10 Responses to Write Right

  1. Jmarlesw says:

    Interesting post Stephen. I would argue that the style required for glossies with high IF is very different from more specialised journals. The glossies tend to want bold statements and broad strokes that are easily digestible, while losing some important detail. Technical journals seem to require a level of exposition that is of interest to only a very narrow audience.

    With greater engagement of #OA I think there is an opportunity to break out of these strictures and be more creative with the format and style as there is greater potential to reach a wider Nom-expert audience.

    I don’t know what the way forward will be, but the model of PNAS, with short synopses and more detailed technical versions may be a good start.

    • Stephen says:

      Not sure that the ‘glossies’ succeed in that endeavour. Have you ever read a Nature paper from outside your field that you found accessible? In their defence they do provide News & Views for selected articles and a short, simplified summary of each paper in the front matter.

  2. Jim Woodgett says:

    The fact is that we use jargon as a shortcut. All communities do the same as a tool for efficiency. If you do not know the vocabulary, you are excluded. A number of years ago various granting agencies in Canada started requiring lay abstracts and one or two lay members (i.e. non-experts from the public) were invited onto review panels. Their job was to observe the review process but also to read the lay abstract. 90% of these were awful. Instead of EGFR, the author put in receptor protein kinase. Even the few well thought out lay abstracts were faulty as they were criticised for not providing precision. It’s a problem and likely means that while we should aim for comprehension by a broad scientific audience, this cannot be at the expense of accuracy and brevity. Acronyms are a bane but they contract repetitive names and can help speed flow IF they are not overused.

    We certainly do not pay enough attention to style and readability. I co-wrote a (glossy) review a couple of years ago on signalling cross talk and was surprised by a few emails commending my writing style. Positive feedback such as that is a great way to enthuse writers. So I heartily commend your efforts to increase accessibility through understanding!

    • Stephen says:

      Oh, brevity is still a virtue, though your other points are well made. I think many lay summaries are badly written because they are cobbled together at the last minute and may often be written as a direct ‘translation’ of a technical summary. I know I have done this myself in the past and it’s the wrong approach.

      I did try to break out of the mold with a more innovative approach to the lay summary in a grant application a couple of years back. I was commended by the committee for my efforts but alas didn’t get the money.

      • Grant says:

        One grant I apply for gives no feedback at all, so you’ve no idea why they rejected your application and hence how you might do better. While understandable in some respects (workloads…) it’s maddening in other respects.

  3. Grant says:

    Loose thought on a Friday evening (i.e. don’t bite me!):

    Some medical journals have the editor write a summary for the wider audience. These can also include critiques of the work and what I read as a justification (of sorts) for publishing the paper. Some of these summarises aren’t too bad, to my reading. I think one thing may help is that on one hand the editors have enough expertise to understand the paper but on the other are less liable than the authors to assume knowledge needed in writing a summary. Perhaps one ‘solution’ might be for editors to write the lay summaries? (With them checked by the authors for basic accuracy?)

    I’d prefer the authors do it, but if this is better… – ?

    • Stephen says:

      It’s one solution (and sound similar to practice at Nature, though their summaries are extremely brief — they are included underneath the paper title in the online table of contents).

      Like you, I’d prefer authors to do the summaries, if only to make them think.

      • Grant says:

        “if only to make them think.”


        I quite like the approach of the medical journals, though, in that it brings the editors into play rather than have them in an ‘invisible’ infrastructural role behind the scenes.

  4. Interesting experiment, Stephen.

    I’m interested by Jim Woodgett’s comment on lay abstracts (well, after all, he’s just across the street from me). I occasionally write these and it’s always a challenge to write in a truly non-specialist way without feeling that the result is so totally simple in language as to be off-putting to the review panel. I’m never sure quite where the balance lies – and it probably varies from funding agency to funding agency.

    It would be interesting to hear the opinion of someone in, say, public affairs, or corporate communications, who spends all their time summarizing difficult material for non-specialist audiences.

  5. Mary Lush says:

    The tutorial class has just met again and there is one thing to add. Stephen and I had one more email exchange after he posted the original exchange in this blog.
    The title of his PLoS ONE paper was “Structure of a Murine Norovirus NS6 Protease-Product Complex Revealed by Adventitious Crystallisation”.
    My point in the later exchange was that groups of words such as “Murine Norovirus NS6 Protease-Product Complex ” are very difficult to decipher because it is hard to work out which words qualify which – if it is not your field that is. In the subject that my students are doing, they have to establish that they understand the content of the words they use, so they can’t readily get away with using a string like that.

    Stephen suggested a rewording “Structure of a protease-product complex revealed by the fortuitous crystallisation of the NS6 protease from a mouse norovirus”. The students thought this was a significant improvement.

    It is easy to give lip service to improving writing, much harder to actually do it. I thank Stephen for being so responsive to this class.