Science and the English Language

“…modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

George Orwell – Politics and the English Language (1946)

The open access movement seeks to make research published in peer-reviewed journals freely available for anyone to see. At the moment you have to pay through the nose to read a journal article if you’re not at an institution with a subscription. Supporters of open access, myself included, argue that this is deeply unfair. The public fund much of the research that goes into peer-reviewed journals, and therefore they have a right to see it should they want to [1]. Open access is making excellent progress, and there are now many journals that are freely available online. But there is another barrier preventing people from accessing published research, and that is academic writing. It is, at least in the sciences (I haven’t read enough from other fields to make a judgement), poorly constructed, stale and pretentious.

George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, despite being written nearly 70 years ago, is still the best guide to how not to write. Orwell argued that bad habits were developing in written English, and that these made writing “ugly and inaccurate”. Furthermore, sloppy writing, Orwell suggests, encourages sloppy thinking. The other morning I re-read the essay on a train, and was struck by two things. Firstly, the points Orwell makes on what’s wrong with written English are still relevant today, especially in science writing. Secondly (and more worryingly for me), I realised that I have developed every bad habit possible, and that my own scientific writing is indeed ugly and inaccurate. Orwell lists four main bad habits that he felt were prevalent in written English in 1940. Below, I explain three of them [2] and give some examples of how they are used in 21st century science writing. Then I’ll attempt to explain why I think it’s important that we scientists begin to change how we write.

The examples that I’ll give below are not the worst examples of science writing, and I don’t think that the authors are necessarily bad writers, nor that I am a good one. As I have said, many of the problems that I’ll discuss come up in my own work, and probably in this blog post. The scientists who wrote these papers, like myself and the majority of academics, have picked up bad habits because they have attempted to write in the “journal style” – something I’ll discuss later. If you are the author of a paper that I mention, or if the criticism I make reminds you of your own writing, I don’t mean to offend, but I don’t apologise if I do.

DYING METAPHORS A dying metaphor, according to Orwell, is one that is neither useful for evoking an image, nor one that has become a meaningful phrase in its own right. They are “worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves”. In science writing, dying metaphors can be most easily seen in journal article titles. Here are a few examples:

On a collision course: competition and dispersal differences create no-analogue communities and cause extinctions during climate change

Waking the dead: the value of population genetic analyses of historical samples

Survival of the Fittest: Overcoming Oxidative Stress at the Extremes of Acid, Heat and Metal

I’m sure I wouldn’t need to tell any scientists how much the latter of these phrases is overused (a Google Scholar search throws up over 1,000 articles with the exact phrase in the title). The other trend that you will have probably noticed in these article titles is the use of the colon. The “funny title:actual title” format has become a cliché itself. Based on a sample of 100 articles published in my field (“MHC evolution”) since 2009, 23% of papers use colons in the title. I myself have been guilty of this, but will not do so again (although, I may be tempted to write an article called “Punctuation in article titles: time for a colonic irrigation”). It’s not only lazy and repetitive – using colons in your titles also gets you fewer citations.

In case you think I am making too much of article titles, lazy imagery is not restricted to these. It crops up in papers more than you may have realised. Think how often you have seen phrases such as “cutting-edge” (1,640,000 Google scholar hits), “Achilles’ heel” (79,300 hits), “shed(ding) light” (492,000 hits) and “holy grail” (82,200 hits). All of them are employed not to aid in clarity, but out of laziness. For my own amusement, here are three more journal articles that all use the same crap metaphor:

Leader of the pack: gene mapping in dogs and other model organisms”

Leader of the pack: faecal pellet deposition order impacts PCR amplification in wombats

The leader of the pack: A service perspective on packaging and customer satisfaction

OPERATORS OR VERBAL FALSE LIMBS Orwell argued that political writers were replacing simple verbs with phrases,  to fill out sentences and save the author from having to think of the appropriate words. False verbal limbs are extremely common in science writing. Many of the examples that Orwell used in his essay are still used in science papers, (“be subjected to”, “have the effect of”, “serve the purpose of”), and numerous others can be found, such as “gives rise to”, “take into account”, “give the impression that”, “may be of interest”, “in addition to” and so on. Verbal filler can also be used to make simple statements sound more profound. Examples of this include “to our knowledge, this is the first time that…”, and the ridiculous “not un-” formation, which, embarrassingly, can still be found in many science articles (usually in the form of “not uncommon” or “not unlikely”, when trying to understate how common/likely something is).

A related issue is the extensive use of the passive voice in science papers. In the past, journals have insisted on the passive voice in methods sections, arguing that they would like papers to have an air of objectivity. This is nonsense – whether science is performed well comes down to how it performed, not whether it is dressed up in flowery language. Methods sections written entirely in the passive voice are usually extremely awkward and difficult to read, and more worryingly, they can be be misleading (“methods were selected”, “data were omitted”). There is a long history of argument for and against the passive voice in argument, which I won’t go over here (this web page already does a pretty good job of that). The passive voice needn’t be eliminated entirely from science papers, but I do think we should be using the active voice much, much more.

PRETENTIOUS DICTION Pretentious diction is probably the biggest problem in modern science writing. Like verbal filler and the passive voice, pretentious words are used to give the impression of scientific objectivity. Examples include ameliorate, elucidate, a priori/a posteriori, utilise, parallel, assumption, furthermore, comparative(ly), exacerbate, heterogeneous, determinant (usually preceded by “multiple”), facilitate, etc. There are many, many more. They are usually Latinate words which have perfectly good everyday equivalents – not to be confused with jargon, which is often necessary (although I think overused).

WHY SHOULD WE CARE? Science is about finding the truth and making sense of things. An essential part of this is communicating clearly and honestly. The structure, grammar and choice of words used in science articles makes them vague and inaccurate, which is exactly the opposite of how they are intended, and pretend, to be. And, as Orwell recognised, lazy writing encourages lazy thinking. The imitative and pretentious nature of how we write science papers acts as a barrier to thinking critically about what we’ve done, and how our experiments might be biased.

Science writing is also full of cliché, crap puns and metaphors, and borderline plagiarism. In short, it lacks imagination. It is no wonder, therefore, that nobody enjoys reading science papers. We often enjoy the story contained within scientific studies, but I’d bet that even most scientists don’t enjoy reading journal articles for their writing. Must this be the case? One could argue that imagery has no place in science articles. I think it has, and there are some examples where it has been used well. In my field of evolutionary biology, probably the most famous use of imagery in a science paper was Gould and Lewontin’s article on the “Spandrels of San Marco” [3]. Gould was also excellent at using metaphor to illustrate the vastness of geological time (“Consider the earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the king’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history”). But, sadly, for every Spandrel there are a thousand Achilles’ heels, and so much light has been shed that we’ve all gone blind.

One of the most tragic consequences of the scientific writing style is the effect it has on students. Science students find it extremely difficult to get into the primary literature, and most undergraduates will not be able to properly critique a scientific paper until their final year. Complex methods used in many modern papers, and the jargon required to explain them, form a major part of this barrier, but I have no doubt that the writing is equally to blame. Even worse is the effect that reading journal articles has on students’ writing. Anybody that has taught at university level will know that undergraduates, when first charged with writing “in the journal style”, tend to come up with language that would be comical, were it not such a shame. Examples that I’ve seen include “sample quality was inspected with the aid of the eye”, “it is hitherto perceived that”, and “the null hypothesis remains not unlikely”. This is our fault as scientists, not theirs.

It is extremely to easy to write badly. It requires no thought whatsoever to borrow phrases, fill out sentences and re-hash bad metaphors. Not doing this requires deep thought and conscious effort. Journals are doing their part in encouraging clear writing – most now encourage the active rather than passive voice, and most emphasise the importance of clarity in their author guidelines. But real change will only occur from the bottom up. We scientists need to start looking more critically at our writing, in the same way that any other non-fiction write would (or should at least). This will be a difficult process, and to change one’s writing habits will take considerable time and effort. As a starting point, I would suggest applying Orwell’s rules for political writing. They are as follows:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

So, to break rule number 1 and borrow from an old cliché, I’ll finish by saying this: scientists of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your pretentious diction.

————————————————-

[1] of course, being able to read journals is not the only benefit of OA to the general public. See here for an explanation.

[2] I leave out “meaningless words,” which is less of a problem in science writing, and more of an issue in literary criticism.

[3] Although these guys argued that while the spandrel metaphor is imaginative, it is wrong.

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19 Responses to Science and the English Language

  1. This is a fantastic post! I do want to push back a bit on pretentious words, though. Clear and effective writing need not always be simple or short– most newspaper articles are written at a very accessible level, but aren’t typically enjoyable, let alone beautifully written. As a word-lover (it’s one of the things that got me into science in the first place) I think that there is a place for words like “elucidate” and even the dreaded “utilize” and “facilitate.” In many cases, the problem is more that big words are often used to obscure poor writing. When the writing is clear and effective, those “pretentious” words can add quite a lot, particularly because they have nuanced meaning compared to the alternatives (e.g., “use” and “help”).

    • lewisspurgin says:

      Jacquelyn, thanks very much for your comment. I agree with you to an extent. If Latinate words are used because they are deemed the best to get across what the writer is trying to say, fine. But I can’t help but think that in the majority of cases they are used out of habit, and because they sound more “sciencey”. “Utilise” is a perfect example of this – yes, it has a specific meaning, but it’s mostly utilised (sic) as a fancy replacement for “used”.

      That said, I do think that while simplicity is not essential for clarity in writing, in practise it usually helps a lot.

  2. I’m guilty of using verbal false limbs, but sometimes they seem unavoidable (particularly since I’m already in the habit). Have you come across possible substitutions or other references on the topic?

  3. Great post – when running my course on scientific writing I have a slide as follows;

    Have a clear story to tell
    complexity does not equal learning!
    Keep it
    simple, concise, precise & incisive

  4. arilab says:

    Great post! I am constantly doing all these mistakes you describe, especially the passive voice in describing methods. English is a foreign language for me and I have practically learned it during my graduate studies. I believe that wrong use of English in scientific papers is not only inherited by senior scientists to the next generation. Scientists that use English as a working language make the impression that this is the proper way to do it. This is one more reason why the whole world of scientific publishing is full of this kind of mistakes. I will try hard to avoid writing badly in the paper I am preparing right now. However, I am sure that even these few lines in this comment will be full of “cliché, crap puns and metaphors”.

    • lewisspurgin says:

      arilab, thanks very much. I’m not sure I’d call the things I wrote about ‘mistakes’, but rather bad writing style. I have a lot of respect for those writing science in their second language – I feel like I’m still getting to grips with how to write in my first language! Good luck with your paper.

  5. Gordon Munro says:

    Appropo non-unclarity und so weiter it behooveth all sentient would be scientific journalists utilizing the Mother Tongue to follow the positively Georgian Orwellian guidelines recommended
    by those above.

  6. dianabuja says:

    Thanks for your very clear post, which I shall reproduce for my students (who have english as a second language – and, perhaps for that, often seek out difficult words and phrases). In a dissertation preparation seminar given by Elizabeth Colson at Berkeley, we were admonished for using the passive as well as for ‘hiding’ main points late in the text – two traits she thought more common in women than in men.

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  8. James Hartley says:

    I enjoyed your article. But somethings were overstatements. Where is the evidence that colons in titles get you fewer citations? I know of only one study in medicine that shows this. Authors prefer different types of titles in different disciplines. The vogue these days is to assess thousands of titles in these different disciplines to look for features that differentiate between them. Some disciplines use colons in their titles a lot; some do not. Some use long titles: some do not. Best to conform to disciplinary practice it you want to be cited? See http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2012/05/24/titles -are-hardest-more-effective?

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  10. Paula says:

    Good luck getting published if your manuscript contains nothing but everyday equivalents. If your goal is to reach a non-academic audience then write accordingly. However, if your goal is to be published in a high impact journal – prepare for rejection. I agree with most everything you’ve said, but feel there is a place for “pretentious diction”. The dictionary is full of great words and I want to use them.

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  14. Pingback: Science and the English Language – lessons from George Orwell | d. [cells/ideas]

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