The Disco Era of scientific writing

Image: Saturday Night Fever. If you were alive in the 1970s, you probably owned this album.  Acme401 CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr.com

From doo-wop to hip-hop, popular music has always evolved.  Styles shift, and when a song you don’t know comes on the radio* you can often place it, temporally, without much trouble.  Rock & roll, punk, new wave, indie folk, and dozens of other styles have come (and mostly gone); similarly, the styles that dominate airplay now will surely fade and be replaced. (Sorry, Taylor.) Occasionally, popular music has had a really bad idea, and we’ve all piled onto it, only to shake our heads ruefully a decade later.  Yes, disco, I’m talking about you**.

Scientific writing has also evolved.  Writing style changes (among other things), and if I gave you text extracts from jounal papers from the 1850s, the 1920s, the 1960s, and the 2010s you could probably sort them by year without too much trouble.  There isn’t a lot of stylistic change, mind you, because there isn’t much style there to start with; but nonetheless, on multi-decadal scales there’s enough change to notice.  Papers in the late 1600s were narrated like a first-person stories and included astonishing amounts of detail; those in the late mid-1800s were still narrated, but less detailed; those in the early 1900s had begun a shift to a more dispassionate, passive-voice exposition; in the1980s it seemed that we’d just invented the acronym and were really, really proud of ourselves***.

So: was there a worst time?  When did we write disco scientific papers? I don’t mean papers with style that was disco-ball-broad-lapel-flared-leg flashy, necessarily.  I just mean papers with style that was bad – style we look back upon now and cringe.

If you’ve read any really old scientific papers, you might be tempted to argue for the 1660s.  That was the dawn of the scientific paper, as the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society began publication.  It was the first scientific journal, and its contents were deeply weird.  Style veered from stiffly formal to chatty, format was inconsistent from page to page, and paper after paper leaves you shaking your head wondering “what on earth was that about?”.  But identifying this period as the Disco Era wouldn’t be fair.  Papers were weird then, both in style and content, largely because we weren’t done inventing them yet.  We were still trying to figure out what science was, how to do it, and how to tell people about what we’d done.  Was the first Lego pirate ship you ever built sleek and seaworthy?

Instead, I’d make an argument for the late 1990s and early 2000s as the Disco Era of scientific writing.  Our writing then was terrible.  The crush of papers competing for journal space forced terseness well past the point that favours clarity.  Online supplements had yet to become common, which meant that the need for brevity was fighting with the fact that if the authors wanted to include a detail, it generally had to go right in the paper’s body (printed appendices were enormously more constrained than online supplements are today).  Rapid technical progress (especially in molecular biology) led to Methods overgrown with tangled thickets of acronyms, jargon, and long, tortured sentences.  And perhaps worst of all, the passive voice (with its illusory air of objectivity) held a vice-like grip on our imagination – no, on our lack of imagination.   There were good papers published then, of course; but my gosh, there was a lot of colourless but inscrutable pap.

You might be surprised to hear me arguing for a past Disco Era.  Perhaps you’re tempted to argue that scientific writing is at its worst in the present day.  In every era, we’ve been liable to think that things are going to hell in a handbasket.  Some things are, I’ll grant you; but others are getting better, and I think scientific writing is actually one of them. Only a few journals still require exclusive use of the passive voice; many explicitly encourage the active.  Journals are experimenting with sections for papers written in different formats and styles; for example, the new Scientific Naturalist section of Ecology points out to authors the natural-history “tradition of high-quality writing and art” and informs them it aims to continue it.  Online supplements have arguably gotten out of hand, but they perform a very valuable function: when an author has a detail that ought to be recorded but that most readers won’t care about, it can be tucked safely away in an online supplement where it can be conveniently ignored.  (It’s hard to exaggerate how much this improves the reading experience – while simultaneously improving the documentary function of papers for those who really do need to know everything.)  Social media have made it easy to spread the word of a beautifully written paper (thus rewarding an author who writes one):

These are all good things.  I’m not arguing that our current-day literature is a collection of stylistic masterpieces, but things definitely seem to be looking up.

So: my vote is for a roughly 1995-2005 Disco Era.  Am I wrong?  Is some other decade the Disco Era of Scientific Writing?  Make your argument in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard  August 21, 2018

Thanks to Mike Fowler, whose #DiscoRevengeForTheScientistsGuideToWriting inspired (indirectly) this post.  Mike, see what you’ve done?


*^Or Spotify playlist.  Yes, I’m old.

**^OK, I know there are people out there who still like disco.  And I have to say: Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive is such an astonishingly good song that I had to give it a cameo appearance in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.  (No, I’m not going to tell you where; you’ll have to look for it.)  And you can’t tell me you don’t (secretly) enjoy this.

***^You could be pardoned for thinking these time-sliced descriptions reflect exhaustive research on my part, with spreadsheets quantifying shifts in stylistic attributes through time.  You could be pardoned, but you’d still be wrong.  This blog is free, and you get what you pay for.  However: if you really want that quantitative authority, look for a copy of The Scientific Literature: A Guided Tour, by Harmon and Gross.  It’s fascinating.

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3 thoughts on “The Disco Era of scientific writing

  1. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

    I’m currently in the midst of a systematic review/meta-analysis (another. I think it’s a sickness), and I still need to look at the full text of close to 900 articles.
    I feel like you have set me on a mission to take data that could support your point. I think you are right, and I have a fondness for articles from the 60’s and 70’s (the tone, the voice…they’re often good)

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. Jeremy Fox

    So, the nadir of scientific writing was when I was a grad student and postdoc…hmm. I wish I could say that things have improved since then solely because I personally have improved as a writer. But that’s probably not it. 🙂

    Actually, can’t say I’ve noticed any difference in the overall quality of scientific writing since I started grad school. Except that Nature and Science papers are mostly worse now than they were before online supplements became a thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Friday links: teaching mid-career dogs new tricks, great moments in scientific outreach, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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