The astronomer Caroline Herschel’s notes about her discovery of the comet 35P / Herschel-Rigollet. Between 1786 and 1797 she discovered a total of eight comets and was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society’s gold medal in 1828.

A sea of unread text from scientists

Svenska 2015-11-03

The meriting system of science contributes to make the scientific language inaccessible and boring. But there are scientists, who want to communicate in other ways and questions the prevailing norms for writing scientific texts.

Scientific texts are seldom read for pleasure. There is no place for linguistic creativity in the strictly forms of written scientific texts. And to be published in the prestigious journals are the foremost way to merit recognition as a scientist today.

“Few people think it is fun to write scientific articles, it is a rigid format with no place for creativity. And it takes a lot of time with all revisions back and forth. It often leads to a sense of futility”, says Roland Paulsen, Sociologist at the Department of Business Administration, Lund University.

He is one of the few scientists whom like to communicate in in various ways, he writes books and participates in the societal debate. According to Roland Paulsen there are structural factors affecting the scientists’ writing; both on the national level and at the universities. Those factors concern quotes and to be published in the right journals. Many scientists are educated firmly in writing the demanded way.

“As scientists, we are too adaptive. We have been bad at finding alternate evaluation systems were more things than scientific articles are taken into account, for example education and writing for the general public.

Important to reach out

Roland Paulsen means that it is important for social-science research to reach out outside the academia, not the least to deepen the political discussion.

“If knowledge about the society is locked in journals which are too expensive or written in a vocabulary no one understands – a lot of resources will be spent on producing texts that never will be read. There is an ocean of unread texts. This is a problem, especially within the social sciences since we study a changeable object, the society, which is affected by the existing knowledge about it – but only if that knowledge is communicated.”

Some of these texts he calls nonsense productions, texts that neither are built on a good ideas, thorough research, nor good writing. Those texts are made for positioning oneself and to impress colleagues more than exploring a true mystery.

The structure of the scientific articles as developed since the latter half of the 19th century, during the time of Louis Pasteur, when science faced the requirement that experiments should be able to be repeated. This made in turn demands of the way the scientists presented their results.

Today the IMRAD structure is common, where the articles are cast in the same mould: introduction, method, results, and lastly discussion. The articles have to be written in English, which might limit the linguistic clarity.

Typical features in scientific texts

The language in a scientific text has typical features: passive clauses are used, verbs are written as substantives, and the text has an anonymous sender; the word “I” is banned.

“A stylistic ideal is that the text should appear to be neutral and objective. Then it will be quite tedious. But rhetorical analyses show that scientific texts still are argumentative and that there are interpretations in them,” says Susanne Pelger, Doctor of Genetics and Lecturer in Educational Sciences at Lund University.

For many years she has worked with university pedagogics and communications to inspire students and colleagues in creative writing. The KomNU project, Communication in Science Education, was a large undertaking to improve the communication skills of science students. The final report shows beneficial effects of the project.

“We have seen that the students, when given opportunity to talk and write about their subject – not just in scientific reports, but also in more general texts – are raising their understanding of the subject. It is important that they get the opportunity to write a lot of different types of texts and also get training in analysing texts.

Become a better writer

Susanne Pelger is moving comfortably between different kinds of texts. Excluding the scientific writing, she also runs the blog Naturvetarspråk (TN: Scientific language), writes books for children, and books about rhetoric.

“To become a better writer you have to understand what makes the good texts good. And to write in a lot of different genres.”

She also holds courses about writing for established scientists and often get positive feedback, for example that they get new insights about their own research when they are coached to write in a popular science manner.

Develop the language

Maria Norbäck is a Lecturer at the School of Business, Administration, and Law at the University of Gothenburg. She is one of the editors of the recently published anthology Skrivande om Skrivande (TN: Writers about Writing). In the anthology scientists discuss how the scientific language can progress. The initiative to the book grew from a frustration over tedious texts.

“Many times I have been reading dissertations and articles and thought that ‘this is in fact an interesting subject, would it not be possible to make it more fun?’,” she says.

Maria Norbäck would like scientists to dare to be inspired by other genres like poetry, fiction, and general nonfiction texts. She gives examples of scientists whom, in their own fields, have experimented with their texts, and written a dissertation as a detective story or described a board meeting as a drama.

When she supervises students she requests them to write more freely. She means that the writing is a good method in itself to explore things and then will become a part of the research.

Writing for reflection

“The thoughts are not fully expressed in the mind and will flow out through the fingers, we write while we think. We do not know what we have accomplished until we have put it on paper. The writing can be used to think and reflect and develop critical thinking.

All three scientists think that is should be possible to make scientific text more interesting – without making them superficial or banal. On the one hand scientists could work to develop their own writing by themselves, on the other hand the universities and institutions funding the science could change their criteria for evaluation to make other things than publishing in scientific journals meriting.

“I think it contributes to an unbalanced publishing within the scientific community when it is a requirement to publish scientific articles. If it had been more meriting to write popular science and be active in the societal discussions, the development had been driven in that direction,” says Susanne Pelger.

Text: Helena Östlund
Photo: SPL / IBL Bildbyrå, Apelöga, Hillevi Nagel