Writing the Right Stuff

Almost everything I have written over the last 30 odd years has been in the standard format of so-called ‘scholarly articles’ and grant applications.  There is a certain style to this, rather formal and usually retaining the passive voice – though that is a fashion that is fading – a general style that has been referred to as ‘didactic dead-pan’. (If I were properly ‘dead-panning  didactically’ here, I would give you the reference for that quote, but I  will refrain).   Occasionally, if I were feeling daring in a review article I might have used a rhetorical question; that was as exciting as it got. But in the last few weeks I have had to think much harder about genre, and not just for writing posts for this blog.  This was brought into focus as I composed a speech at the end of last week to give in the distinctly archaic format of a Cambridge University Discussion, held in the Senate House (and for which appropriate academic dress, in the form of a gown, is a requirement to add to the solemnity of the occasion).

I have only spoken in a Discussion once, when I was Chair of my Department’s Personnel Committee. At the time we were all very concerned by an initial set of proposals regarding assimilation of staff onto a payscale with a single spine, a payscale that appeared to advantage those at the top at the expense of those near the bottom (I should point out that the payscale was substantially modified before its introduction, in part because of the views expressed at the Discussion).  And that time, counter to the solemnity I have just referred to, the dignity was disturbed by a spontaneous burst of applause at the end of my speech, much to my surprise.  Nevertheless, as I composed my remarks this time, and thought about what I wanted to say, I realised that the how was also much in my mind: the style that seemed appropriate felt rather like a Victorian novel, Disraeli perhaps or George Eliot. Maybe it is the ghost of Discussions Past that has been hovering over my typing fingers.

The current subject of the Discussion is the introduction of a Combined Equality Scheme which has slowly traversed its way through the layers of university committees, all of which I appear to sit on – so I have seen this document multiple times in subtly different versions.  As one part of this Scheme, Champions have been introduced for the three equality strands of Gender (that’s me), Disability and Race.  As champions, we wanted to turn up to this Discussion to state our total commitment to mainstreaming Equality within the University, even if not a soul turned up to oppose the Report on the Scheme; in fact two people did, one of whom seemed to think equality was a luxury which could be done away with in times of financial stringency.  I reproduce my remarks at the end of this post, so you don’t need to wade through them if you don’t want to, but they are there to illustrate my point about genre. Read the speech, and then compare it with my style in the Fight Debate published in Eureka last week; if you can get behind the paywall you can read the whole thing, but a part of it is also included at the bottom of this post. Or indeed compare the Discussion style with this blog and you will see what fun I am able to have now in constructing different ‘voices’, an opportunity I don’t recall ever having had previously during my professional life.

But there is also a serious scientific as well as linguistic point here, relating to interdisciplinary working.  If you compare how physicists and biologist write, for instance, they approach things in different ways. That is true even in the very titles they choose for their papers. Looking at the table of contents in last week’s PNAS, a journal I have deliberately chosen since it encompasses essentially the whole breadth of pure science within each issue, the differences become very obvious.

The first two titles in the cell biology section of this recent issue are:

Polyunsaturated liposomes are antiviral against hepatitis B and C viruses and HIV by decreasing cholesterol levels in infected cells

Lateral opening of a translocon upon entry of protein suggests the mechanism of insertion into membranes

I’ve marked up in bold the active verb in each; such verbs are missing if you look at the first title from the Chemistry section:

Hydration dynamics at fluorinated protein surfaces

and verbs are equally missing from the Physics section:

Direct search for a ferromagnetic phase in a heavily overdoped nonsuperconducting copper oxide

With no verbs in the physical science titles there is no active sense of discovery, nothing to let you know (from the title alone) what the key conclusions of the paper are, just a description of the scope of the paper. I don’t know where these stylistic differences came from – I hardly think it is because physicists are less certain about what they are discovering – but it seems to be fairly general. There are titles in this issue that buck the trend, but I suspect if I applied a statistical test I would find the difference was significant. I say this with some confidence because I have for ages wondered why it was that biology titles felt somewhat alien, and I think now I’ve worked it out.

You could argue that the wording of the title is immaterial, but I think it is symptomatic of differences in style and approach throughout; somehow there are cultural norms ingrained in us as we are taught and trained in our particular discipline. There is nothing spelt out, and it isn’t clear why the differences have evolved. At school, children may explicitly be taught about genre writing, and how to write in different styles for a broadsheet or a tabloid, for instance.  Nothing is said about writing styles for science; indeed, far too little is said about science writing at all!  Nevertheless, if I want to start publishing my interdisciplinary work in a journal from a different branch of science maybe I need to tune into this with more care if I want to satisfy the referees, regardless of the quality of the science itself.  It looks like another challenge and potential pitfall for progressing interdisciplinarity.

My remarks at this week’s Discussion:

Deputy Vice Chancellor, I speak to you as the University’s Gender Equality Champion, one of the three new champion’s roles formalised in this Combined Equality Scheme.  The role initially was created in the mind’s eye of our previous Vice Chancellor, who wanted to focus thoughts on the importance of true equality.  As a university we have certainly not succeeded particularly well in the past; our history is glorious but also formally excluded women for more than 90% of its existence. Even recently segments of our multicultural and diverse society will have continued to feel excluded or under-valued. It is high time we dealt formally and properly with the consequences of failings consequent upon our long history.

The creation of this Combined Equality Scheme brings together many actions needed to bring the University into compliance with the Law. Currently we are not doing well on the compliance front, and this should be a source of shame. What we have in the Scheme is a clear statement of the approach of the university in dealing with the different equality strands. It gives a brief overview of the University’s functions and activities in order to fulfil its aspirations to be a good employer, which extend to actions beyond mere compliance.  By bringing together a previous grand total of 38 policies and papers into a single, easily digestible document we will not only have much greater clarity of vision and purpose and greater transparency, but in the process reduce the administrative burden on both the central bodies and individual members.

The law may upon occasion be an ass, but the new duties incumbent on us under the Equality Act 2010 require us to respond, as does natural justice for our students and employees. I have watched this Scheme during its gestation. I have followed it through a series of committees – the Equality and Diversity Committee, the Human Resources Committee and finally University  Council, all of which I sit on – so I have seen how each committee has helped to mould the final article, to ensure a balance of pragmatism and aspiration wrapped up in the necessities of the legislative framework. I believe it represents a significant step forward for the University and all its employees. I warmly commend this Combined Equality Scheme to you.

Compare that with my response to the question Are TV science presenters more important than leading practising scientists? in the Fight Debate from last week’s Eureka magazine. I was putting the ‘No’ view, to counter Evan Harris’ ‘Yes’ piece. I can only include part of the article here; for the full thing it’s back behind the paywall I’m afraid.

What would TV presenters of science be able to present if it wasn’t for the work of scientists?  They can be as charismatic as you like, brilliant at enthralling the public and communicating the wonders of science. But if the scientists weren’t beavering away day by day, however uncharismatic they may be (or perceived to be) there would be no wonder of science for the presenters to communicate.

And who makes more lasting difference to the world we live in? Let’s look at some figures from the past to see whose legacy is longer and more important.  Back in 1964, because of my interest in ornithology I was given tickets to the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures given that year by Desmond Morris. Some may remember him as the author of the once controversial book ‘The Naked Ape’. In 1964 he was better known as a presenter of Zoo Time on ITV. Contrast his current status, and the contribution he has made to science in the long term, with Dorothy Hodgkin who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in that year for her beautiful and ground-breaking X-ray studies, notably of the vitamin B12. Her seminal work continues to be an inspiration to many; her appearance on a Royal Mail stamp this year is testament to her impact.

Fast forward a few years, and the media darling was Magnus Pyke, an eccentric scientist who succeeded – with a great deal of arm-waving in a literal sense – in putting complex ideas across to a lay audience. Consequently in 1975, he was the highest rated living scientist in a New Scientist poll for the ‘best-known and most characteristic scientist of all time’………

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2 Responses to Writing the Right Stuff

  1. Melinda J Duer says:

    I believe that writing style also has a gender element. By and large, women are more content to put some of their feeling into what they say than the average male – whether that’s nature or nurture, I have no idea, but it’s not to hard to show it experimentally. The lack of a verb in a chemistry or physics title – inadvertently or not – serves to remove as much emotion as possible.

  2. Althugh I may agree with you in part about gender differences in style in conversation, possibly even novels, I find it hard to believe it applies to scientific writing. I don’t believe you could work out the gender of the main author of a paper simply by reading it in print! And I think that is because we have imbibed some cultural style during our education. I certainly don’t think biology papers have titles written by women and physical sciences by men, or that the cultural norm in biology is more ‘feminine’, though that probably isn’t what you meant to imply. These differences I suspect go a long way back, before there were many women practicing as scientists.

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