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. I call this phenomenon the tyranny of circular expectations.

 The issue at hand, for me and my reviewer, is admittedly a minor one. I used a modest sprinkling of common contractions in the manuscript, writing (for example) “doesn’t” rather than “does not”. This is unusual in scientific writing (which is rather my point), and opinions about it vary. I won’t recapitulate the debate here: I’ve written about it in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and also here, heres, and here. But the reviewer didn’t make anything that seemed to me like a rational case for avoiding contractions. Instead, they simply argued that that the use of contractions made the writing sound informal and unscientific.

Think about that one. Why do contractions make writing sound unscientific? Because we don’t use them. And why don’t we use them? Because they make writing sound unscientific. If you think that piece of logic is entirely circular, you’re right – it is.

Contractions are one example of this, but it would be fair to say that they’re an example that doesn’t matter much. Much more important examples include our fetishes for the passive voice, for jargon, and for acronyms. We try to comply with reader expectations by writing our new papers to sound like older literature – with passive voice, jargon, and acronyms – and in doing so we fix those expectations because future authors write their new papers to sound just like ours.

It’s a feedback loop that’s very hard to break. It’s easy to see how it starts. When students begin to learn scientific writing, usually as undergraduates in a first-year lab, we usually advise them to “write like a paper for the scientific literature”. And when they ask how to do that, we usually tell them to find some related papers in the literature and write similarly. So they do – and of course, they find, and they model, papers that are written entirely in the passive voice and are jargon-ridden and acronym-infested. Most of the time, they’re promptly rewarded for their mimicry of the literature in grading. That’s just the beginning of a feedback loop that continues throughout their careers (witness my contraction-resistant reviewer).*  So we read writing dense with acronyms and it sounds science-y to us, so we write that way so we can sound science-y too – and five years on others read our papers and model their writing on ours in turn.

So what can we do about this? Well, we aren’t going to fix the problem overnight; the feedback is just too strong, and the population of instructors and reviewers who prefer not to think very hard about writing is just too large. But we can chip away at it. When you’re writing, try some small experiments: remove half your acronyms, use a contraction or two, insert an elegant turn of phrase, a small metaphor, or a tiny joke. When you’re reviewing, suppress your instinct (we all have it!) to erase authorial voice and to thereby reinforce the tyranny of circular expectation. When you’re reviewed by someone who can’t help themselves, push back a little.** When you’re teaching students, consider effectiveness of writing, not just conformity with common practice.***

Our literature will never be poetry; but if we choose to, we can make it better than it is. Would it be so terrible if our papers were not just important, but also engaging?

© Stephen Heard  September 27, 2022


Image: own work, CC BY 4.0

*^Of course, we don’t just turn them loose on the literature – we sometimes give them an in-house style guide or refer them to a book on scientific writing. In my experience, the in-house style guides are even more conservative than what students take from the literature. As for books on scientific writing: some are quite enlightened in their approach to style – like Paul Silvia’s, and (cough cough) mine. But others, including some that are very commonly adopted at the introductory-lab level, are decidedly not. By the way: if you’re thinking about recommending a writing book to students in a lab course, why not think outside the box a little? Why not push your department to adopt a writing book for its whole degree program?

**^You won’t always win. I’ll probably lose with my contractions (and not much will be lost). But sometimes you’ll win, and at least you’ll be fighting the good fight.

***^It’s not that common practice should always be abandoned. Passive voice is (usually) bad; IMRaD structure is (usually) good. The trick is to distinguish practices that have become universal because they’re effective from practices that have become universal through the tyranny of circular expectation.

10 thoughts on “How circular expectations damage our scientific writing

  1. Michael Wiener

    In my field, one of the problems is authors using opaque formalism and models to dress up a very modest contribution. Sadly, when reviewers can’t see through the formalism, they’re unsure and tend to give close to neutral recommendations, sometimes leading to acceptance. At the same time, papers with much better ideas that are explained clearly sometimes get poor reviews for being “too simple.” This leads to the common advice for authors to dress up their papers with formalism to try to get them accepted. This outcome is bad enough, but when reviewers demand that clearly-written papers be changed “to have the proper form”, it’s intolerable.

    Ironically, the papers recognized as the best ever (in my field) are usually short and clear.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. mooerslab

    Always useful to be reminded of these issues – precision, accuracy and “telegraphy” are what we strive for. I wonder though if the self-discipline needed to change one’s rhetorical style (from colloquial to more formal) helps reach some of the other goals. Grammatical structure and meanings go in and out of fashion, but what we write is supposed to be stable, so folks can understand things generations down the road.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      It’s certainly true that grammar and style change. Chaucer is pretty inaccessible to most of us these days Shakespeare is hard work. Dickens and Darwin are still fine – so the change you’re worried about is not too fast.

      But I’m not convinced that writing more formally (which, given the way we do it, makes our writing harder to read now) will make our writing easier to read “generations down the road”. That’s an interesting claim, and I’d love to hear your argument for it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Marco Mello

    You’ve made an excellent point. Circular expectations create endless, downwards loops in scientific writing. In addition to contractions, passive voice, jargon, and acronyms (“the horror, the horror!”), the IMRAD dissertative structure is the most boring writing style ever invented. Papers written using the OCAR narrative structure are much easier to understand and much more pleasant to read. Moreover, they are much better for defending an argument. Fortunately, there are efficient ways to disguise an OCAR piece as an IMRAD piece, and so avoid circular criticism from editors and reviewers.

    Liked by 1 person

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