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.

I will cheerfully admit to the “bug” half. Yes, much of our literature is poorly written. We write in complex sentences stuffed with the biggest words we can possibly find. We adore acronyms, seizing every opportunity to coin a new one, or seven if we can possibly manage it. We scrub any hint of personality from our writing, fetishizing the passive voice, avoiding informality like contractions, and ending up with colourless text that sounds just like everyone else’s.  All this can, in theory, be rectified – and there really are beautifully written papers in the literature. (And if you’d like to write one of them, you can find help <polite cough> in writing books like mine, or Josh Schimel’s, among many others.)

But: fixing the common problems I’ve identified above can make our writing clear and accessible to our colleagues. It won’t, despite what some folks seem to think, make our writing clear and accessible to everyone – to those working in different scientific disciplines, or even more so, to the general public. That’s not evidence of an evil conspiracy to keep our knowledge to ourselves; it’s simply that, like all writers everywhere, we write for a specific discourse community.* A discourse community is a set of people who share background knowledge and context, vocabulary, and interests. Before you write anything – a scientific paper, a recipe, a piece of Star Trek erotic fanfiction – your first move should always be to think about the discourse community you’re aiming to be part of. Or, in simpler terms: ask yourself, who are your readers? If your intended readers are experienced legislators, you can probably use the word cloture (or closure or, colourfully, guillotine) but not the word rhyolite; if instead they’re petrologists, it’s probably the other way around. (Yes, that example is trivial, but you get the idea.) Our universe is complex, and our understanding of it is too, and expressing that in a way that’s useful for other scientists does require some advanced vocabulary and some textual complexity. In this sense, the impenetrability of our literature to outsiders is a feature; it arises because we are successfully pitching what we write to the discourse community that will read it.

So, no matter how expert we get at writing, most of our scientific papers will never be accessible to those outside the field. (That’s one reason I don’t think “making science accessible to the public” is a virtue of open access publication, an opinion I ruffled some feathers with last week.) This shouldn’t be a controversial claim – there are entire disciplines, like rhetoric, built on a general consensus that it’s true. But that doesn’t, of course, mean that we should hold our knowledge for ourselves. It just means that SciComm is a thing: “science communication”, or the practice of translating knowledge for the general public. This is critically important (as I hope we all agree) but it involves different modes of communication, and different skills from those we use to produce our technical literature.

So: our literature is impenetrable. Impenetrable to us: that’s a bug. Impenetrable to others: that’s actually a feature; we design it that way, and for good reason. We shouldn’t be surprised or upset by that – but we should work to complement our literature with other kinds of communications so we can share what we know.

© Stephen Heard  January 25, 2022

Image: from Bevilaqua et al 2022, “Modeling uncertainties of t¯tW± multilepton signatures”, Phys Rev D 105:014108. © the authors, CC BY 4.0. No, I don’t understand it; but it seems to be well written. Its impenetrability to me is a feature, not a bug.


*^Scholars of rhetoric will be shocked that anyone even has to point this out. But they too write for a discourse community, and partly as a result, scientists rarely read them. Therefore, there’s value in knowledge translation for this field as there is for every field – which explains the draft book proposal on my laptop right now.

8 thoughts on “Our impenetrable literature: partly a feature, partly a bug

  1. Armin Namayandeh

    In one of his interviews in the Startalk (Neil de Grass Tyson’s show) Malcolm Gladwell said, and I am paraphrasing, it is not the fault of the scientists if information from peer-reviews doesn’t reach the general public, the fault lies with Science Journalists. In a sense, it is the job of the journalist to make science easy and accessible.

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  2. Jeff Houlahan

    “So, no matter how expert we get at writing, MOST of our scientific papers will never be accessible to those outside the field.” (my capitalization)

    Steve, where is the evidence for this? An abstract from an advanced Physics paper? I would love to see a survey among scientists on this. How many scientists believe your assertion and does it depend on the discipline? Even more interesting would be some empirical evidence.

    First year biology students at UNB routinely read complex papers – Lenski’s work on evolution in e.coli, Szostak’s papers on the origin of life. Unflitered. At least half of them understand those papers well enough to answer questions on an exam correctly. These are 18-19 year-olds with a high school education early in the process of learning to think critically – I simply don’t believe that most papers are inaccessible to those outside the field. But I’m happy to see evidence to the contrary.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Jeff, with a little smile of irony, I’m going to ask you to “do your own research” on this one. There are entire academic disciplines and entire professions that would not exist if you were right that anyone can understand a scientific paper. This is why we have rhetoric, why we have SciComm. Start by googling “discourse community” and I think you’ll find that your position here is a minority one!

      Having said that, I know you’re thoughtful about this stuff and I’ve enjoyed our back-and-forth, especially the offline part 🙂

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  3. Pingback: Impenetrable Text: Bug or Feature? – Proposal Land

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