Another blog about scientific writing appeared on Friday by Adam Ruben.
It contains all of the standard complaints, albeit in a humorous way, about why scientific writing is basically dull, turgid and opaque.
Adam concludes that:
But there’s a reason scientific journal articles tend to be dry, and it’s because we’re writing them that way. We hope that the data constitutes an interesting story all by itself, but we all know it usually doesn’t. It needs us, the people who understand its depth and charm, to frame it and explain it in interesting ways.
Are scientific journals dry and dull? Beauty is, often, in the eye of the beholder.
I have been running some NMR experiments this week. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR) is a great technique. By using atomic nuclear spin, you can use NMR to measure the environment atoms find themselves in.
This is a simple example of a hydrogen 1-D NMR spectra for ethanol.
The single peak on the far left is the OH hydrogen, the peaks in the middle are the CH2 hydrogens and the peaks on the right are the CH3 hydrogens. If you make a new molecule which has hydrogens, you can dissolve it in ethanol and then see where this new molecule’s hydrogens show up. From the new peaks which appear in the NMR spectrum you can make a deduction about the structure of your new molecule.
Did I spend the week running NMR spectra for new lovely molecules I made? No. I spent the week collecing NMR spectra for all of my solvents. Eventually, I will dissolve my new lovely molecules in these solvents, eventually. NMR on regular old solvents is honestly a bit dull, but it does tell you if your solvents are pure which is kind of important. You want to make sure the apperance of a new peak is really about the molecule you WANT to see not just an impurity.
Unfortunately I had some random peaks in my NMR spectra for some of my solvents. How did I know what they were? I read a paper – which is one of the scientific world’s less interesting papers. Its called:
NMR Chemical Shifts of Common Laboratory Solvents as Trace Impurities
(J. Org. Chem. 1997, 62, 7512-7515)
Is this paper entertaining to read? Not really. Is this paper highly important and useful? Absolutely. Its been cited 851 times and I would think used much more than indicated by its citations.
Does this paper need to be written in a more accessible way? Not really. I, like most people who use this paper, don’t read the text so much as look at the tables, so I can identify that annoying little tiny impurity peak in my NMR solvent spectra.
If you look at the publication lists of many established scientists, these lists usually show publications in a variety of scientific journals – from the more generalist high impact journals (such as Nature and Science) to the Journal of Very Technical Details. Not all science belongs in the same journals and the writing styles are different for these different journal types. In a specialist journal, I personally don’t want to be entertained with flowery words and prose, I just want them to get to the point. I don’t care if its written in the 3rd, 4th or 8th person as long as it is clear. I also find these ‘dry’ journals pretty damn interesting because I am interested in the subject.
While I do take the point that science can be and maybe is often written in a dull way, not all science is going to be interesting to all people. The way science is written in some journals is just fine, just like any technical report on any subject.
Everything should be written in a way that achieves its particular goals. A phone directory written as poetry isn’t a very good phone directory. The ee cummins telephone tome would not only be unneccessary, it would actually be unhelpful. A scientific article in a technical journal is not written for a general non-specialist audience. A Nature paper should be written for a scientifically literate audience and an article about science in The Sun should be written for everyone.