Publishing Post 3: Readability of Science Articles

Think of a book you read recently that was absolutely amazing. One that made you lose sleep because it pulled you in and you read late into the night. One that gave you a “book hangover” when you were done because your mind was still absorbed in the book despite having finished the last word on the last page.

Now contrast that with the dullest, most confusing book you’ve ever read. One that you put down immediately because you didn’t understand what was happening, or because the writing just didn’t pull you in well enough.

There’s a huge difference. There are personal preferences involved in determining which books you like and which books you hate, but the phenomenon remains the same. You are engrossed in the books you like, because there’s something that makes it flow perfectly.

A similar phenomenon most definitely occurs with scientific articles.

Reading scientific articles is part of the daily life in a scientist’s career, at any level. Keeping up with new papers and literature is crucial to understanding 1) the current knowledge in the field, 2) what has already been done before you, 3) what outstanding questions remain, and 4) how your work fits into this larger community. As a newer scientist, I look back several years and decades to find papers that are informative to my work and that helped to shape the state of science as I know it. In addition, I am always on the lookout for new papers that emerge every day to help inform my project. It’s also fun to read widely, to find new papers or discoveries from other fields that may pique my interest even if they’re not directly related to my work. I admit, keeping up with all of these papers is not an easy feat, and I definitely miss some along the way. I’m still learning how to do this well and more efficiently, while also trying to keep up with the daily experimental benchwork required.

As I’ve been reading over the years, there are always some papers that are written better than others, even some journals that are easier to read and understand than others. This is an actual issue in scientific publishing, since readability and effective communication in research articles are key to push all fields forward and coherently add to the current canon of knowledge. Perhaps most obviously, clearer writing makes your paper and your work more accessible to a broader audience instead of just your small niche of scientists. I’m a cell biologist, but I would love to have my papers read and understood by my friends who are computational biologists, geneticists, engineers, education administrators, lawyers, and more! However, I would also want my work to be as clear to other cell biologists as possible so that they can also entirely understand and even reproduce my results if necessary. This communication between scientists takes the most direct hit when papers begin to become more and more difficult to read as authors put more and more information and data into as small a space as possible.

There are some articles that have looked at this. In 2017, eLife published a study on the readability of science papers over time that caught my attention, and more recently, PNAS published a brief opinion piece about the benefit to writing better, clearer articles. Both articles attempt to quantify and measure writing style across many abstracts in various journals to find trends in scientific article writing that lead to difficult readability. Of course, this is a complex issue with many factors involved, including the very confounding and influential role of a journal’s impact factor and each paper’s citations. Each journal has its own unique field of interest and breadth of science covered, so the style of articles changes with every journal, and readability does too. “Readability” itself is also a hard quality to quantify. It’s not solely based on the number of syllables in a word, or the number of words in a sentence. It’s also about how the words flow together in a sentence, and if you know what those words mean, you’ll know if it flows or not and if it’s easier or harder to read and understand. That’s not easily quantified into a numerical value. Different people have different opinions on what is more readable as well, based on their knowledge or experience in the field.

Even so, clear trends emerge. Looking over the past centuries of scientific work, it’s clear that the amount of technical jargon, abbreviations, and buzzwords has increased, as well as the amount of positive emphasis through keywords such as “novel”. These trends are inevitable as science progresses – as the existing knowledge grows, individual studies have become more complex and elaborate, making it necessary to incorporate more details and jargon to fully explain the project’s logic. Researchers also combine multiple fields to make a discovery, so their resulting article uses jargon from all fields. However, many journals are restrictive in their space limits, and authors are not always given the space required to fully explain their experiments and scientific logic. In addition, with the emphasis on positive results to publish and push individual careers forward, it’s no wonder that authors use words to highlight these positive aspects of their work.

With all of this in mind, there’s no clear solution or easy fix to ensure that articles are more readable. There are so many compounding issues and caveats that it’s impossible to address everything. Therefore, it’s truly up to the scientists to make sure that their paper is as readable as possible. It’s up to them to make sure that their paper is not drowning in jargon. Even people in the field can’t always keep up with the new jargon if it’s all smashed into one sentence. People need to know how to write better, more smoothly, more coherently while still putting as much information as they can into the fewest number of words (because science is complicated and space limits still exist). But it needs to be fluid and elegant, not overpowering. I understand that it’s a difficult skill, and a lot of scientists may not want to put in the time and brainpower and energy to make it elegant. As long as the information is there, or as long as they put in the right buzzwords to attract the attention of the editors, then it’s enough because it pushes their paper forward. But it’s not enough, because while the paper may get published and join the existing literature, it harms other scientists who later read that paper and try to understand it as fully as possible.

Which brings me to my last point: Where and when is a young budding scientist supposed to learn to write well? Many undergraduates write an honors thesis, and all graduate students are expected to write a dissertation as well as scientific articles prior to receiving their degree, but there is exceedingly little writing training involved. Of course, you can learn by doing, where you write a paper with your mentor because your research story is wrapping up. This is a great time to learn about good writing, but most of the time scientists are frantically typing up their papers while trying to crank out the last few experiments as quickly as possible. It’s the reality of how science pans out sometimes. Maybe you’re racing a competing group, or you want to say “submitted” in a fellowship application. Maybe you’re trying to graduate ASAP. Either way, it’s not a calm time to ponder whether or not the writing is clear because you’re more focused on whether the science, the experiments and conclusions, are clear. Perhaps it’s the PI’s job to help make the connection between good writing and clear science, but this assumes every PI is skilled and willing to go through this process for every paper, even when there’s a rush to publish.

I don’t have a great solution, like a proposed program of writing classes for graduate students, but this has been on my mind for a long time now. I think it should be on the scientific community’s mind too. There are so many current efforts to reach non-scientists, policy-makers, and the next generation, but how can we do that successfully if we do not also address the communication within our own fields and to other scientists? Professionally on both the individual and community scale, badly written papers do no one any good. Readers perceive them more negatively, trust the data less, and eventually the paper falls away and loses all visibility, even if the science is perfectly on-point, resulting in a loss to the individual author and the whole scientific community. In the end, we put our best scientific work out into the world, and it’s in our best long-term interests to focus on high quality writing for our readers as well, whoever they may be.

3 thoughts on “Publishing Post 3: Readability of Science Articles

  1. Reblogged this on NoelG and commented:
    How well you write matters, whether as here a scientific report, or a business report, or even a blog post. Write it poorly, and your intended readers are less likely to engage with it, or remember it, assuming they even finish reading it.

    The communication of science, especially to the public, is a passion of mine. And I think this is a lovely piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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