph.D. and still these days when I tend to “go Flaubert” as I say) and then to convince my collaborators to forget about perfection, especially for a draft. Seems like it is more widespread than I thought, nice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Do you really have to rewrite your Methods for every new paper? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  3. James

    You’ve convinced me that we should always try to rewrite our methods each time. But what should the consequences be for people who have recycled chunks of text from their methods sections before? Journals don’t seem particularly interested in enforcing copyrights, many journals don’t have explicit policies prohibiting it (at least not in my field), and while COPE guidelines frown a bit on text recycling, they aren’t exactly a call-to-arms against recycling methods sections. Do you think recycled text in methods sections warrants retraction, a correction, or an email from the editor saying, “Don’t do it again?” Or is it more of a matter of changing disciplinary culture over time?


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      You know, that’s a good question, and one I honestly haven’t thought much about. I can’t imagine it being a retraction unless that were for legal reasons (e.g., if the first publisher threatened a copyright action). And I can’t see the point of a correction, can you? Which leaves eyerolling and regret that “that could have been better”, to little effect. Maybe that’s OK – there are a lot of published papers out there that could have been better 🙂


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  5. ICC

    Thank you for this! I’ve lost track of how many time I’ve tried to articulate this type of argument in blog comments, to students and to colleagues; few agree with me. But, as you clearly explain, some logical reasoning leads us to the conclusion that there is no intrinsic, undeniable need to large-scale copy & paste papers.


  6. Adonis

    Can you provide 50 more ways to make 1M solution? I am about to write my 56th paper and cannot come up with a new way of describing the protocol. I think you should use your creativity for something else rather than defending a dumb law. Not being able to reuse my own words is utter nonsense. If the laws says I can’t than the law is an ass.


    1. Chris

      You can always write the equivalent of “we prepared a 1M solution of KNO3 as described previously (Bloggs et al, 2002)” and only use new text for something that you have truly done differently to previous methods.


    2. Sam

      I don’t think that “the law” says that you can’t (maybe a journal policy might discourage you). I think really the argument is that we -should- at least -try- to write our methods anew for each paper. It’s not about saying, “You’ve text recycled methods sections, end of career for you!” (see author comment about consequences above). The way I see this argument it’s more along the lines of – when we submit a paper, we warrant that it’s original, when we teach students, we tell them not to copy. We should therefore try to our papers as original as we can, even in the methods, and we shouldn’t copy, again even though it’s the methods. Sure, there might end up being a lot of overlap in what we say especially after the 5th or 50th time, but at least it won’t be multi-paragraph chunks of text. There’s a lot of leeway here (‘editor discretion’, ‘disciplinary norms’ etc etc) and I’ve never heard of a paper getting scuttled because of text recycling in methods, but is it better scholarship to rewrite your methods section so that your paper is more original or is it better scholarship to copy and paste from your last paper?


  7. sleather2012

    You will be pleased to know that in my capacity as an Editor I have just referred a disgruntled author who had fallen foul of the publisher’s plagiarism software, to your post 🙂


  8. Terence Roushers

    I do not think time should be wasted from my finite research career rewriting trivial sentences to convey the exact same information. It is not a pursuit of the perfect sentence or the idea that my first attempt at writing methods achieves perfection that drives this; rather the sense that time and effort should be directed towards productive ends and not inanities.

    If journals demand stupid things then I will grit my teeth and do them as they are the gatekeepers of the audience I wish to address. It is an expression of the culture of midwittery that dominates science to celebrate this stupidity as some sort of higher principle.


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