What style of language do scientists really prefer?

“Our readers are intelligent, well-educated scientists. Why should we make our language dumbed-down, patronising and imprecise in the name of ‘readability’?”

It’s a fair question. Here’s the answer.

Never talk down to your readers. But never waste their time, either. And scientists, while intelligent and educated, are also busy. As well as their research, they may have teaching, management or clinical duties to perform, funding applications to write, presentations to plan, journals to keep up to date with… They don’t have time to wade through verbiage in search of facts.

If you’re writing about something complex, then of course you need to give all the necessary detail. If you’re writing for specialists, you can use their specialist terms. But you don’t need to add verbal complexity beyond that. Keep it clear and direct. This makes your writing more efficient and more likely to succeed in communicating your message. It’s also courteous to your readers.

Einstein may or may not have said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Either way, it’s good writing advice.

But we don’t all follow it.

Many people, when writing in a work context, feel that they’re supposed to use language that is more abstract, impersonal and convoluted than they otherwise would. The idea is that this makes the writing sound more professional. But the result is often that it’s unclear and off-putting, even to highly intelligent readers.

Language like that can be made more concrete, more personal and more concise without dumbing down the content, without losing important information, and without making the tone inappropriately casual. In fact, directness and clarity normally sharpen the tone and can even help to add precision. Clearing up overgrown language can show you previously hidden patches of ambiguity.

Testing the hypothesis

Scientists like evidence, so let’s have some.

John Kirkman, as part of his book Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology, ran several surveys of scientists.

In one, he gave two versions of a passage from a research paper to 2,781 readers from medicine and the life sciences:

Brown’s version

In the first experiment of the series using mice it was discovered that total removal of the adrenal glands effects reduction of aggressiveness and that aggressiveness in adrenalectomized mice is restorable to the level of intact mice by treatment with corticosterone. These results point to the indispensability of the adrenals for the full expression of aggression. Nevertheless, since adrenalectomy is followed by an increase in the release of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), and since ACTH has been reported (Brain, 1972) to decrease the aggressiveness of intact mice, it is possible that the effects of adrenalectomy on aggressiveness are a function of the concurrent increased levels of ACTH. However, high levels of ACTH, in addition to causing increases in glucocorticoids (which possibly accounts for the depression of aggression in intact mice by ACTH), also result in decreased androgen levels. In view of the fact that animals with low androgen levels are characterised by decreased aggressiveness the possibility exists that adrenalectomy, rather than affecting aggression directly, has the effect of reducing aggressiveness by producing an ACTH-mediated condition of decreased androgen levels.

Smith’s version

The first experiment in our series with mice showed that total removal of the adrenal glands reduces aggressiveness. Moreover, when treated with corticosterone, mice that had their adrenals taken out became as aggressive as intact animals again. These findings suggest that the adrenals are necessary for animals to show full aggressiveness.

But removal of the adrenals raises the levels of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), and Brain2 found that ACTH lowers the aggressiveness of intact mice. Thus the reduction of aggressiveness after this operation might be due to the higher levels of ACTH which accompany it.

However, high levels of ACTH have two effects. First, the levels of glucocorticoids rise, which might account for Brain’s results. Second, the levels of androgen fall. Since animals with low levels of androgen are less aggressive, it is possible that removal of the adrenals reduces aggressiveness only indirectly: by raising the levels of ACTH it causes androgen levels to drop.

Kirkman sums up the main differences:

  • shorter, less complex sentence structures in Smith’s version
  • all necessary specialist terms are present in both versions, but Smith uses familiar words in place of unnecessary specialist terms
  • fewer passive structures and less roundabout phrasing in Smith’s version
  • paragraphing.

The scientists were then asked what they thought of the two versions.

“Which style do you prefer to read when you read scientific texts?” 74% picked Smith and 21% Brown.

“Which style do you think is more appropriate for scientific texts?” 57% picked Smith and 25% Brown.

Clearly the Smith style was much preferred, but the disparity between these two answers is interesting. A significant minority, even though they favoured Smith’s style, were still reluctant to endorse it for professional use. Presumably they were worried that their peers didn’t share their preferences. But, the survey shows, most did (they also rated Smith’s version easier to read and more precise, and rated Smith as being more objective and having the better-organised mind).

This is a case of what Steven Pinker calls pluralistic ignorance:

a false consensus, in which everyone is convinced that everyone believes something, and believes that everyone else believes that they believe it, but in fact no one actually believes it. One example is the cachet that college students place on drinking till they puke. In many surveys it turns out that every student, questioned privately, thinks that binge drinking is a terrible idea, but each is convinced that his peers think it’s cool.

Convoluted prose isn’t so literally sickening, but many academics and journals still maintain the illusion that it’s cool.

Kirkman also ran other surveys, giving different versions of specialist texts to chemical engineers, ecologists and biochemists. The results were similar. He lists the features of the preferred style:

Direct, verbs mainly active, minimum of special vocabulary, judicious use of personal and impersonal constructions, sentences of varied length but mainly short and not complex.

How to do it

For advice on how to improve convoluted writing, you could try Kirkman’s book, which focuses on scientific writing. Joseph William’s book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is very good and has a broader remit.

If you want something a bit shorter, Rachael Cayley’s Explorations of Style blog has some useful posts on that draw on Williams, among others, with a focus on academic writing. Look in particular at the ‘five key strategies’ posts listed on the right.

Pinker’s The Sense of Style I also recommend, particularly chapters 2–5 (don’t get too bogged down in the sentence diagrams). He too draws on Williams, as well as bringing in some psychological research on how we process language. He’s an engaging writer, if sometimes a bit combative.

I might try to write my own short guide one day. For now, I’ve done a case study [PDF] of a passage of text that isn’t from a journal article but is written for scientists. I’ve tried to improve it – cutting it in half but keeping the information, expressed more clearly and directly – explaining the changes as I go.

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  • samad1986  On March 17, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Good piece of advices

  • emilycommander  On March 17, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    This is fantastic – thank you. When you are reading for anything other than pleasure, the writing should be like a window, or a view-finder, through which you can see the subject of the writing…

  • Cyndi Perkins  On March 17, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Bravo! Spot-on and funny binge-drinking analogy resonates for me and some of my editing clients, particularly students who want to dress their verbiage to impress. Also worth noting that APA style leans toward formal passivity in its distaste for contractions and active verbs. Or at least that’s my impression. Please DO correct me if I’m wrong. Just started following and looking forward to delving into previous blog entries.

  • Jonathon Owen  On March 17, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    This reminds me of a paper by Rosemary Hake and Joseph Williams about academic writing. (It was titled something like “Do as I Do, Not as I Say”). If I remember right, they found that instructors actually gave better grades to papers that were wordier and more abstract.

    I guess it’s the same root problem of pluralistic ignorance—at some level, we think that something that’s harder to read must be better, so we’re afraid to reward the kind of writing we actually prefer.

  • Jls  On March 17, 2015 at 8:57 pm

    All scientists, or nearly all, now work in an international environment, which includes the literature they have to read and write. Many are using English as their second or third language. I feel strongly we should make texts in English readable for all of them.
    Jackie, science editor in a top research group

  • Geraldine Holden  On March 17, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    Go on, write your own short guide.

  • ProsWrite  On March 17, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    Yes, indeed. Plain language in science is about communication–shared meaning with an audience. Not about the writer posing “above” the audience.

    You might find this piece from some Canadian science editors interesting: http://plainlanguagescience.ca/2014/07/10/science-communication-manifesto/. They present seven lessons. I’ve copied the relevant one below.

    6. Do not confuse simple language with dumbing down ideas.

    Your audience, even if it does not understand your particular brand of science speak, is an animal who successfully survived hundreds of thousands of years in the great outdoors. Most of it with few tools. Assume that they are very smart — and from there communicate simply.

  • adishi  On March 18, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    nice post

  • jonathanchamp  On March 24, 2015 at 7:16 pm

    Reblogged this on Meaning Business and commented:
    The evidence is in: scientists prefer clarity in technical and scientific communication .

  • Ha-Vinh  On May 28, 2015 at 10:22 am

    Reblogged this on Health Services Authors.

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