Book review: The Scientist’s Guide to Writing

Late last year I wrote a review of Stephen Heard’s book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. After a long wait, my review has just been published in Austral Ecology. Unfortunately it’s not open access, but if you don’t have access to the journal you can find a read-only link here.

Disclaimer: Since I wrote this review for Austral Ecology, I’ve published a co-authored paper on blogging with Stephen and others. However, I wrote this book review and signed off on the proofs months before the blogging paper was written, so I guarantee I’ve given the book a fair review!

© Manu Saunders 2017

Insect Pollinators or Pollinator Insects?

Recently, a reviewer of one of my manuscripts requested that I change the term “pollinator insects” to “insect pollinators” throughout the manuscript, because the latter was the usual term found in the literature.

I’ve nearly always used “pollinator insects” in my publications, partly from habit because one of my PhD supervisors once told me that was correct usage, and partly because “insect pollinators” sounded ambiguous to me – was I talking about insects that pollinate things, or about other organisms that pollinate insects? But this was the first time I had been specifically requested to change my phrasing to conform to apparently common usage.

The reviewer is right. Search any journal database or linguistic corpora, and you will get many more hits for “insect pollinators” than you will for “pollinator insects”. Usage of “insect pollinators” also goes back further than the alternative (Scopus results: 1933 for “IP” and 1991 for “PI”). Even the reliable source Google Trends doesn’t register any interest at all for “pollinator insects”!

Yet grammatically, both terms are correct and choosing one would depend on how you were using it. Continue reading

Informal language isn’t the key to better engagement

A recent editorial in Nature magazine claims that scientific language is becoming more informal. The editorial discusses a new linguistics study, includes a subtle plug for the Active Voice dogma, and ends with the interpretation that modern biologists are now keener to build a connection with their readers, compared to our academic ancestors. Hooray for science communication!

But before we get too carried away, let’s look at the paper and the context.

Lost in translation. The Nature editorial is titled “Scientific language is becoming more informal”. The editorial talks about a linguistics study published in the academic journal English for Specific Purposes by linguists Ken Hyland & Feng Jiang titled “Is academic writing becoming more informal?”. And the author’s actual answer to this question in the first sentence of the Discussion is “it depends”.

The paper is a great read and provides some useful food for thought. But it would be misleading to claim that it provides a convincing argument for informality across all scientific writing. Continue reading

Scicomm is not new

‘Scientists shouldn’t have to do scicomm’ is a thoroughly modern misperception.

Communicating science has been ‘normal’ for centuries, from painted messages on cave walls, to classical orators and beyond. From ancient times, scientists took their responsibility to share science with people very seriously.

Yet today, mastery of language and the art of non-scientific communication are rarely taught or encouraged in modern science degrees. History isn’t taught much either.

Instead, many science students and graduates train to be skilled data collectors and ‘facts’ wranglers. Scientists are consistently bombarded with rigid anti-eloquence ‘rules’ that only succeed in suppressing the power of language – never use passive voice, don’t use big words, shorten your sentences, simplify your message etc. etc. God forbid you should sound like you care about your subject matter. Continue reading

Humanities vs Science. 4. Semantics and Semiotics

See here for the story behind this series.

Signs and symbols are the oldest mode of communication. We were using pictures to show our clan which way the berries were long before the golden arches were invented. A sign is anything that has meaning, including words, and the most powerful signs transcend languages, dialects and cultures.

How is this relevant to science? Communicating scientific research through any medium (yes, even academic journals!) is all about people. Good communication uses signs and symbols effectively to transcend scientific cultures, sub-disciplines and public audiences. Most humanities disciplines teach meaning and context, but two disciplines are particularly relevant to meaningful communication – semantics, the study of meanings and relationships of words; and semiotics, the study of signs.

The Science of Semantics

Words are powerful. The way they are used can completely change their meaning and interpretation. Sentences aren’t just big piles of words dumped on a page. Those words need to be put into groups, and those groups into a meaningful sequence, before the reader can interpret the sentence. Continue reading

Humanities vs Science. 2. Rhetoric

Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.

Before you click away…rhetoric is not just a colloquial term for chicanery, hyperbole, and all the empty words that unscrupulous politicians and lawyers use to exaggerate claims and get their way. Rhetoric, the discipline, is the art of discourse – the art of speaking or writing eloquently and persuasively. Studying rhetoric teaches us how to put words together in a way that communicates our point well and builds a convincing argument – a skill that is very relevant to science.

Something happened on the way to the Agora

To understand the foundations of rhetoric, we need to spend a bit of time in ancient Greece, one of the earliest established democracies; here, public contribution to politics was considered really important. Each city-state (e.g. Athens) had a central meeting place, called the Agora. This is where intellectual, artistic and spiritual ideas were aired, shared and discussed so that anyone could contribute and participate in the dynamic process of political and cultural development. Continue reading

Humanities vs Science. 1. Literature & Language

Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.

How can literature benefit science?

Science needs to be written. It’s not science if it’s not shared, critiqued and built on over time. Science communication applies to everything from journal articles to popular science blogs. Ambiguous wording, too much jargon, or bad writing can turn off editors, reviewers and readers. Sadly, developing writing skills is not always a priority in modern science degrees. Graduates are being betrayed when they are packed off into the world of scientific research without a good command of written expression.

Including Literature subjects in science degrees is a good way to address this. Much of the ‘how to write’ advice that scientists can find online is not really useful if they don’t have a context to weigh it against. Top 10 lists of writing tips and ‘A vs B’ arguments are limiting, not enlightening. They teach a ‘one size fits all’ approach to communication. But effective communication is all about contexts and variable relationships, so teaching scientists how to identify, and work with, contexts is much more useful. Teach a man to fish…, as the saying goes. Continue reading