March News from JAWWS
Highlight: A review of Steven Pinker's guide book 'The Sense of Style'
I’ve been travelling for unrelated stuff in the past few weeks, and I had to introduce myself to a lot of new smart people, which means I mentioned the JAWWS project several times. It was interesting to notice the different reactions. Some people immediately get enthusiastic about the goal of improved science readability; some ask probing questions that make me doubt myself; some are totally uninterested.
I wish the range of reactions were overall more biased towards “wow, what an amazing project!”, but it’s true that I probably didn’t make a great job of selling it. I’m still stuck in the stage where I’ve identified a problem (poor readability) and I understand its causes (the incentives), but my proposed solutions (found a new journal, lead by example to change the norms) now feel somewhat naïve. So I don’t quite know what to do right now — and what to tell people when they ask the probing questions.
The answer, of course, is to think hard enough to find plausible solutions. After all, readability must be a solvable problem. I’ll get there, I’m sure.
As always, if you are involved in science publishing, or if you care about readability in science, I want to talk to you! I also have a standing offer to help you make your scientific paper more readable. Leave a comment below, send an email at email@example.com, or send me a DM on Twitter.
1. Paid subscriptions
I activated paid subscriptions on this newsletter. This is only meant to be an easy way to provide financial support. At the moment I make no guarantees as to what you get with the money, and so I’m asking you to support JAWWS financially only if you have disposable income and want to encourage further research on science readability. That said, the more money JAWWS gets, the more I’m likely to keep this going and produce potentially useful content.
I realize this is not a very strong sales pitch. If you decide to buy a paid subscription anyway, then you have my gratitude.
(The pricing is set to $5/month or the slightly cheaper $50/year, but feel free to offer more with the “founding member” option if you’d like.)
2. The Sense of Style book review
Yesterday I published a review of the book The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a Harvard cognitive science professor who’s written a bunch of popular books, and is evidently somebody who cares about clear communication in academic matters. His style guide is actually excellent and I recommend you read it (or, failing that, that you read my review).
Thanks to the several people who recommended that I read this book.
Thoughts on: Writing as an Art
Reading The Sense of Style made painfully obvious the difficulty in quickly learning how to write well. I already knew this, of course, but JAWWS is partly founded on the idea that we can apply easy improvements to scientific writing. If all parts of a 300-page book are useful advice that every aspiring writer and scientist should hear, then we’re straying away from “easy improvements” and towards “writing scientific papers is an Art that will take you a lifetime to master.”
One of the reasons science papers are often bad is that they follow a standardized structure. Grad students and researchers fill the structure (usually IMRAD: intro, methods, results, analysis, discussion) without really thinking about the best way to actually communicate their ideas, which leads to boring or tedious writing. Yet the standard is meant to help them write (and help readers know what to expect). It’s a shortcut! With the IMRAD structure, you can at least get a decent paper without spending the aforementioned lifetime mastering The Art.
Is there a risk that distilling the advice from a book like The Sense of Style, or identifying a number of easy-to-apply rules, leads to the same problems?
Probably. But on net the impact is likely positive. Structure, rules, advice, standards can all cause stilted or unoriginal writing, but they do help people master The Art. If JAWWS can identify the points with the highest leverage in order to improve academic writing at low cost, then it can improve the overall situation.
In this section I post links to useful content I come across. The best content may end up on the Resources page of the website.
Contra Pinker (who says in his book that poor academic writing is not due to bad norms in science publishing), here’s a viral tweet by a professor of culture studies that claims that clear writing is actually penalized in academia. The number of comments that voice agreement probably means something.
Another tweet and thread on what scientific papers should be, i.e. letters that “inspire and clarify”:
I encountered the above tweets in a Slime Mold Time Mold article that starts with a reminder that scientific papers used to just be letters read aloud at the Royal Society. The SMTM authors then follow up with a record of their correspondence with an MD/PhD student on lithium, showing us what a retvrn to published scientific letters could look like. I haven’t read it all, but it seems far less intimidating than a regular science paper, in part because of its less formal language and the naturalness of reading actual dialogue between people.
Since 2014, the well-known novelist Cormac McCarthy has worked at the Santa Fe Institute, where he has been helping scientists write and edit their papers. His writing tips for science papers have appeared in Nature in 2019. This piece was recently featured on Hacker News, where it sparked some interesting discussion.
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!