Nautilus

Better writing and more space needed online

Linda Cooper of McGill University, Montreal, writes in Correspondence (Nature 455, 26; 2008):

The World-Wide Web is remarkable as a vehicle for communicating scientific discoveries. Online journals unite distant researchers and inspire worldwide collaborations. However, despite these advantages, there is a growing risk that papers published today are less successful in meeting their objectives than in the past.

To ensure clear communication, most journals encourage authors to write for a broad audience. But most published papers still compress too much information into uncomfortably short articles, leading to convoluted sentences, specialized terminology and a proliferation of abbreviations. Errors in grammatical style result in impenetrable and ambiguous texts that seriously undermine the scientific literature. This need not be the case.

Electronic publishing could offer authors limitless space to explain their ideas and discuss their new findings. Surprisingly, though, online manuscripts are often bound by the same space constraints as print manuscripts.

Authors are instructed to conform to print-journal guidelines, leading many to redirect essential material to online Supplementary Information. The recent explosion in Supplementary Information is problematic: it seems to have no standard format among different journals, and there is a common misperception that data in Supplementary Information have escaped peer review. It can be a nuisance for readers too. For example, if they want to peruse articles away from their computers and haven’t downloaded the related Supplementary Information, it may be impossible for them to understand or fully evaluate the papers’ merits.

The scientific article in 2008 is on the cusp of change, with one foot in the past and one in the future. Science journals should shed the constraints of the old media and exploit the advantages of the new, to offer readers easy and enjoyable access to the scientific literature.

Even if journals are successful at reinventing themselves, it won’t be adequate unless the quality of writing in scientific manuscripts improves. Paradoxically, the deterioration in science writing seems to coincide with the swell in e-publications — at a time when the need to communicate advances in science is more urgent than ever. The quality of writing needs to match the power of today’s e-publishing technology.

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    Maxine said:

    There is an excellent online discussion of this Correspondence in the Good Paper Journal Club at Nature Network. I encourage readers to visit it. http://network.nature.com/forums/goodpaper/2335

    There are many good points being made there. Here is one, by Linda Cooper, author of the Correspondence:

    “I really do believe that it’s possible to write for specialist and non-specialist audiences. It’s much more difficult to do this of course, and most researchers aren’t sure how to even try. A good place to start is with close and careful revising which certainly helps to eliminate useless words and phrases. When writers get rid of the clutter, they have more space to explain complex concepts. As well, over and over again in my classes I find that graduate students need help identifying the real focus of their papers. Once they can do that, they also figure how to tell a logical story about their important findings. And more importantly, readers – both those familiar with the field and those outside it – can more easily understand what the author is trying to communicate.”

    http://network.nature.com/forums/goodpaper/2335

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