Monthly Archives: September 2022

How circular expectations damage our scientific writing

I’m revising a manuscript, and once again dealing with a peer reviewer who wants my writing to look and sound just like all the other writing in our scientific literature. There’s a problem there – and it’s a pervasive one.

The thing is, our scientific literature has a reputation for being tedious and turgid. It’s a reputation that’s mostly well deserved. There are straightforward ways we could make our literature better – but we can’t do that if we’re tied to the ways we’ve written before. Unfortunately, folks are so tied, very strongly. Continue reading

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On creativity and science – and play!

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the notion of “creative nonfiction”, and about the relationship between creativity and scientific writing. In the talk I linked to there, I made an offhand comment about how the practice of science also involves creativity. I’d forgotten that I’d actually written about that, way back in 2015! So the rest of this post is a lightly edited version of that earlier piece. Yes, if you blog long enough, you forget what you’ve written…

Much of science is a craft: doing it well involves the application of practiced skills, which can be honed (if never completely mastered) by anyone with time and experience.  In an experiment, for example, we have powerful experimental design, meticulous repetition and recordkeeping, appropriate statistical analysis, and clear writing to report the results – all things we can become objectively better and better at with practice. And much of this is – deliberately – very far from creative. Continue reading

No, adverbs aren’t ruining our scientific literature

Fairly often, I run into the claim that adjectives and especially adverbs should be avoided in scientific writing. I’ve been told, for example, that using “Surprisingly” (adverb) or “This important result” (adjective) is an attempt to manipulate the reader’s opinion about the data, and that, in scientific writing, the data ought to speak for themselves. I understand the thinking that leads to this belief – but I think it’s naïve. A new study by Ju Wen and Lei Lei, on adjective and adverb usage in scientific Abstracts, gives us an interesting look at the practice, and at arguments for and against. So despite that study’s limitations, let’s dig in a little.

Wen and Lei open their paper with a claim that I hope is uncontroversial: Continue reading

Why I’m teaching online again

Our semester starts this week, and I’m once again (co)teaching an online course. This is very much swimming against the current, at least at my university, so why am I doing it? I don’t pretend that my answers here are jaw-droppingly original, but I think they’re important to what university education ought to look like, not just now but years or decades on. So I’ll explain.

First: my university, like many, is busily pushing hard to re-establish “normal” – or at least, what our senior administrators imagine that students (and prospective students) think is “normal”. Continue reading