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
I made some raisin buns the other day, and I swear there’s a connection to science coming.
The recipe called for, among other things, 2 eggs, 3½ cups of flour, ½ cup of brown sugar, and 2¼ tsp of yeast. Two and a quarter teaspoons – that’s quite precise, isn’t it? One can imagine a test kitchen industriously experimenting, through dozens and dozens of batches, to nail down just the right quantity of yeast for this recipe. 2 tsp isn’t quite enough; 2½ is definitely too much. But if you bake a lot, you might smell a (metaphorical) rat. Continue reading
There’s a lot to dislike about the way we write scientific papers. They’re often tedious and impenetrable, and they get that way at least in part because we make poor decisions as we write. We overuse big fancy words when short simple ones are available (“utilize”, anyone?), we just can’t let go of our fetish for the passive voice, and we apparently love nothing more than replacing some actual English words with an acronym. And so on. Continue reading
(My Writing Pet Peeves, Part 6)
Over the last two weeks, I’ve written peer reviews* for three different manuscripts (MSs). All three included newly coined acronyms (NCAs) to substitute for repeated short technical phrases (RSTPs). I’ve gotten in the habit, whenever I run across an NCA, to use my word processor’s search function (WPSF) to find and count occurrences of the NCA in the MS. Frequently (including for two of the recent three MSs), my WPSF reveals that the NCA is used only once or twice more in the MS. That makes it an RUA – a rarely used acronym – and RUAs are one of my writing pet peeves (WPPs).
By now that you probably suspect that I’m deliberately using a lot of acronyms to annoy you. Continue reading