A Scientific Inquiry into the Art of Scientific Writing

phyllobates's picture

 A Scientific Inquiry into the Art of Scientific Writing

Phyllobates*

Chemistry Department, Haverford College, 370 Lancaster Ave., Haverford, PA 19041, USA

Received Date: 5/13/2011


 

Abstract

One of the goals in our course “The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories” was to breakdown the barriers between science and literature. However, one of the unbreakable and remaining lines of separation between the two fields is the drastically different writing styles. Scientific literature is often described as dense and boring, containing little inspiration. In order to make scientific writing more appealing and publically accessible many of my peers have proposed to remove the scientific jargon and “spice up” the writing style. It is important to note, however, that scientific writing style has developed in order to present an experiment and the findings clearly and precisely to a large number of people. Many of the characteristics that have been regarded as dry or boring seem critical in achieving this goal. This experiment sought to determine how the presentation of a study changes as the piece is re-written for the public.   In order to achieve this goal this experiment tracked the evolution of a study which investigated the fading of the yellow paint in several of  van Gogh’s paintings. While the story began as an experimental scientific article the findings were then re-written into summary for a scientific website and for a public news blog. Using Wordle as well as other structural and literary analyses this study sought to determine whether adding charm and flare to a scientific study compromises the goals of the paper. Although the findings are somewhat subjective, this study demonstrates there is a clear difference in the information presented in a public form. This evidence supports the notion that despite the alienating effect of scientific writing style, original scientific reports should not be changed to  include public readers. Rather scientific reports should preserve their clarity and scientific and news blogs should continue to reinterpret the findings for the general public.


 

Introduction & Background

           The stated purpose of our course, The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, is to “think more systematically about ways in which biological and literary methods of study might inform one another”1. In order to accomplish this goal over the last 15 weeks we have attempted to tear down the boundaries between science and literature. Ultimately, as a class we seemed to reach an agreement that science and literature are two different ways to tell stories, describing and explaining the world as we know it. In addition to sharing a similar purpose, many parallel concepts were discovered between the two fields. For my group’s final presentation we created a venn diagram that sought to depict how words we initially associated with either biology or literature could be applied to both, thus demonstrating the true overlap of the two fields.   Examples of these words included algorithm, randomness, time, library of Babel, & agency. Looking back, however, I believe we failed to stress that despite this overlap there are key differences in the applications of these terms to science and literature. Thus, despite there being many more similarities between the two fields than we initially though, science and literature are still discrete areas of study. While in the final weeks many of my peers blogged about how this class helped them to completely tear down the boundaries between science and literature, I found that this class helped me to establish more precise and conscious borders between the two fields.

            During the final week of class one of our small group discussions centered on the drastic difference between scientific and literary writing styles. Using the argument that both science and literature are just stories about the world, which should be available to everyone, several of my peers took issue with the alienating writing style in scientific papers. Specifically, many voiced that scientific writing is dry and tedious containing an overly predictable structure and confusing or inaccessible jargon. Although initially I disliked reading scientific papers, over the course of this year scientific writing has grown on me. Despite being dry and tedious, I have found that scientific writing style is unique in its ability to be universally interpreted by a diverse and sizeable audience. I certainly agree, however, that the scientific writings style hinders the public’s access to scientific literature. In order to make scientific articles more appealing and accessible the majority of my peers suggested that the articles should be “spiced up” and that the scientific jargon should be excluded.   While these changes would certainly make scientific articles more appealing to the public, it seems like these changes could taint the precision and clarity achieved and valued in scientific papers.

            In order to better evaluate how these changes would affect scientific literature it is important to understand how and why scientific writing has evolved over time to reach its current state. Starting at the very beginning in ancient Greece Aristotle proposed 3 modes of persuasion one of which was logic. With regards to writing style Aristotle recognized that good writing had “clarity, elegance, and appropriateness to the subject”2. Due to conflicts between scientific and religious beliefs and a lack of printing technology, major advances in scientific writing did not occur until the Renaissance period2,3. In the year 1665 the first two scientific journals, Journal des Scavans and Philosophical Transactions, were published2. Unlike today’s scientific journals, which are highly specified by field, during the mid 17th century a journal’s span of topics was fairly broad. Journal des Scavans contained the publications from all of the academic fields, while Philosophical Transactions was more ‘narrowly’ focused, containing publications from only the scientific fields. The specialization of scientific journals that we have today did not emerge until the mid 1700’s.2

           One of the major changes that occurred during the Renaissance period was the way in which science was actually conducted. During this period systematic observation was heavily emphasized, thus the idea of controlled experiments readily emerged. Francis Bacon is considered to be one of the foundational figures of the scientific method. A typical Renaissance man, Bacon was a philosopher, scientist, and politician among many other interests. Bacon’s scientific method was centered around the goal of achieving objective empiricism3. Explained in his book, Novum Organum (1620) , Bacon’s method,

 

         “consisted of three main steps: first, a description of facts; second, a tabulation, or classification, of those facts into three            categories—instances of the presence of the characteristic under investigation, instances of its absence, or instances of its            presence in varying degrees; third, the rejection of whatever appears, in the light of these tables, not to be connected with          the phenomenon under investigation and the determination of what is connected with it.” 4

From these detailed observations one could then draw an initial conclusion, our modern day hypothesis. This conclusion must then be further examined and compared to other potential hypothesis5. While this method is different from today’s developed scientific method, emphasis on the verification of a hypothesis through observation and experimentation sparked the need for a new written form, which could present research findings to the scientific community without bias.

            During the Renaissance period scientific societies publishing their own journals were instrumental in establishing such an effective scientific writing style. Most notably was the Royal Society of London, one of the earliest scientific societies established. The Royal Society was responsible for publishing Philosophical Transactions, and it was tied to notorious scientists such as Newton, Boyle, & Hooke along with Bacon2.   In addition to publishing the first scientific journal, the Royal Society was one of the initial groups to address the guidelines for scientific exploration and reporting. One of the members, Robert Boyle, best known for his ideal gas law, played a heavy hand in establishing the form and writing style of the experimental essay3.   Keeping in line with Bacon’s method, the experimental essay was a new form of scientific writing that sought to present the scientist observations, experiments, and results in an objective manner.

           In order to help writers present their findings in a clear and unbiased fashion, in the late 17th century Boyle created a series of stylistic guidelines for the experimental essay. Boyle identified the following features as critical components to writing an effective experimental essay3:

           1.     Brevity: This does apply to the degree of detail, but rather it is in reference to sentence length. Sentences should be            concise and easy to follow. Thorough detail should be provided with regard to the experiment so that a peer could repeat            the experiment. Unnecessary details or tangential details should not be included. 

           2.     Lack of assertiveness: The observations and findings should be reported as observed. Subjective and authoritative            weight should not be given to explain the findings (the author’s opinions should not be included).   The author should not            “arrive at definite conclusions or systematize the results obtained.”3

           3.     Perspicuity: All reports should be “barely stated, without any Prefaces, Apologies, or Rhetorical Flourishes”3 as the            purpose of the essay is to convey findings in a clear and accurate style.

           4.     Simplicity of form: This refers to the physical sentence constructions. It is preferential to use simple verbs. Active            voice is preferred, “highlighting the role and importance of the scientist and his/her function as the subject”3 . However,            passive voice is effective in highlighting “unexpected results or to report how certain procedures were carried out”3 .

           5.     Objectivity: Verbs indicating the author’s uncertainty (seem or appear) should be avoided. All research should be            conducted and then presented without bias or personal insights.

 

           In addition Boyle establishing a new set of writing guidelines he also advocated to open up the scientific literature to the ordinary man3. During this time period science was not seen as an individual quest, but rather a process though which to learn and share new useful information. Boyle nudged his peers to write in a more accessible style so that even an inexperienced reader could understand and repeat the experiments.   In order to accomplish this task he recommended that authors not use “loan-words”3, words that are borrowed from another language. He suggested that authors refrain from using “short expressions”3 that are know only in certain circles or areas. Lastly he advised that writers avoided rhetorical embellishment, or flourishing their work as it only made the work less clear, especially to unfamiliar readers. One of the important changes that occurred during the Renaissance period was the transition of the written language. Up to the mid 1600’s the majority of scientific literature had been published in Latin, as it was a universal language amongst scholars. However, with the further development of European languages by the 1700’s most journals were published in the national European language. Although this change served to subdivide the scientific community it made scientific literature much more accessible to the common man2. 3

           Although it still maintains many of the same characteristics originally outlined by Boyle, today scientific writing has become much more of a standardized style. The main goal of the experimental essay still stands to provide accurate and clear information to readers. One of the difficulties of life in general is that nobody is ever coming from the exact same direction or perspective. Thus, particularly in with writing it is difficult for a diverse group of readers to read one sentence let alone an entire piece and come away with the same message. While this is part of the excitement and mystery of literature and poetry, in the scientific field this effect is detrimental. It is of the utmost importance that the audience comes away from a scientific paper with the same message and understanding. Therefore, it is critical that the piece be accurate, clear, and precise taking every precaution not to confuse the readers. Boyle’s guidelines for writing a scientific paper are helpful in steering readers toward a single interpretation, but since his time other changes have been implemented that help to further this effect. 

           An article from American Scientist took a close look at the art of scientific writing. In this article they acknowledge that, as stated above, “we cannot succeed in making even a single sentence mean one and only one thing; we can only increase the odds that a large majority of readers will tend to interpret our discourse according to our intentions”6. The article also points out that “readers make many of their most important interpretive decisions about the substance of prose based on clues that they receive from [the paper’s] structure”6. In order to increase these odds as Boyle’s rules did, the article proposes several structural guidelines that can ease a readers reading experience6:

           1.     Subject-Verb Separation: The verb should follow the subject as soon as possible. This helps a reader to quickly know            what the subject is doing and so they can then focus on the smaller details.6

           2.     Stress Positions: We remember words and phrases best when they are placed at the end of a sentence. This is true            both in speech and writing. It is helpful to place the important information that is being stressed at the end of a                          sentence.  6

           3.     Subject Position: It is easiest to follow a sentence when the subject (person or thing) is identified at the beginning of            the sentence. 6

           4.     Topic Position: Placing previously stated material at the beginning of a paragraph in order to link concept to the prior            paragraph is helpful in establishing a clear linear thought pattern. 6

 

           The majority of these suggestions address the structure of the actual writing, however the physical structure of the paper also helps to provide a universal interpretation; “Information is interpreted more easily and more uniformly if it is placed where most readers expect to find it”6 . While the specifics depend on the journal, there is a clear structural scientific format7. All scientific papers begin with an abstract that describes the subject, goals, and findings of the paper. While this information can be dense, the abstract is useful in getting a quick gist of the paper. The next section is the introduction, which provides the critical background knowledge on the topic being studied. The introduction not only gives the reader a general overview, but it also provides an unfamiliar reader some relevant sources on the topic for future research. Next papers include an experimental section that discusses the materials and methods of the study. This section gives the critical information so that others can repeat the experiment and validate the results. Lastly, there is the results and discussion section, which presents the study’s data and then provides an explanation for the data along with proposals for future directions. 7

           Despite the fact that scientific literature is written with the goal to accurately convey an experiment and its findings to a diverse group of readers, for the average individual reading a scientific piece often seems like a daunting task. Unlike during the days of Boyle where changes were made to disseminate information to the public, today the price of accuracy in scientific literature has led to the exclusion of the amateur reader. The audience of scientific literature has become solely the professional scientist. Journals articles now serve as a form of recognition of ones own discoveries and as background information for fronting new experiments. The scholarly jargon, the daunting figures, and complex formulas serve as great obstacles to everyday readers8. In contrast to literary works, which are composed of adjectives and adverbs, scientific pieces are reliant on nouns and verbs. While this helps to paint a clear and accurate picture of the findings, many inexperienced readers find scientific articles tedious, boring, predictable, and inaccessible.

           Although I understand these points and at one time shared these opinions, after gaining a better insight into scientific papers I really admire their harsh form. I do agree that scientific literature should be made more accessible to the public, but not at the expense of clarity that have been achieved. I find it quite impressive that a diverse group, of albeit educated individuals, can read a scientific article and all get the same integral points out of it. It seems that by removing scientific jargon and using a more appealing style would it corrupt the accuracy that has been achieved in these papers. By changing sentence structure and removing many of the stricter organizational trends to make the papers more interesting, given the above finding, this many only impede a reader’s comprehension. The predictable structure found in scientific papers not only helps the reader but also enhances their efficiency to read through and find relevant or interesting articles. Another important factor to consider is that the majority of research papers today are written in collaboration with multiple authors. If personal styles were added to scientific papers it would be hard to produce a cohesive article. For all of these reasons and many more it seems like it would be disadvantageous to make scientific writing more appealing or creative.

           From my own personal experience I find it distressing to read scientific articles that have been “spiced up” for the public. When concepts are oversimplified I feel like they lose their true meaning. By using more accessible words the fine points become clouded over and on the large scale individuals come away with different interpretations. In addition I find it unproductive to read these “spiced up” versions. I am far less efficient and there is no good way to skim the article looking for the important points or to quickly find background sources (let alone the actual original source). While my instincts are against simplifying scientific material in order to open it to the public, I am not sure how valid this fear is. I am interested in seeing how articles change depending on the public they are written for. I aim to investigate if and how research findings are re-represented and then consequently change their meaning as they are converted into different public forms. 

 

Experimental Section

Materials. Three articles explaining the darkening of yellow paint in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings were examined. The original scientific article taken from Analytical Chemistry is titled “Degradation process of lead chromate in paintings by Vincent van Gogh studied by means of synchrotron X-ray spectromicroscopy and related methods. 2. Original pain layer samples”9.; it was written in 2011 by Monico et al. The study found that van Gogh’s yellow paint turns brownish as the chromium within the pain is reduced by UV light from Cr(VI) to Cr (III). It was also determined that this reaction most readily occurred in paints that have high concentrations of Ba(sulfate) and or aluminum silicate compounds, thus explaining why the darkening phenomenon occurrs more readily in some paintings than others. The scientifically based rewrite of this article was found on Science Daily, a scientific website aimed for public readers. The article was titled “X-rays show why van Gogh paintings lose their shine”10. The third article that was examined was found at the online CBS News site, it is titled “Mystery behind fading van Gogh solved”11.

Methods. Using the guidelines outlined by Boyle as well as some of the concepts from the American Scientist article each of the above van Gogh articles was examined separately for the presence of physical structure, brevity, objectivity, and simplicity of form. Physical structure was determined by the physical organization of concepts as well as titles or labels. Brevity is a measure that looked at the size of the sentences as well as the degree of unnecessary detail.    Objectivity was measured by determining by usage of the verbs “seem” and “appear”. Simplicity of form was a measure of the complexity of the sentences determined by looking at subject-verb separation as well as verb simplicity and appropriateness. Lastly all three texts were compared through Wordle analysis, looking at the relative levels of scientific jargon. These measures were then used to track the evolution from a purely scientific story to a public commercial story.

Results and Discussion

 

Type of Analysis

Analytical Chemistry

 

Science Daily

CBS News

Physical Structure

ÖLabeled Sections

X No Labels

X Has Mixed Sections

X No Labels

X  Has Mixed Sections

Ö Linear Order

Brevity

Ö Although slightly variable throughout sections, sentences were to the point.

 Ö No unnecessary details

Ö Sentences were pretty precise, although had a few unnecessarily long sentences.

X Unnecessary details about researchers and back story of van Gogh’s paintings

X Some sentences contained unnecessary clauses leading to long complex sentences

X Unnecessary details about back story of van Gogh’s paintings

Objectivity

X appear (5)

Ö seem (0)

Ö appear (0)

Ö seem (0)

Ö appear (0)

Ö seem (0)

Simplicity of Form

Ö (X)  In introduction had long subject- verb breaks

(however, this was not the case in remaining sections)

Ö verbs simple and appropriate to subject

 Ö  has short subject- verb breaks

 Ö (X) verbs accurately describe action of subject with some exceptions (eg. “employed an X-ray beam”)

*descriptive adjectives

 Ö  has short subject- verb breaks

X verbs are not appropriate for the noun, they are exaggerated and inaccurate (eg.)

*descriptive adjectives

 **Ö = to a check or yes; X = a cross or no

            Using Boyle’s guidelines as well as suggestions form the American Scientist article to separately analyze the three texts a slight trend can be observed with the evolution of the texts (Table 1). The original scientific article served as somewhat of a control in that it was expected that it would correspond positively to all of the types of analysis. This was mostly true, with the exception of the objectivity measure. Unlike the other two texts the scientific article did use the word “appear” 5 times damaging the authors objective front. 

            In comparing the scientific article re-written for the public (Science Daily) to the original article the main differences included the lack of a physical organizational structure and the increased number of inconsequential details and descriptions. The article, which was significantly trimmed down, left out the actual experimental data and instead spent text describing the researchers and some of the background of van Gogh’s paintings. Through careful examination of the sentence structure it quickly became apparent that in the public scientific article many more adjectives had been added. Metaphorical phrases such as “the experiment reads like a crime scene investigation” were also much more common.

            Adding in the more socially oriented CBS news piece to the comparison showed a further exaggeration of the many changes found between the original article and the Science Daily article. Just as the Science Daily piece had no formal organization structure, the CBS article did not have sections or labels either. However, perhaps since CBS is geared towards a less scientifically savvy population its article was written in a experimentally linear fashion. Similar to the Science Daily article, the CBS report left out a lot of the experimental data, replacing it with irrelevant descriptions of van Gogh’s paintings and museums. Even more than in the Science Daily piece, the CBS article used descriptive and metaphorical language, adding in more common and inappropriate verbs like “robbing” and “blame” to describe the effects of the paint reaction.

            In order to look at the types of words used in each of the texts a Wordle composition was created plotting the top 150 words in each article (see attachments below). In the ACS original article the top words included “Cr”, “sample”, “spectra”, “yellow”, “compounds”, “XANES”, and “PbCrO4”. In the Science Daily article the top words included “paintings”, “paint”, “yellow”, “Gogh”, “chemical”, “scientists”, “University”, “Cr”, and “x-ray”. Looking at the CBS Wordle the top terms included “paint”, “chromium”, “light”, “yellow”, “darkening”, “Janssens”, “Van Gogh(‘s)”, “x-ray”, and “paintings”. Tracing the transition of these terms along the evolution of the papers it is evident that some of the scientific terms such as the compound chemical names, “XANES” the x-ray technology, and “sample” were cut out and replaced with “chromium”, “x-ray”, and “paint”. Some of the trends discussed above can also be seen simply by looking at the words displayed in the Wordle documents. The heavy presence of paintings, scientists (including the researcher Janssens), degrees of brightness, and color found in the public pieces demonstrate the amount of unnecessary details added into the story. Despite the fact that the main finding of the article detailed the reduction reaction of the paint, in the CBS article the word “loved” is bigger than the word “reaction”. Adjectives and adverbs such as “brownish”, “curious”, and “sophisticated” replace where scientific nouns such as “structure”, “electron”, and “pre-edge” lay in the original ACS article. 

Conclusions

            Although the above findings are somewhat subjective, this study demonstrates there is a clear difference in the information presented in a scientific paper versus that presented in a public forum. As demonstrated above the main differences include the depth of scientific information presented, the amount of scientific jargon used, the sentence format, the structural organization, and the degree of creativity and whit. In reading all three articles I was surprised to find that despite these changes even the public articles did a good job of representing the findings and explaining their overall significance.

             While I think it is positive that the public has access to scientific research, and while I agree that it would be nice if the original articles were written so the general public could understand I am not sure how feasible or important this really is. In terms of feasibility as I have tried to emphasize an important part of science is the objectivity and the precision with which concepts can be written and conveyed. As a scientist reading the public articles, while I was able to understand the findings the addition of more accessible verbs and attractive adjectives decreased the objectivity and clarity of the findings. At some points I found myself struggling to determine what had really occurred or how it had occurred.

            In terms of importance, although as I mentioned the articles all did a good job of conveying the findings in the public forms the articles lacked the actual experimental data and the discussion of these results. Rather the public articles briefly stated the experimental method and then gave the conclusions of the paper. A major aspect of science is being able to understand the theory, validity the results, and repeat or redesign experiments. None of these steps can be accomplished by reading the public version, and I think this is because the public doesn’t care about these steps, but rather they are interested in learning a little bit more about our world. As a scientist, all of the sections of the experimental essay are important and cannot be discarded. Thus based on my findings and the above points I think that scientific literature should remain as it is. It is important to preserve the clarity and accuracy of scientific works, and it should be the job of the public scientific blogs to reinterpret these findings for the general public.

 

 

References

1Dalke, Anne. "Week One (Tues, 1/18): Nuts and Bolts." Serendip: The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories. N.p., 18

            Jan. 2011. Web. 11 May 2011. <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/evolit/s11>.

2 "A Short History of Science Writing." Scitext Cambridge. N.p., 2000. Web. 12 May 2011.                                                 

            <http://www.scitext.com/history.php>.

3 Lareo, Ines, and Ana Montoya Reyes. "Scientific Writing: Folowing Robert Boyle's Principles in Experimental Essays -1704 and                    1998." Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses 20 (2007): 119-137. PDF file.

4 "Baconian method." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 12 May.                     2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/48191/Baconian-method>.

5 Klein, Juergen, "Francis Bacon", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),                         forthcoming URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/francis-bacon/

6 Gopen, George, and Judith Swan. "The Science of Scientific Writing." American Scientist Nov.- Dec.1990: n. pag. Web. 12 May             2011.

7 Kuldell, Natalie H. "Scientific Writing, Peer Review and Scientific Journals." Vision Learning. N.p. 2004. Web. 12 May 2011.                    <http://visionlearning.com>.

Gocsik, Karen. "General Advice for Non-Majors." Dartmouth Writing Program. N.p., 12 July 2005. Web. 12 May 2011.                              <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~writing/materials/student/sciences/write.shtml>.

9Monico, L., et al. "Degradation Process of Lead Chromate in Paintings by Vincent van Gogh

            Studied by Means of Synchrotron X-ray Spectromicroscopy and Related Methods. 2. Original Paint Layer Samples."                         Analytical Chemistry 83 (2011): 12241231. ACS. Web. 13 May 2011.

10 European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. "X-rays show why van Gogh paintings lose their shine." ScienceDaily, 14 Feb. 2011.             Web. 13 May 2011.

11 "Mystery Behind Fading Van Goghs Solved." CBS News. N.p., 15 Feb. 2011. Web. 13 May 2011.  <http://cbsnews.com>.

 

AttachmentSize
ACS Article.jpg178.1 KB
Science Daily Article.jpg219.94 KB
CBS News Article .gif161.27 KB

Comments

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
randomness