JAWWS Links for May
Pessimistic papers, collective debugging, research debt, and saving lives with fun writing
I am repurposing the monthly “news” posts into a list of whatever links related to scientific writing and publishing I have stumbled upon.
The Slime Mold Time Mold blog continues to release banger after banger. The post Peer Review: Obesity II – Establishing Causal Links Between Chemical Exposures and Obesity is, as its title would suggest, a review of a paper about obesity. The most interesting part to me is towards the end, when SMTM review the tone of the paper:
Our final and biggest problem with this paper is that it is so tragically defeatist. It leaves you totally unsure as to what would be informative additional research. It doesn’t show a clear path forward. It’s pessimistic. And it’s tedious as hell. All of this is bad for morale.
It almost sounds, SMTM say, that the authors of this big obesity paper don’t really want to solve obesity. They just want to keep working on it for their whole careers. To them,
“more research is needed” is the happiest sound in the world. Actually solving a problem, on the other hand, is kind of terrifying. You would need to find a new thing to investigate! It’s much safer to do inconclusive work on the same problem for decades.
This is therefore another dimension of good scientific writing: it should boost morale and inspire people to solve problems, and solve them fast.
I wrote an essay of my own to explore this idea further: Do Not Befriend the Problem—Slay It.
SMTM wrote another great post, Every Bug is Shallow if One of Your Readers is an Entomologist on the benefits of posting your research online (and making it fun to read) as opposed to journals where very few people will read it: more eyeballs mean more error correction.
Simple bugs can be caught by experts. But complex or subtle bugs are more insane. For those bugs, the number of people looking at the problem is much more important than the average skill of the readers. This is a strong particular argument for putting things on the internet and making them super enjoyable and accessible, rather than putting them in places where only experts will see them.
Other interesting posts I read:
Why fun writing can save lives in the context of Effective Altruism. Dry, boring writing will simply get your ideas read less.
A 2017 post from Distill (a former machine learning journal with a focus on clarity) on research debt: the amount of knowledge necessary to understand a field and make new contributions is always growing. Clear writing — or “distillation” — can make the debt more manageable.
In science writing, the bar to look like a genius is really low, and the key is to just write plainly what you did and why:
Peer review is considered to be problematic by many. Here’s a fun rant against it:
Why do academic journals have so much power?
My answer, in brief: they provide a robust and hard-to-fake credential that helps grant agencies and hiring departments determine who, among the large number of researchers today, should get funding and jobs. University degrees serve much the same purpose, but at a broader scale than just academia.