A few weeks ago I was reading over page proofs for a now-published manuscript, and I must have had my science writer brain on. I started to read what I had written and, for one excruciating moment, was horrified at what I saw. The writing seemed so stiff, so lifeless! Who the heck was I even talking to, and who would care about this stuff?
In an act of self-preservation, my science writer brain switched off, and after a moment my academic scientist brain flickered on like a cold fluorescent light. My body relaxed in the artificial yellow glow. Ahh, ok. I recognize the moves I am making here. This wording is to adhere to the abstract word limit. This wording is to appease a reviewer. This wording is to make sure I don’t inadvertently insult other scholars working in my area. This whole paragraph? So I don’t forget to cite anybody. These several paragraphs of awkwardly described methods are so that people understand exactly what our data can and cannot say. And these conclusions are severely limited, because if we overstate our findings we will get blasted.
And so on. Writing academic manuscripts is best done in a defensive posture.
When an entire mode of communication rests on anonymous peer review, it leads to a very specific style of writing. I’m not saying that our way of talking to each other is all bad (though I think the fact that anonymous peer review is not only the foundation for publishing, but also for getting grants, jobs, and tenure is hugely problematic, but I’ll leave that for another day). Jargon creates opportunities for specificity, and for agreement on the meaning of certain terms. Being careful and making sure to give credit to those who have gone before you is a good part of scientific practice. And there are plenty of scientific papers out there that I love, in part, because of the great, and yes, precise and careful, writing.
But when I’m switching back and forth between my two writing identities – someone who tries to write for a broad audience, and someone who wants to share my findings with my colleagues and, to be honest, check the appropriate boxes to get tenure – I am struck at how the way we have learned to communicate with our colleagues so directly contradicts not only the way science is perceived, but consumed, by the public.
To be fair, I also write defensively for the blog, because I do try and anticipate the response I’m going to get. But for the most part, that defensiveness pushes me towards clarity, as opposed to satisfying reviewers. Somehow, my online writing process, even when I am thinking ahead to how you will love it or skewer it, is less fear-based than my academic writing process. I need the professor gig more than the SciAm gig (sorry, Bora), so it could be more of that old self-preservation kicking in.
So my main questions coming out of this random, meandering post, are:
- What would it look like to train scientists to be ethical, precise writers without the looming specter of anonymous peer review?
- What would it look like if we didn't always assume simplicity and precision are opposed to one another?
When we think about science communication, we often think of the part about training people to speak to a broad audience. But what if part of the problem is in how narrowly our academic writing trains us to write in the first place? As more journals move to open access, and more universities make repositories for journal manuscripts, our audience is going to shift. Can we shift too?