Scientific papers need not be turgid. Geoff Watts gives a few tips on writing a page-turner that just might win you a reputation.
Most scientific papers are less than exciting. Along with computer instruction manuals and the small print of insurance policies, they are not the sort of reading you take to bed. Unless to sleep. So could they be otherwise?
Opportunities to announce the discovery of quasars or put forward the theory of relativity come but once in a thousand lifetimes. The generality of scientific communications - an improved method of measuring serum rhubarb in patients with Dangler's syndrome, or a new fossil Brachiopod from the late Cenozoic deposits off the eastern edge of St Lucia - will not make headlines. The only people to note your findings or ponder your conclusions may be others working on Brachiopods or Dangler's syndrome. But this is no reason to make your writing so impenetrable that all but the most ardent give up in despair.
In the ever more competitive environment of 21st-century, grant-seeking, publicity-hungry academia, every opportunity to grab a bit of attention is worth taking. Odd, then, that so many scientific papers are still so turgid. But bear a few simple things in mind and, while they may never hope to pass muster as a page-turner, they can at least be made readable. So, here are a few thoughts about introductions, discussions, abstracts and the like.
The intro should provide a context: how this bit of work fits in with what's already known and how it will advance matters. A sentence outlining the significance of the problem helps. Not, "This work addresses the central question of modern biology", but something more circumscribed. "Parasitic flatworms are a drain on the resources of many developing world economies. Successful control will depend on the development of a vaccine" - something of that kind. Even a reader unfamiliar with the field should be able to see the point of the work.
The intro is also where you can make your pitch: why this work really matters. Results should be just that: your unvarnished findings. Save the ifs, buts and qualifications for the discussion. But don't treat the discussion itself like a dumping ground. It needs shape. A jumble of thoughts and speculations set down in whatever order they came to you will not do. It should read like a mini article: a review of the field and a clear statement of the place and significance of your work within it. Use it to say how the work could be further developed and, if appropriate, how you intend to do so. Give a sense of direction.
Summaries should say what you have found and, briefly, what it means. "The findings were discussed" or similar phrases are worse than pointless. Readers who rely on abstracts for finding out if they need to consult the full paper have a way of expressing their irritation with authors who make the task harder: they can ignore the work.
Tips from the masters
It would help if more editors followed the pioneering efforts of Richard Smith at the British Medical Journal and used structured abstracts together with boxes explaining how the new work advances the field. Forcing authors to think in this way might persuade some of them that publication is premature, or even unwarranted!
The 1953 Nature paper on the double helix by Francis Crick and James Watson is still a model of clarity and brevity. "We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA)," it begins. "This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest."
As if to understate still further this opening understatement, their paper concludes with these now famous words: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."
Brevity and action
If you only ever follow two rules, make them these: use short sentences; and favour the active voice. Some writers behave as if punctuation costs money. It is not unusual to find sentences in scientific papers that run on for 150 words or longer. There have always been individuals who can get away with this.
Bernard Levin, in his days as a Times columnist, appeared to decide which of the rules of good writing he was going to break in that particular piece. But he knew the rules. He knew when he was able to break them, and then did so with such bravura that he not only got away with it but produced memorable prose.
Most scientists, and most journalists, are not so gifted. We do better to obey the rules. And when writing a scientific paper, it is not just a question of aesthetics; precision of meaning is also vital. For professional reasons (ie if someone pays me), I occasionally sub-edit papers intended for publication. Adjust the punctuation and even vast, shambolic sentences that list the steps in a research method or outline an argument in which clauses modified by sub-clauses are themselves then modified by sub-sub-clauses, can be given meaning. But then readjust the punctuation, and the meaning changes. What was the author really trying to say? Short sentences that need no elaborate punctuation side-step the problem.
As for voice, there is a widely held myth that the editors of academic journals prefer the passive. This is supposed to reflect the essentially self-effacing nature of science, in which to say "I" or "we" implies that it really matters whether Joe Brown or Fred Bloggs did the experiment, when the more important thing is what was actually done. The intentions may be honourable, but the prose they beget is feeble and lifeless. The equivalent, in a different context, of gazing across the softly flickering candle and whispering "You are loved by me".
Making memorable prose
There is a big difference between writing fiction and writing a paper. But many of the rules that make sense when trying to entertain are just as applicable when trying to inform. The easier and more readable a sentence, the greater the likelihood it will be understood and remembered. If the editors of learned journals do not more often reject or demand rewrites on grounds of voice, it is less a sign of their approval than of the despair they feel at persuading their contributors to write in a more muscular, less sterile manner. Do them a favour. Give them a good read.
For a guide to writing scientific papers, particularly in biomedicine, try Winning the Publications Game by ex-medical journalist Tim Albert. Details of this, and also of his training courses, at www.timalbert.co.uk