22 November, 2006

Scientific writing for beginners

A letter at the core of a recent bruhaha at MIT, where a prospective hire was caught in the cross-fire of egos higher up the academic food chain (see Adventures and Ethics in science for analysis and links to more), has been brilliantly dissected by wildtype over at Transient Reporter. It's all good, but this bit is a particular favorite with me:

I am most happy to support you if you and I are going to work with some distance between us.
Stay where you are and I won’t cut your grant proposals down during study sessions, or hold up your manuscripts.

because it is a prefect illustration of scientific writing, where withering intellectual assaults (as well as speculative handwaving) are deeply buried beneath a veneer of understatement and superficial politeness. As a semi-homage, I thought I'd reproduce a handy translation guide for certain key phrases in scientific papers, which I originally put up on my now defunct pre-blog website. It dates from those heady undergraduate days when I read many more papers than I have time to now.

A novice or outsider might expect the average scientific paper to be a clear and coherent document. Far from it. Little research produces clear-cut or easily understandable results (it would be quite dull if it did), but a combination of ego and desire for further funding means that few scientists will readily admit this. Fortunately for them, the somewhat formal prose traditionally used in a publication provides many opportunities for deliberate obfuscation (as well as the lobbing of a few choice insults at people who happen to disagree with you).

The list below exposes and translates some of the more common phrases you're likely to find.

"It has long been known"I didn't look up the original reference.
"A definite trend is evident" These data are practically meaningless, even when you squint.
"Whilst it has not been possible to provide definite answers"An unsuccessful experiment, but I still hope to get it published.
"Three of the samples were chosen for detailed study"The other results didn't make any sense.
"Typical results are shown"These are the only results which prove my theory.
"These results will be in a subsequent report"I might get around to this sometime, if pushed/funded.
"In my experience"Once.
"In case after case"Twice.
"In a series of cases"Thrice.
"It is believed that"I think.
"It is generally believed that"A couple of others think so, too.
"Correct within an order of magnitude" Wrong, but I'm not going to admit it.
"According to statistical analysis"Rumor has it.
"A statistically-oriented projection of these findings"A wild guess.
"A careful analysis of obtainable data"Three pages of notes were obliterated when I knocked over a glass of beer.
"It is clear that much additional work will be required before there is a complete understanding of this phenomenon"I don't understand it.
Give me more money.
"After additional study by my colleagues"They don't understand it either.
"Thanks to Joe Bloggs for assistance with the experiment and to Cindy Adams for valuable discussions"Mr. Bloggs did all the work, and Ms. Adams explained to me what it meant.
"Contrary to the interpretation of Jones (1997)"Jones is an ignorant fool.
"A highly significant area for exploratory study"A totally useless topic selected by my committee.
"It is hoped that this study will stimulate further investigation in this field" I quit.

Of course, these rules sometimes break down - in print, most often in the 'Comment and Reply' section. This is one of the more formal ways that peer review continues long after publication - people who disagree with you, or want to engage in a bit more cite-napping (I do like that term), can submit a short rebuttal to the publishing journal, which is published together with any response (re-rebuttal?) you might have. Outbreaks of 'contrary to the interpretation of' are common, but I am especially reminded of a particular response, which pretty much dropped all pretense at politeness:
Westaway [2004] adds details on the deformation rates in the eastern Mediterranean that do not affect the results of our paper, and need no further comment. He is wrong in saying we suggest no surface uplift of the Turkish-Iranian plateau or Greater Caucasus since 12 Ma, and we refer readers to sections 4 and 11 of our paper for the details [Allen et al., 2004]. We do not cite Westaway's papers on lower crustal flow because we do not believe them and see no need to refer to them: He suggests crustal flow from areas of thin crust to thick crust, against the gravitational buoyancy forces. Our reply is brief because we do not think this was a constructive comment on our paper, and not worth a response on the same scale.



Lab Lemming said...

Don't forget:
"preliminary studies suggest" = "detailed analysis disproves"

MissPrism said...

I like nontrivial (adj.): almost, but not quite, impossible.

postblogger said...

This (vaguely) reminds me of the old joke in which a mathematician is giving a lecture and states 'It is obvious that...', then stops, scratches his head, and runs out of the room with a sheaf of paper, only to return 20 minutes later and start again 'It IS obvious that...'

postblogger said...

Oh, and I love the reply!

CJR said...

In my maths and physics lectures, the words "obviously" and "clearly" usually translated as either "spend two hours trying to figure out this step in your own time. Muhaha.", or "this is not at all obvious unless you approximate infinity as 0 or 1 or something else obscure, but I'm not going to tell you that. Muhahahaha."

Melissa said...

When I was a wee high school student, I thought scientists were all noble and neutral and polite and never clung to pet theories in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

I was so very, very naive.

It's especially fun to read a paper and realize that it's basically a big hate-on for some other guy (see: just about anything published by Axelrod or Jack Wolfe on paleobotany and temperature).