To be or not to be … Scientist or Writer?


I have just had the opportunity to attend the Publishing With Impact workshop, facilitated by Camilla Myers from CSIRO Publishing. Without any overstatement, it was the most enjoyable and helpful workshop I have ever attended. Although the ultimate success of a workshop is purely context-specific – dependent on the dynamics of the participants and the facilitator as well as the information involved – the structure of this workshop is invaluable for any academic who struggles with either writing or the publishing puzzle … and inspiring for any who don’t!

I am currently in the final scenes of my PhD saga, in which I have to “write” The Unwritten. Ironically, this has always been the part of my PhD I was most looking forward to. I have been writing “creatively” since high school and my first degree and pre-enviro science work history were all about Writing and using English as a creative tool (rather than an arduous accessory to life!). So, suffice to say, I thought I was a pretty good wordsmith when I dove naïvely into the world of Science.

Alas, I quickly discovered that scientific writing is a whole different game, and one that even some of the most experienced and intelligent scientists find more confusing to navigate than Guyball.

To be fair on scientists, the uncertain rules keep changing, and Science itself often seems to be heading down a sad and lonely path that makes communication of its wonders even more of a minefield (see my previous post Science is not a corporate ladder).

As well as revealing helpful hints on how to prepare for an (always) unexpected Spanish Inquisition upon submitting your paper, the Publishing with Impact workshop provided clarity on how to assimilate writing into your research, rather than treating it as the dreaded, but inevitable final challenge.

One phrase that kept popping into my head during the workshop, regardless of what we talked about, was “Quality not Quantity”. Peer-reviewed research seems to have become increasingly intricate, opaque and inaccessible to researchers from other disciplines, let alone the non-scientific public. Complexity of a study design (and its analysis) has almost become a prerequisite for publication in some fields and journals.

Yet if you were to compare studies published this year with similar works published, say, in the 1960s, you would notice how simply- and clearly-conveyed many of those “antiquarian” studies were.

I am not condemning the amazing technological and statistical advances we have made in scientific research. Nor am I implying that Science and Nature are inherently simple. Complexity in Nature is not the same as convolution in study design, data analysis or reporting thereof.

Yet there is definitely something to be said for Simplicity in scientific communication. In these days of environmental significance, where Science, Policy and the Public are growing further and further apart, we should be striving to make our meaningful research approachable and accessible to our audience, scientists and non-scientists alike.

Publishing research with “impact” is not just about building your reputation, developing your career and proving your contribution to your own field. It also encompasses the most important part of a scientific career – Research needs to be Written and, most importantly, Shared.

Scientists and Writers are not mutually exclusive – it is very possible for one to be both.

Related Posts:  Science is not a corporate ladderThe Laws of Nature

© Manu Saunders 2012