February News from JAWWS
Highlight: a review of a paper on cognitive load in biological theory articles
A somewhat slow month, plagued by self-doubt and a general dearth of motivation. I tend to have the most energy to work on JAWWS after conversations with interested people, like one I had this morning, which means I should probably optimize for having more conversations.
So, as I said in my last newsletter, if you are involved in science publishing, or if you care about readability in science, I want to talk to you! I’m also interested in helping making your scientific paper more readable. Leave a comment below, send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send me a DM on Twitter.
In mid-January I wrote two posts on the JAWWS website:
A review of the paper “Writing Accessible Theory in Ecology and Evolution: Insights from Cognitive Load Theory” by Ou, Henriques et al. (2022)
A style guide for figures in scientific papers
The paper I reviewed was interesting and came to me serendipitously, as it was co-authored by a former Master’s degree classmate of mine. It’s very good at formalizing some of the stuff I’ve been writing about, like minimizing effort on the readers’ part — which in psychology is called cognitive load. The focus of the paper is on communicating math-heavy biological theory from theoreticians to empiricists, but almost all of its recommendations, like “Use metaphors and analogies” and “State your assumptions,” apply broadly.
Aside from those posts, I’ve had a few interesting conversations with people, including a biology postdoc who told me about his experience being an editor for some journals. I’ve applied to Astral Codex Ten Grants++; I didn’t get one of the actual ACX grants, but the ++ version means ACX readers have the opportunity to learn about some of the rejected projects and get in touch or possibly fund them.
I’ve also been keeping writing my review of Making Nature, which I’ve vaguely considered submitting to the new ACX book review contest, although now that I’m writing this I realize that I should really just finish it already instead of waiting for several more months.
Thoughts on: Incentives
One thing that’s become clear from my conversations is that the whole field of scientific writing is a matter of incentives. Right now, scientists are incentivized not to communicate their ideas and results per se, but simply to get recognized as authors of “important” papers. This is what their peers look for; this is what hiring committees look for; this is what grantmakers look for. The actual content of a paper matters only inasmuch as it allows the paper to be published in a high-impact journal.
In the humanities, a similar thing happens with books (at least in my understanding). To be recognized as a productive intellectual, you need to have published books. It does not matter how many people read the books, or how many you sell, or how good the arguments in the books are. You just need to have published books.
By contrast, the rest of the publishing industry — from mainstream media to small publishers of literature — has incentives that are more aligned with what readers want. Those incentives can be warped too, as in the case of sensationalistic journalist stories. But at least it means that writers and publishers try to write things that people will want to read (whether it’s interesting, fun, true, useful etc.).
As long as JAWWS tries to improve science writing in a way that ignores the incentives, then it will face strong headwinds. We have to work with the incentives (e.g. by making more readable papers get more recognition), or somehow change them (e.g. by finding better measures of scientific work quality).
Finding a way to do either is the whole crux of the JAWWS project.
In this section I’ll post links to useful content I came across. The best content may end up in the Resources page on the website.
Change the “x” to “5” in arxiv.com to get an HTML5 version of most papers
A workshop on improving the quality of machine learning papers, from May 2021 (links to some interesting references)
A tweet comparing a good, narrative, and engaging abstract in a computer science paper vs. a boring one in a biology paper, both from Nature
Another tweet showing how science was being communicated in 1775:
Again, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me, subscribe to this newsletter (it’s a good indicator of growing interest), or share this post or the JAWWS website!