Resistance is futile

During the last few months of my postdoc, I found myself writing three papers simultaneously. One of the papers contained results contributed by two students I’d supervised, so I decided that this would be the perfect time to let the graduate student dip his toe into the shark-infested waters of academic writing. I provided him with an outline of the whole paper, and we discussed which of his results to include and how they might fit into the discussion. He came back to me a couple of weeks later with drafts of partial results and discussion sections.

The discussion was hilarious. It began with the phrase “The human genome is a motley harlequin”, and became even more eccentric as it progressed. It was wonderful stuff. I loved it.

But I knew I couldn’t use it.

A little part of me died as I took out my red pen and rewrote his words in a more conventional academic style.

The student’s second draft was much less interesting, and required less red ink.

Jenny’s recent post about “the untold narrative behind the precise dryness of scientific papers”, and the discussion in the comments, brought back memories of this episode. With perfect timing, I went on to spend the next couple of days editing two new graduate students’ funding applications, and encountered further red pen fodder.

Cath prepares to crush another student’s soul

“Motely [sic] crew” (what is it with motley students?) was transformed to the more conventional “multidisciplinary team”. “Erudite shrewdness” was deleted entirely.
My exact feedback to one of the students was as follows:

On a more general note, I found that both sections had the wrong tone and style for a funding application. Part of the process of submitting this proposal is to learn grantsmanship skills, something the panel will take into account when reviewing your application. I suggest that you use a more scholarly tone that better reflects the conventions of academic writing; they are there for a reason. Specifically, phrases such as “erudite shrewdness” and “motley crew” are out of place and inappropriate.

Yeah… deadlines were approaching, and patience was in short supply. Not wanting to be a total bitch though, I followed up with “I would be very happy to review a revised version of these sections. And don’t worry, this is all part of the learning process that is grad school!”

The version that came back was much more boring conventional, and was accompanied by a rather dejected-sounding email. Man, I felt evil. I replied with “Always remember that no-one is born knowing how to do this stuff! The more high quality research proposals and reports you can read, the faster you will pick it up”.

The conventions of formal academic writing are there for a reason. And students need to learn to (mostly) conform to them. It’s almost a code, a language that helps to convey the necessary information in as concise a way as possible. There is room for individuality (and good and bad writing) within these conventions – but not much.

Assimilation is inevitable.

Thank goodness scientists have alternative outlets (such as blogs) for whimsy and jollity idiosyncratic and eccentric writing!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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31 Responses to Resistance is futile

  1. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Now I’m depressed. Time to round up my motley erudite lab mates for a cup of tea.

  2. Cath Ennis says:

    Me too. Tough week.

  3. Bob O'Hara says:

    And it’s only Tuesday.

  4. Cath Ennis says:

    No, this is the hangover from last week. This week we have a day off on Wednesday, which is weird but distinctly undepressing.

  5. Eva Amsen says:

    And it’s my last day at work! Nobody is allowed to feel sad today!

  6. Cath Ennis says:


  7. Richard Wintle says:

    I used to work in close proximity to someone who delighted in using the word “nidus” at every possible opportunity. It wasn’t even in my dictionary.
    I too am depressed whenever I have to cut poetic language out of grants and reports. Especially mine.
    Happy CANADA DAY you Canuck you. 😀

  8. Cath Ennis says:

    Thanks, eh?
    I’ll be heading to the beach with my sisters-in-law and their kids. Fun!
    Oh, and I have no idea what nidus means.
    I had a great moment with my (very Scottish) PhD supervisor once. We were looking at a faint band on a Western blot, and being a brand new student I was trying to think of a suitably impressive and sciency way of saying it looked a bit weak and feeble. “It’s a bit…”
    “Peely-wally?” he suggested.
    Yes, indeed. It was peely-wally.

  9. Richard Wintle says:

    Heh. I understand that particular dialect of Scottish. My mother would have used the equally excellent “feak and weeble”, but she’s Canadian English.

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    I was pleased to get ‘melange’ in a review I wrote… but that’s not as good as an erstwhile colleague’s ‘molecular merkin’ in a paper, once.

  11. Cath Ennis says:

    Don’t google Merkin at work. It is not (just) a slang term for an American.
    That is all.

  12. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    While I was already aware of the more applied definition of a merkin (learned from listening once to a form NYC radio shock-jock of notorious fame) I suggest those who are truly curious should look up the definition on something like As Cath pointed out, it is not a good idea to google the word at work.
    Also, what accent would result in “American” sounding like “merkin”? If anyone referred to me as a merkin I would probably be consumed by a fit of giggles due to immaturity

  13. Ian Brooks says:

    +1. yup. I agree now. do not Google(tm) Merkin. I thought I knew what I was. I was right.
    I got slated in my quals because my writing was too “pithy”. “There’s too much…of you in here,” said the Professor in an attempt to be disparaging. He failed. I passed.
    but yes indeed, thank The Great Noodly One for blogs and other outlets of mirth and whimsy.

  14. Cath Ennis says:

    Elizabeth, according to Urban Dictionary it is
    ‘something george bush is constantly saying he is proud to be
    “ah am proud, to be a merkin citezin”‘
    and also
    _’on Usenet and other Net forums, a derisive UK and Commonwealth term for an American, caricaturing the pronunciation of “American” in some US English dialects. Plural sometimes given as “Merkinz”.’
    Ian, don’t let anyone take the pith!

  15. steffi suhr says:

    Ok, so now I also know what a merkin is. Interestingly, the ‘related’ ads I saw on are (in order of appearance):

    UK lace wigs
    International Christian Concern

    Facial hair loss?

    The conventions of formal academic writing are there for a reason. And students need to learn to (mostly) conform to them.
    Cath – what gets me is how many senior scientists haven’t figured it out…

  16. Cath Ennis says:

    (at both parts, but especially the first)

  17. steffi suhr says:

    Oh my

  18. Cath Ennis says:

    This gets better and better!

  19. Richard Wintle says:

    do not Google™ Merkin
    Hm, you learn something new everyday. About merkins, I mean, not about not Googling them.
    @Ian – I’m glad to hear you have been Touched by the Noodly Appendage(TM).

  20. Henry Gee says:

    I looked it up on Google(TM) and my iPhone locked up.

  21. Henry Gee says:

    Just sayin’

  22. Cath Ennis says:

    Do I really need to add a trademark symbol to the word Google when it’s used as a verb?
    What about other uses?

    Can I haz a T please Bob? Or maybe a T-bone?

  23. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    Thanks Cath for the clarification. As I made a point over those 8 years to only READ what our illustrious leader had to say and not subject myself to his asinine patriotic drawl that explains why I did not make the connection.
    @Steffi and Henry: I am overcome with immature giggles by your comments

  24. Cath Ennis says:

    Every time I think of George Bush I try to picture Will Ferrell as George Bush instead.
    “How would you sum up your platform in one word?”
    That word is now standard currency in my house.

  25. Sabbi Lall says:

    Assimilation is inevitable, but there’s a “seven of nine” now and then and they could never get JLP/Locutious (or whatever his name was).
    I was so crabby about the idea of conforming wrt writing until my mentor asked me if post-docs in other countries would know what I was saying. This converted me to the idea it’s unfair to EFLs who have to work with english being the language in which science is communicated to be too prosaic.
    I just googled it and am giggling! I misunderestimated what I’d find!

  26. Trisha Saha says:

    “The human genome is a motley harlequin”

  27. Cath Ennis says:

    Sarbjit, that is a very compelling reason for developing conventions that everyone can understand. I’m sure that was one of the primary selective pressures that helped the conventions to evolve!
    Trisha, thanks! I don’t just roll out of bed looking like that though, it takes a lot of time and effort.
    I thought “motley harlequin” was outstanding. It is a motley harlequin.
    My efforts last week resulted in an email from an ESL student that said “thank you for your precious help” – another example of thesuarus use gone awry! I like to think that precious=valuable, as my husband’s suggestion that the student meant “thank you for your help, precious” was just weird.

  28. Sabbi Lall says:

    Said Gollum to the Borg collective….

  29. Trisha Saha says:

    lol…I’m gonna have to agree with your husband on this one, Cath: you’re precious!

  30. steffi suhr says:

    an email froman ESL student that said “thank you for your precious help”
    Cath: that kind of e-mail is the best, and I’m a sucker for it 😉

  31. Cath Ennis says:

    Said Gollum to the Borg collective…
    Now that was precious!
    Yeah, the email put a smile on my face!

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