“A Gentleman in Moscow” and scientific writing

In a career, how many extraordinary papers might a scientist write?

I got thinking about this, believe it or not, after noticing a copy of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow in a neighbourhood Little Free Library. That novel is astonishing (in fact, it’s not at all clear why you’re reading this post instead of A Gentleman in Moscow; but thanks.) Since reading it, I’ve read Towles’ other novels (Rules of Civility and The Lincoln Highway); and while both were fine books well worth my time, neither grabbed me the way A Gentleman in Moscow did.*

Towles isn’t the only author to show this pattern. N.K. Jemesin’s Broken Earth trilogy is absolutely transcendent; her other books are well worth reading but none comes close to Broken Earth. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry is sublime, while his other books are finely crafted and enjoyable, but perhaps not more. In contrast, I can think of authors** whose books are consistently excellent, but with none standing far above the rest: Peter Robinson, for example, or Dick Francis. You can think of these contrasting patterns as differing in variance of quality: Jemesin and Towles and Kay have written with high variance, Robinson and Francis with low variance. (In all cases, though, the means are very high.)

I started by asking a question about scientific writing. Do we have high-variance and low-variance scientific writers? And which kind of writer am I?

It’s not obvious to me how to answer this question. As a first crack at the problem, we could pull citation-rate data from Google Scholar, asking if some authors have high citation variance and others lower. My own profile shows lots of variance, from almost 700 citations for one review paper down to just three citations in 5 years for this poor neglected contribution. (If we remove review papers from the calculation, my high is still over 250 citations. My low is still sad.) But do authors differ much in degree of citation variance? Do we have Robinsons and Towleses? That question, dear reader, demands more Google Scholar time than I can justify right now. And citation counts, while easy, are probably not the way to ask the question anyhow.*** I’ve written before about the disconnect between how “good” a paper is and its citation fate – consider my most overcited and my most undercited papers, for example.

I’m aware of the irony that just last week, I questioned the value of a philosophy paper that asked but didn’t answer a question – because I’m doing the same thing here. I’m punting to you. Do you think that in science, we have Robinsons and Towlese? Which are you – an author of consistently good papers, or an author with a standout paper against a background of good? And if we wanted to measure the pattern I have in mind, how might we do it?

© Stephen Heard  March 7, 2023

Image: detail of cover, All the Lives We Ever Lived, by Katharine Smyth. I have not read this book and so can’t vouch for its transcendency. And it can’t be any better than her other books, as she hasn’t written any (yet). But what a blurb.


*^I know that different people have different preferences in books (I mean, someone gave The Scientist’s Guide to Writing a single star on Amazon…). But sales figures and various other lines of evidence suggest that my opinion here is at least widely held.

**^I wonder why these two examples are both mystery authors – as were a couple of others I considered including. Perhaps there’s something about mystery as a genre that lends itself to formula – for Francis and Robinson, excellent formula, but formula nonetheless. Or it could simply be that I read a lot of mysteries, so I had examples at top of brain.

***^I wouldn’t point to my 250-citation paper as my “best” non-review paper; it’s fine, interesting, important, but not a stand-out in its field. If I’ve published a Gentleman in Moscow paper, it would be this one – not because it’s beautifully written (it isn’t), but because at least when it was published it did something very novel and important. Mostly by accident, I’ll admit, but still.

 

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6 thoughts on ““A Gentleman in Moscow” and scientific writing

  1. Tony Diamond

    The reason I was reading your post instead of A Gentleman in Moscow is because I have already read it. I agree that it is transcendent and better than the others. I would add Ian Rankin and Peter May to your list of high-mean, low-variance mystery writers.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, agree on both – and happy to see you name Peter May, who is not as big a name but should be. (Louise Penny could have made that list too – maybe consistency via formula really is a thing?)

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  2. M

    For some reason I can only think of statisticians right now, but I think — at least, while defining “good” as “extremely readable and insightful” — Brad Efron is someone who’s consistently writing fantastic papers, while people like Leo Breiman and Andrew Gelman are maybe more in the “some individual standouts, with a larger body of pretty good work”. I think part of the issue is that good writing is a separate (mutually desirable!) goal compared to good science; is someone who published a handful of really impactful, if formulaic, empirical studies in the same category as someone who published a handful of really enjoyable treatises?

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  3. angela moles

    Nice post. I’m definitely high variance. I am amazed you didn’t link to music and ask whether there are “one hit wonders” in science.

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  4. baskin2013

    Thank you for the pointer to A Gentleman in Moscow. At first I thought “Amor Towels” was some kind of joke name (like Pickov Andropov) but evidently not. A surprising and lovely book. I can submit Fred Vargas as an example of a good and low variance mystery writer.

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