Education

Art of science writing put to the test

Barbara English

The mounting pressure on graduating MScs and PhDs to write journal articles is causing anxiety.

Finding the right formula: The challenge for young scientists is to write well-crafted articles that are rigorous and organised in their approach, and that do not confuse the reader. (Supplied)

The commodification of higher education has reached the very top — the PhD. The pressure on faculties of science in higher institutions of learning to produce MScs and PhDs mounts steadily. And the pressure on graduating MScs and PhDs to produce journal articles generates anxiety. 

Some stand up to the challenge of writing manuscripts based on their research. Others go into denial or leave writing to the last minute.

The pressure to publish has always been there, but not as in your face and in your thoughts as it is today. Never before have we said that "we will have X graduating MScs and Y graduating PhDs by 2025" — unabashed confidence in direct contrast to science's coyness about predictions.

Of course, similar anxiety dogs postgraduate students in faculties other than the sciences. But I'm speaking from the point of view of a member of the research office in the University of Pretoria's faculty of health sciences. I edit and polish up scientific manuscripts before they are submitted as would-be articles to accredited scientific journals. In my work I rediscover daily the strange beast that science writing is.

I've frequently made the statement that academic English is no one's first language. I still believe that to be true. After two years of working with budding or budded scientists, my new statement is: "Scientific English (as one of the academic Englishes) is no one's second or third language." How easy can it be to replicate a writing formula that has remained almost unchanged since people wearing strange clothes wrote science in Merton College library, Oxford, in the 14th century?

Not so obvious
Of course, at this point, scientists who are not in the business of teaching scientific writing can all say: "But reporting on scientific research is so easy; it's so linear. Once you've written down a particular statement it's obvious what statement has to come next."

Correct. But the statement that has to come next isn't obvious for many young scientists. When the fear of writing their first manuscript, submitting it to a journal's editorial board and braving up to criticism from peer reviewers gets to them, linearity of thinking shrivels, just like an elastic band.

How do you learn to be terse, develop an excellent word-to-meaning ratio, refer to several propositions in one sentence without confusing your readers, and be faultlessly logical all at the same time? How do you learn to draw a figure that represents data accurately? You can't use a line graph when only a bar chart is capable of presenting your findings. But not everyone sees the difference between the lines and the bars. 

In the sciences, long sentences are not outlawed. For this reason new scientists tend to write sentences that are too long for their readers' sentence-processing abilities. They lurk in the parts of a scientific report or manuscript that are more discursive than the parts scientific readers think of as the "heart" of a report.

The right to be discursive for some new scientists is often accompanied by disorganised thought. This shows up in two paragraphs that carry similar meaning and are separated by pages of text that have nothing to do with that meaning. The length of sections such as the context of, or background to, the research problem is problematic. 

Scientific readers want to read about what you did and why and how, and about what you found. The methods section shouldn't come halfway through a manuscript. When it does, readers know they're facing scientific insecurity.

A craft on its own
The 180-degree change from the confident logic that is the hallmark of scientific writing to the caution required for interpreting findings and drawing conclusions is a craft on its own. New scientists find the change to "our findings might point to …" difficult. "We will have X graduating PhDs by 2025" might be interfering with our ability to hedge our bets.

Writing scientifically takes skill and a knowledge of what your purpose is in every sentence of every section of your research manuscript. Communicating with purpose is not in everyone's language nature, though. Each of us has a unique idiolect — a use of grammar, a range of vocabulary, a preferred style — that is dependent on where we come from, what we do for a living, who we speak to, and what we consider "good language" to be. As soon as we start typing, our idiolect kicks in and we either approximate the scientific way or we remain miles away from it and in the place our raw idiolect has dumped us. 

I remember attempting to edit the MSc in epidemiology of a student of a specialist-physician colleague. The report was littered with purple prose and my colleague needed me to leave only the science in. It was hard work. When we'd done the colleague said to me: "Can you imagine this guy asking his mate to meet him in the park? It would be: 'Meet me under the fig trees that are filled with the glory of crested barbets eating their fill of late springtime fruit'."

Another of my favourite stories underscores the pressure to publish more and more journal articles. "Eric [our dean, Professor Eric Buch] is going to use his sjambok on us if we don't publish more." The thought of our most urbane dean taking a call from the World Health Organisation with his left hand and flailing a sjambok at recalcitrant academics with his right is hilarious.

The function of the research office is to increase the number of published articles and to get them into journals with a high-impact factor. Our wider approach is to use our website and send emails that advertise research grants that our scientists can apply for. 

Our personal approach comes across in our working one on one with would-be authors and maintaining friendly relationships with them. The University of Pretoria is a friendly place so the personal approach fits in well. 

Naturally, all publication-intensive universities are developing their own approaches towards pushing those scientific articles out and to being published in Nature or Cell or the New England Journal of Medicine. I think all of us should remain with "we would like to have X graduating MScs and X PhDs by 2025", though. 

It must be the scientist in me.

Barbara English is a research consultant in the University of Pretoria's faculty of health sciences

Originally published in: Getting Ahead

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