let me tell you about my numbers
September 12, 2007 1:47 PM   Subscribe

How to write Consistently Boring Scientific Literature.
  1. Avoid Focus
    There are many exceptions in ecology. The author has summarized them in four books.
    -Jens Borum, ecologist

posted by four panels (25 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Works for social science too.
posted by arcticwoman at 2:01 PM on September 12, 2007


Good post, thanks.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:29 PM on September 12, 2007


Yeah, our "Journal Club" had a look at this paper a few months ago, it's pretty good.
posted by Jimbob at 3:16 PM on September 12, 2007


Also not to make too big a point, because I love open access journals myself, and I couldn't really give a shit about the copyright trolls around this place nor in the scientific publishing industry, but isn't a link to a closed-access journal article on Scribd considered kinda dodgy around Metafilter? If someone was linking to a streaming video of the latest movie, I'm pretty sure the mods should kill it.

Not that the mods should kill this. Because Oikos charges way too much for subscriptions to institutions and it's all just a drop in the bucket anyway. But am I right in thinking this would, technically, come under the "blatant copyright violation" rule?

posted by Jimbob at 3:22 PM on September 12, 2007


I think you would have to violate the copyright first. Just looking at the words isn't the same as violating them.
posted by Sailormom at 3:33 PM on September 12, 2007


I think you would have to violate the copyright first. Just looking at the words isn't the same as violating them.

I bet you say that to all the girls.
posted by public at 3:36 PM on September 12, 2007


Okay, that excuse works for me.
posted by Jimbob at 3:52 PM on September 12, 2007


There was absolutely no chance, however, that it would meet the strict demands of brevity, clarity, and impersonality of a standard article.

Brevity? Clarity? Is that irony? Since when are those standard features of scientific writing? They should be, but they aren't.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:58 PM on September 12, 2007


Oh, now I see that the author himself cannot write:
If an author really wants to make sure that the reader looses interest, I recommend that he/she does not introduce the ideas and main findings straightaway, but instead hide them at the end of a lengthy narrative.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:05 PM on September 12, 2007


Kirth Gerson: The dude is Danish. English is probably not his first language. These things happen.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 4:08 PM on September 12, 2007


11. Write in a contrary, antithetical, sarcastic manner in which you mean the opposite of what you say. You don't really want to encourage consistently boring literature, do you. But you want to be clever about it! So write in that topsy-turvy manner where the reader must invert every sentence (but not every quote!) to see what you really mean.

So sick of this gimmick. For some straightforward guidance on writing academic papers, I recommend Senturia's excellent "How to Avoid the Reviewer’s Axe: One Editor’s View," in J MEMS 12(3) p229-232 (2003) for those of you with journal access.
posted by Mapes at 4:09 PM on September 12, 2007 [5 favorites]


11.) Peremptorily and elaborately detail irrelevant material, that addresses the anticipated counterarguments of various nemeses, of whose positions the reader knows nothing.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:12 PM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


The dude is Danish. English is probably not his first language. These things happen.

Sure. But why is he qualified to tell people how to write in English? I'm sure he'd do it really well in Danish. Or maybe not - his advocacy of "flowery language" tells me he should stick to science. Flowers add nothing to readability.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:23 PM on September 12, 2007


37) Publish in Comic Sans.
posted by Eekacat at 4:31 PM on September 12, 2007


All 10 things are true, but fundamentally people can either write or they can't. No amount of "top tips" can turn a turd of a paper into a gem. And as for loose / lose, I've seen it so often this year that I was wondering if it's becoming an accepted alternative spelling.
posted by roofus at 4:42 PM on September 12, 2007


Loved it, thank you.

10. ...Excessive quotation can be developed to perfection such that the meaning of whole paragraphs is veiled in the limited space between references.

So true.
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:06 PM on September 12, 2007


All 10 things are true, but fundamentally people can either write or they can't.

Nonsense! Absolute nonsense. I will admit that possibly people can write great fiction or poetry or they can't, but just plain old writing? Please. Everyday good writing is a learnable skill. It's not an easily learnable one, but by god it can be done by most persons.
posted by kavasa at 5:27 PM on September 12, 2007


"...and what is the use of a book," thought Alice "without pictures or conversation?"
posted by ubiquity at 5:34 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


Here's an abomination of mine own creation. It was shown to violate 7 of 10 of the Sand-Jensen guidelines.1

The tau = 400 and 480 ns Mims ENDOR spectra respectively place a proton suppression hole at the nu- and nu+ peaks of the doublet assigned to 19F. The fact that this doublet is not suppressed confirms that the intensity is indeed due to 19F. From these two spectra we conclude that a somewhat better value for the 19F hyperfine coupling is A ~ 1 MHz, roughly half that in (Hox + TFE)mv, as is the case for the 2H couplings. Thus, with the assumption of standard bond lengths, the 19F ENDOR measurements of TFE are consistent with the 1,2H measurements of MeOH and EtOH. The alcohols bind terminally to the ferrous ion of Hmv, while binding in a bridging or semi-bridging fashion to Hox, as found crystallographically for the MeOH complex of Hox.22,38

1Sand-Jensen, K., Oikos 116: 723-7, 2007.
posted by Joe Invisible at 6:24 PM on September 12, 2007


This reminds me of when I wanted to write a paper on the language of linguists and how utterly opaque and dreary and uninspired and overwrought and pointless most of it tends to be. I always wanted people who wrote about language to be better at using it.

Some of them are actually quite good, but it's sadly rare.
posted by blacklite at 9:43 PM on September 12, 2007


Can someone explain to me the purpose of scribd? Why would I want to read some text through a flash interface rather than, say, text?
posted by grubby at 4:24 AM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


No clue here. The page works better with Flash turned off.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:12 AM on September 13, 2007


I'm pretty certain that Rule #10 was mandatory in most of my college classes. You weren't allowed to make a statement without sourcing it, and original thought or research was explicitly forbidden. Kind of like Wikipedia.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:26 AM on September 13, 2007


kavasa, "plain old writing" is not enough for a great paper. Sure there are a lot people sending papers for peer review with an utterly inadequate basic command of written english, but people who consistently write great papers are actually great writers, not just good proof readers. It's analagous to thinking that Strunk & White is a really good book for learning to write well, when really it's only a good guide to not writing badly.
posted by roofus at 9:27 AM on September 13, 2007


Writing is a skill. Scientific writing is no exception. No one's born with the inherent ability to write research papers. Like any skill, some people learn it more easily, and some people get to be really good at it; however, technical writing requires a lot of practice for anyone to get it right. People who assume they're inherently brilliant writers tend to be terrible because they're not willing to tear their own writing apart to make it better. They're less willing to listen to editors (whether the editor comments are good or not). The best scientific writers, like the best teachers, constantly hone their skills.

I agree with the author that we do desperately need more accessible and engaging scientific writing. I don't think we need it in the research articles in established journals though. What we need is more publication venues that are scientifically accurate and accessible to people outside scientific disciplines.

I don't find this article to be a very good list of weaknesses in scientific writing. There are some good points in there, but the article as a whole reads like the author got burned by a journal editor recently for something creative he tried to do.
posted by Tehanu at 10:07 AM on September 13, 2007


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