Where did our (scientific writing) voices go?

Image: European starling by hedera.baltica via flickr.com; CC BY-SA 2.0

A few weeks ago, I argued that unlike fiction writing, scientific writing largely lacks “voice”.  By “voice”, I mean recognizable attributes of text, such as rhythm, vocabulary, style, and other  that makes a particular author’s text unique and that suggest the author’s attitude or personality.  Novelists often sound very different; with rather few exceptions, I think scientific writers all sound the same.

This lack of voice may be one reason among many that our literature has, and deserves, a reputation for being tedious and unrewarding to read (there is of course some brilliant writing in the scientific literature, but these glints are rare).  It wasn’t always this way.  Robert Boyle wrote with voice in the 1600s; Linnaeus did in the 1700s; and Darwin did in the 1800s – and these are just famous examples, not exceptions.  It seems to me that we lost our voices some time in the middle of the 20th century*.

But why have we come to write voicelessly?  I don’t think this is simple.  I’ll suggest five possible drivers, and I suspect that each of them has played a role.  I won’t pretend my list is exhaustive, either – so please use the Replies to suggest drivers I’ve missed.

  • Professionalization. Some time around the end of the 19th century, science began a process of professionalization.  Authority in writing increasingly came from the membership of the writer in the profession of science – marked by a degree, a position in a university or other research institute, and so on.  Along with this came a de-emphasis on the individual and the notion that science should be objective, which meant “knowledge with no trace of the knower” (in Daston and Gallison’s words).  This kicked off our decades-long fixation with the passive voice, and I suspect also favoured the homogenization of our prose, as we all sought to signal not our own identity, but instead our belonging to the professional community.  And we signal that, of course, by sounding just like everyone else who belongs.
  • Increasing coauthorship. Once, most scientific papers had a single author.  By 2000, over 90% had at least two, and the average number of coauthors continues to climb (even ignoring the rampant silliness of mega-authorship, especially in physics).  The dynamics of co-authorship, I suspect, favour homogenization of style – perhaps even the lowest common denominator of style, which is to say nearly none at all.  The more people touch a manuscript, the more likely it is that someone will suggest removing a metaphor, a distinctive turn of phrase, or a joke.**  (None of this means we should pine for the days of solo-authored papers; at least in my own case, co-authorship has made everything – possibly except style – better.)
  • Increasing reviewer scrutiny. It feels like peer review gets tougher all the time.  Two facts suggest that this is probably true.  First, the baseline was no peer review – the ubiquity of peer review is a 20th century phenomenon.  Second, at least the most prestigious journals receive more submissions than they used to, and have to reject more as a result.  (There are, of course, also many new journals, some with low rejection rates, but I suspect our impression of the literature is heavily weighted to more prestigious journals.)  Reviewers do us a great service.  But sometimes they look for things to criticize, and anything unusual – say, like a bit of writing style or a joke – becomes a target.  (I tell the story of the reviewer who squelched one of my own attempts at voice in Chapter 28 of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing).
  • Training by mimicry. Many of us were never formally trained in scientific writing. Unless, that is, you count lab courses in which we were told to look to see what a scientific paper is like, and emulate what we saw.  Starlings (I bet you were wondering why I picked that image) are excellent mimics, but they mimic a great diversity of different sounds; as scientists, we mimic the much narrower range of what’s already in the literature. We write to sound science-y, and so we all mimic the homogenously science-y sound of what’s already been published.  (And, God help me, we mimic the use of utilize.) If we learn by modeling what’s already in the literature, we’ll never write with individual voice.
  • Conformity for efficiency. Standardization of structure in scientific papers has evolved for good reason: readers are greatly advantaged if they know where to look for each element of a scientific story.  We (nearly) all use IMRaD structure, keep Methods separate from Results, narrow our focus from start to end of an Introduction, and so forth because that’s what readers expect, and communication is efficient when you write to reader expectations.  It’s probably also true that standardization of style, at least to some extent, helps readers too.  It might be annoying, and inefficient, to read a literature in which one paper sounded like Charles Dickens, the next like Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the next like Joan Didion. (It would be immeasurably worse if any paper sounded like James Joyce.) This is especially true because many, if not most, of our readers aren’t reading in their first language (for that matter, many, if not most, scientific writers aren’t writing in their first language). We write in a relatively unornamented style*** because that lowers the cognitive load on readers, both within our papers and as they move from our papers to someone else’s.  Writing for efficiency in this way, though, erodes individual voice.

You might have noticed that all five of these are variants on “pressure to conform”.  The first four, however, are bad reasons to conform, with voice sacrificed to no gain. The last is different: it represents a claim that too much voice would be detrimental to our literature’s function.  I think that’s right – but it’s not the same as a claim that any voice would be detrimental to our literature’s function.  I think that claim is wrong.  Because I think so, in small ways I’ve begun to attempt scientific writing that’s a little less grey, a little less like everybody else – scientific writing with a little bit of voice.  I don’t think our literature will ever be bursting with personality – and it probably shouldn’t be – but it needn’t be flat and lifeless either.

© Stephen Heard  April 29, 2019


*^Testing this hypothesis would make a wonderful PhD thesis in science studies.  If I were to do a PhD all over again…

**^This hypothesis (alone among the hypotheses I suggest in this post) is simple to test.  It suggests that “joke” and other creative titles should become less frequent as authorship counts rise.  It would be simple to bulk-export titles from Scopus or Google Scholar, separating them from the author lists so they could be scored for creativity without influence. A regression against that separate list of author counts, and Bob’s your uncle.  (Why on Earth do we say that?)  I really want to do this – but sadly, my research plate is pretty full.

***^Unless you consider jargon, acronyms, monstrous noun phrases, and convoluted sentence structure to be “ornaments”.

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14 thoughts on “Where did our (scientific writing) voices go?

  1. Miriam Richards

    I’ve experienced an interesting example of this recently. As a journal editor, I now write a highlight article for each issue. I made a deliberate choice to put more ‘voice’ into these articles. The funny thing is that a colleague who helped me with one of them, suggested quite a few changes that were not about meaning, but about ‘de-voicing’ (making up new words is another way of adding voice). I left the voice in – the highlights are about my opinions and articles that caught my fancy. I want that to be clear to the readers. Also, it is more fun to write them with voice. I think I ended the last one with the phrase ‘once upon a time’.

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  2. Aaron Dalton

    In my plain language workshops I talk a lot about “pluralistic ignorance.” The example I use comes from a John Kirkman book (summarized here: https://stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/what-style-of-language-do-scientists-really-prefer/). I’m also a big fan of Helen Sword’s “Stylish Academic Writing” because she also demonstrates empirically that in many fields, successful, published authors break these “norms.”

    I don’t envy you academic folks. It’s stultifying in there. I’m in government now and have to try to break academics from these habits. As a public servant, we can’t write that way to our public stakeholders.

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  3. Ken Hughes

    What about “because it is easier”? There are two hurdles to writing a scientific paper. One is doing the analysis and figuring out what everything means. The other is turning that into sentences and paragraphs. By the time we’ve overcome the first hurdle (already many months of work), we are likely mentally exhausted about the given topic we now need to write up. I’d argue that including ‘voice’ takes more effort and thought than writing with a more bland scientific style. But given our now depleted energy from hurdle one, we tend to the latter unfortunately.

    This is perhaps a variant of your last point regarding efficiency. However, in this case, it is simply efficient for the writer, independent of any consequences for the reader.

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    1. Macrobe

      I’m not so sure that “including voice takes more effort and thought” is as universal as you purport. For some researchers, using ‘voice’ is more intuitive and natural than writing ‘flattened’ manuscripts requiring tortuous hours of the conventional bland and the “My god, this is boring” scientific style. 🙂

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  4. Ambika Kamath

    A related thought: developing a writing voice takes intention, and practice. Perhaps because we’re trained through mimicry and are pressured to conform, I suspect many scientists simply don’t *have* writing voices yet (unless they wrote a lot in college, or blog, or write popular science articles, or write creatively for pleasure, or some such thing). In other words, a bulk of the writing we do simply leaves no room to develop a voice in the first place.

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  5. Marco Mello

    I totally agree. And I also agree that we could write science with more flavor. However, there is still a bit of style to be found in current scientific writing. Notice how, for instance, we talk about a “typical paper written by Prof. X” (not the one from X-Men University, but a generic one). The style of a scientific paper is subtle and has more to do with how the argument is built and defended, including the figures included and how they were drawn.

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