Papers are boring, right? Is there anything to do about it?

papersReading and writing scientific papers are essential parts of a scientist job. Unfortunately, they are awfully boring. I’m on a quest to improve my own style and I have some tips to share.

The question goes much beyond having English as the second language. Papers written by native American or British scientists are no better than those by foreigners when it comes to style.

The problem is so serious that I miss even role models: which authors in my field could I follow and learn about style? Maybe Edward Heller, who else?

Scientists could really benefit from taking more care of their writing styles. If in addition to scientific quality, a paper is clear and enjoyable for the reader, chances are that its impact will be larger than a paper with those hermetic jargonic language that brings the readers to a near-death experience.

In 1990, John Tully wrote his seminal paper proposing the fewest switches algorithm. The fewest switches is today the most used method for surface hopping simulations, in spite of tens of other alternative methods proposed before and since then. I risk to say that the success of Tully’s method is due the clarity of his 1990 paper. Straight to the point, clear and clean mathematical notation, and an awesome step-by-step do-it-yourself numbered list of how to implement the method.

On the opposite corner, there are those authors who attach so many indexes around every variable of their equations and splash so many acronyms everywhere that their texts look like a fancy alien message to Earthlings.

There is an important player in my field who publishes all his (many) papers without explicitly explaining his method. He always makes reference to his original publication from many years ago. Not the best practice, but legitimate. The problem is that when you go to that original publication, you can’t understand what he has been doing either. His method is hidden under layers of awfully obscure text.

I’m also not entirely proud of the literary quality of my papers. I’m pretty sure that people are having a hard time reading them as well. (Sorry for that…) Nonetheless, I’m on a quest to improve.

I don’t have final answers, but I have few suggestion that may be helpful to do papers less boring.

1. Tell a story

I’ve made this point before when I discussed how to do an efficient academic work. I won’t repeat it here, but in short: before writing, you should know what you are going to tell. Plan your paper as if it were a story.

2. Less is better

Sorter texts, shorter titles, shorter sections, shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences, shorter words. Wherever we can shorter anything without hurting the message, clarity improves.

3. Don’t be passive

Scientist brains read a sentence like:

I did the experiments in room temperature.

as being scientifically unworthy. Science must be impersonal, the scientist, modest. Then, they rewrite it as

The experiments reported in this paper were done in room temperature.

And that is it. The scientist brain takes a perfectly understandable, rigorous but still easy to read sentence and metamorphoses it into a robotic monstrosity.

Not that passive voice can’t be used at all. (The WordPress text editor, for instance, automatically underlines all my passive constructions as to remember that I’m a sinner.) The passive voice has its many merits. Just keep the balance: modesty, for instance, isn’t a good reason to use passive voice.

4. Loose the crutch and walk!

Compare these two sentences:

In these equations, {i,j} and {a,b} denote occupied and virtual orbitals respectively.

and

In these equations, i and j denote occupied orbitals, while a and b denote virtual orbitals.

No doubt the second sentence is clear. “Respectively” should be used only if there is a real risk of misunderstanding, most of time you can drop it. Others, like above, slightly rewriting the sentence may be a bless for clarity.

There are many other crutch expressions around, like:

  • “In order to” (use “to” instead),
  • “To accomplish that” (just drop it)
  • “Note that” (drop it),
  • “It is worth mentioning” (drop it; do you write anything that isn’t worth mentioning?),
  • “and/or” (rewrite the sentence).

5. Well, sometimes more is better

Next example. Compare:

The molecule should cross a barrier in order to reach the conical intersection.

and

The molecule should cross a barrier to reach the conical intersection, from where it relaxes to the ground state.

Which one do you prefer?

I’d go for the second. You may not know or not remember what a conical intersection is, but in the second sentence, you are informed that it is where the molecule relaxes to the ground state.

This point is particularly relevant, Stephen Pinker calls it the “curse of knowledge“. We, authors, often forget that the readers don’t know everything that we do. Then, we assume that our logic is crystal clear, that the concepts that are routine for us are universally known. What does it cost few strokes more explaining what happens at a conical intersection?

***

I’m still only scratching the surface, but this post is already getting too long.¬† I’ll come back this discussion on how to make papers less boring in the next time.

MB

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Categories: Productivity, Work Organization

Tags: , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Good tips Mario! I agree with you about the Tully’s paper

  2. For me, the important point is just to accept the fact that it requires lots of effort to make a paper readable. Usually there is a point when you would have all your data together, figures, tables and a rough draft of the text. And from that point on it is at least a month of hard work and lots of proof reading by different people before the paper is anywhere near the way it should be. And I guess people don’t take the time to do that. Everyone is too busy writing many papers, so that they do not have time to write good papers. I was also discussing that in a recent post:
    http://www.chemical-quantum-images.blogspot.de/2014/09/productivity.html

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