Updated: Apr 12, 2019
Scientific publications are inherently prone to being boring. Of course, the subject matter could, at first, seem really interesting – Alzheimer’s, cancer, stem cells, and so many others – but upon reading past the first few sentences in the Abstract, things get heavy. This can be an issue in today’s world where it is increasingly more difficult to translate scientific discoveries into actionable information that can inform policy makers and the general public.
But is this avoidable? And what can be done, if anything, to make original scientific research more accessible and absorbable? To answer these questions, I think we first need to look at why scientific writing can be painfully boring.
So why is scientific writing usually so dense and dry? This is largely due to the lack personality, humor, and overall storytelling that is found in a typical research article. Formal academic writing very much frowns upon the infusion of personality or humor into the serious business of scientific advancement. Even the expression of excitement and enthusiasm can lead to a reprimand from reviewers. For instance, I was once told by a reviewer to remove all instances of ‘interestingly’ from my research article, as if that little bit of enthusiasm would affect the content of my paper or the reader negatively. That reviewer said that ‘the author does not decide what is interesting, only the reader does.’ Of course, this strict adherence to formality is meant to ensure clear, unambiguous writing.
Is boring writing avoidable?
In my opinion, no (well, to some degree). While I do believe that the adherence to formality can go a little far sometimes (see the above discussion on the use of ‘interestingly’), this insistence is likely for good reason, as informal writing can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations, which are immeasurably problematic in science. Accuracy in reporting is extremely vital and is the bedrock for scientific progress.
What, if anything, can be done?
I believe that a few things can be done to make original research more interesting and more accessible to the general public and non-scientists.
1) There needs to be a focus and emphasis on the bigger picture.
You need to try to relate your research to your audience at large, and you need to continuously reiterate how your findings can be applied to the real world.
2) Be clear. Be concise.
I think this can be a big help in terms of the readability of your research. Don’t use 10 words when 5 will do. And don’t think that your intelligence and the quality of your work will be judged based on the complexity of the words you use to describe it.
3) Use an active voice when it makes sense.
Use of an active voice is often more clear, direct, and natural sounding.
4) Read and write more!
Many authors, not just in science, indicate how much their writing progresses when they continually practice writing. It’s a skill, like many others, where practice makes progress! Along the same lines, those that read more tend to have their ideas flow onto the page more readily.
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