Still about boring papers: rushing through collaborative work

revisionAcademics suck at writing. A good part of the problem is in the collaborative work, where the rush combined with a sum of excellent opinions produces a Frankensteinian text. Can we do it better? 

Scientific papers are usually boring. Part of the problem is the very nature of science, which is essentially technical and focused on details. There’s nothing to do about that. It must be like this.

But another (big) part of the problem is that papers are poorly written. I have been discussing in earlier posts how we can improve our papers in terms of style and use of jargons.

Beyond writing style itself, I’ve noted that there are two common situations in the scientific environment contributing to make papers bad to read.

First, there is the rush. We are all under a lot of pressure. We have to produce fast, publish a lot, show work. That’s just the recipe for bad writing, not only in science, but in any field.

Ideally, when we write our manuscript, we should let it rest for a couple of days, then, revise it. I don’t need to tell how important this is to find mistakes, to pinpoint obscurely convoluted reasoning, to uncover flawed logics that we didn’t see before.

But, funny enough, although everyone agrees that this resting time is fundamental, all my coworkers send me manuscripts immediately after they finish editing their first version. Again, we live in rushing times.

The second factor contributing to the bad writing is the collaborative work itself. Let me make my point through fictional characters.

Charles is a grad student proudly preparing one of his first papers. He collects all the data from his simulations and also those from his colleague, Jane. Then, he compares these results to the experimental data from Dr. Proust. He makes a nice analysis and writes the first version of the paper.

Happy, Charles sends it around to his coworkers, including his supervisor, Prof. Ramos. They all work on this first version of the manuscript and send their revisions back to him.

Charles gets the text back and checks Jane’s additions. He doesn’t agree with the way she rewrote some paragraphs, but he believes that if he doesn’t accept her changes, she may take it personally. He doesn’t want to offend her and compromise.

Then comes the experimental section. Charles is a theorist. He has no deep knowledge of what Dr. Proust is doing. He doesn’t think twice and just accepts all insertions from the experimentalist.

Finally, he looks at the boss’ comments. Charles doesn’t really understand Prof. Ramos’ points, but he’s the boss, he should know what he’s talking about. Once more, Charles accepts the additions and the second version of the manuscript is ready.

Charles sends the paper to his coworkers once more and after few iterations, where this dynamics repeats, the paper is considered ready for submission.

The final result, less than being a better text coming from a collective experience of excellent scientific minds, looks more like a Frankenstein monster with different styles and views superimposed in a schizophrenic text:

How a Bad Paper is Born

Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Marcel Proust, Graciliano Ramos*

I see this kind of thing happening all the time and I don’t really have any solution for that. In the ideal world, one person would be responsible for writing the last version, having enough time and knowledge to care about the literary quality of the text.

(Well, in the ideal world I would be a millionaire and I wouldn’t mind about writing papers.)

Anyway, I have few suggestions to us all, including me, as there’s quite a lot of room for improvement in my own papers.

When preparing a manuscript:

  • Revise, revise, revise. Let the manuscript rest between revisions. Don’t send it to others just after making major editions.
  • Revise different sections (including references) independently at different times. If you do in one go, last sections won’t get the same attention as the first sections.
  • Set with your colleagues who will be responsible for the last version. Make clear that this person will have the power to impose his or her own style for sake of consistence of the final text.
  • If some part of the text is obscure for you, don’t let it go just because it probably makes sense. If you as an author don’t get it, chances are that your readers won’t do as well.
  • Form a reading group with your department colleagues. You read their manuscripts, they read yours without any obligation of co-authorship. It helps a lot to have an external view on your text.
  • If you’re still insecure about the writing quality, hire a professional proof reading. There are many of such services around.

And if you are desperately looking for help with your writing style, I have few recommendations:

  • Stephen Pinker just published “The Sense of Style” discussing writing style from a linguistic perspective. I can’t vouch for this book as I’ve just started to read it now, but Pinker is a great author, it’s probably worth reading. (PS on 17/01/2016: It’s totally worth reading. Amazing book.)
  • You may also check “Why Academics Stink at Writing—and how to fix it” with texts by several authors (Pinker included).
  • If you are looking for a more conventional writing-style manual, Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” is a must-read little book.
  • San Francisco Edit, a company specialized in scientific proofreading, has a collection of newsletters with nice tips on scientific writing. (That’s not an advertisement. I’ve never used their services and I have no idea how good they are.)
  • Finally, the American Chemical Society edited a virtual issue with short papers discussing different aspects of the scientific publication. It’s also worth checking.
  • Do you have any more tip? Share with us in the comments bellow.


Categories: Productivity, Work Organization

Tags: , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. I really think that a good writing skill is extremely important for a scientist.

    After I went back to China, I suffer a lot for the terrible expressions in the manuscript written by my co-workers and some (not all) cooperators. In many cases, I need to re-write almost all paragraphs and it is really painful. Even if I am not good enough to write a manuscript with fluent English, my draft is at least understandable and it is still in the logical structure. However, it becomes very difficult for me to improve it after a few times of corrections, since most parts are written by me already. Then I am also lost and can not give good improvement again.

    I fully agree
    “Make clear that this person will have the power to impose his or her own style for sake of consistence of the final text.”

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