Monthly Archives: January 2022

Our impenetrable literature: partly a feature, partly a bug

Our scientific literature (and academic literature more broadly) has a reputation for being impenetrable. That reputation is entirely deserved. That’s why things like the Sokal Hoax sometimes work, and that’s why scientists are sometimes mocked, or scorned, for operating like a priesthood, holding truth away from the layperson. It’s easy and fun to find a complex sentence, dense with unfamiliar jargon and turgid acronym-laden phrases, and hold it up for all to see (I’ll plead guilty: I do it myself in my scientific writing course). But it’s also naïve, unless you’re willing to think carefully about it – because there are two very different reasons why our literature is impenetrable. One is a bug, yes; but the other is very much a feature. Continue reading

“Do your own research” and open-access publication

There’s a fascinating shift going on in scientific publishing, as our fundamental model for who pays for the necessary apparatus of journals shifts from subscribers to authors. The shift is slow (because the way science is funded isn’t set up very well to facilitate such a shift), and bits of it spark outrage (just last week, Nature Neuroscience announced that publishing open-access there will cost €9500, and the combination of ridicule and outrage was exactly what it should have been). But I think it’s fair to say that if we can get there, an open-access literature offers major advantages for the communication of science.

But not for science communication – the distinction being that by “science communication”, we generally mean communication of what we do to non-scientists. You see, the pandemic has demonstrated in spades why the last thing we need is to make it easier for the general public to access scientific papers.  I know, that’s a bit of a hot take, but hear me out. Continue reading

Writing “an” Introduction is a lot easier than writing “the” Introduction

OK, not that sort of introduction.

Last week I was drafting the Introduction to a new paper*, and I was struggling. People often assume that because I’ve written a book about scientific writing, I must be a gifted writer to whom the task comes easily. Nothing could be further from the truth: I’m just like most scientific writers. Yes, I find writing much easier than I used to (thank goodness); but I still have many days when producing the next sentence is like pulling teeth. My own teeth.

I find Introductions particularly hard. Continue reading

P = 0.05 and a teaspoon of baking powder

I made scones this morning, and it made me think about statistics, and about thinking. No, really, I have a point: it’s that P = 0.05 and a teaspoon of baking powder are the same thing, in an important way. Am I stretching an analogy to its breaking point? Read on to find out.

My scone recipe calls for 4 cups of flour, a cup of sugar, a teaspoon of baking powder, a teaspoon of baking soda, half a teaspoon of salt, four tablespoons of butter or shortening, and then raisins and buttermilk to make a dough.* The quantities are interesting. Continue reading