The other day talking to some members of our Asociation of spanish scientists in Germany (CERFA) we came to topic of writing.
It might seem a bit far fetched, that is, if you don’t know that science involves more than the work done on a bench, at a microscope or in front of one or several computers. In fact, to make that part of science even possible a lot of writing needs to be done, both before, during and definitely after.
The first thing that needs to be written at the beginning of any scientific project is a proposal to a funding agency, that is, to the people you need convincing to give you the money to pay not only your salary, but also the equipment and material you might need during the time your project lasts. In some cases, a proposal would be necessary ONLY to pay your salary, so the investment is the same: writing for hours on end. The same hours you´ll need to dedicate afterwards to write a manuscript (if you’ve been lucky and the results are publishable) where you’ll prove the money invested on you was well worth it and also to serve as a hook for more money and/or a better job position. This part of the process can last for years, not only if it is a thesis project, but also for articles. Each scientific journal demands a different format and if you’re unlucky and the resubmission rounds involve 2-3 different ones, rewriting and reformatting are for sure on the menu. Luckily, during the project things get easier (ehem): updating funding agencies once a year, more or less, and if in a leadership position back to number one to apply for more project money or forward to number three to get publications and with that publicity and money (more).
Now that I have already given you an idea of how much there is to write during a research project, I can just go back to my point and tell you that scientific writing is damn boring. And on this, there is little disagreement. Scientific language is the most limited, boring and scarce that any reader can imagine. There is a reason for that, say those who defend it (or at least those who teach it, because we need to learn how to write with a vocabulary limited to those 500 words some language courses promise to teach you in no time at all) and that is that it is a way of making a text more comprehensible to scientists worldwide, if rules are properly stablished. Well then, even so there are articles out there that would comply 100% with the rules of scientific writing, yet they are utterly unintelligible.
Some might still think scientists are like machines, but we aren’t. Many of us have an interest in the arts, and among them literature and when we have to struggle with something dense and badly written, we have a problem appreciating any (good) science behind it. It is a bit like going to hear a renowned scientist give a talk and find out he’s a horrible speaker, his science’s value gets somehow undermined. Worst is, I find, that this language supposedly designed to facilitate understanding among scientists is inescrutable to lay people for it is not a natural way of reading or writing. We need to be taught, remember?
What I most wonder is whether in these times of change where there’s a growing demand for OpenAccess to scientific articles and where (hopefully) soon anyone can have access to science without the need of an interpreter like the media, it wouldn’t really make a lot of sense to change the way we communicate science. And one way to start could be to get rid off the simple, boring and annoying scientific language for good.
I, myself, no need to say, would be all up for a change specially because I am tired of receiving manuscripts corrected with the annotation: “This is science, not literature”.