Clarity In Scientific Writing

In my view, following this sort of advice obscures rather than clarifies the text. Indeed, Smyth has rather softened his views with the passage of time

(see Smyth, 2004). For me, the views expressed by Fowler and Fowler in 1906, which head this chapter, seem more appropriate. Consider, for example, the following piece by Watson and Crick, announcing their discovery of the structure of DNA, written in 1953. Note how this text contravenes almost all of Smyth's strictures cited above:

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acids (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.

A structure for nucleic acid has already been proposed by Pauling and Corey. They kindly made their manuscript available to us in advance of publication. Their model consists of three inter-twined chains, with the phosphates near the fibre axis, and the bases on the outside. In our opinion this structure is unsatisfactory for two reasons: (1) We believe that the material which gives the X-ray diagrams is the salt, not the free acid. Without the acidic hydrogen atoms it is not clear what forces would hold the structure together, especially as the negatively charged phosphates near the axis will repel each other. (2) Some of the van der Waals distances appear too small.

Another three-chain structure has also been suggested by Fraser (in the press). In his model the phosphates are on the outside and the bases on the inside, linked together by hydrogen bonds. This structure as described is rather ill-defined, and for this reason we shall not comment on it.

(Opening paragraphs from Watson and Crick, 1953, pp. 737—8, reproduced with permission from James D.

Watson and Macmillan Publishers Ltd)

Table 1.1.1 lists some of the comments that different people have made about academic text. Some consider that academic writing is spare, dull and undistinguished. Some consider that articles in prestigious journals will be more difficult to read than articles in less-respected journals ones because of

Table 1.1.1 Some characteristics of academic writing

Academic writing is:

• unnecessarily complicated

• pompous, long-winded, technical

• impersonal, authoritative, humourless

• elitist, and excludes outsiders.

But it can be:

• appropriate in specific circumstances

• easier for non-native speakers to follow.

their greater use of technical vocabulary. Others warn against disguising poor-quality articles in an eloquent style. Indeed, there is some evidence that journals do become less readable as they become more prestigious and that academics and students do judge complex writing to be more erudite than simpler text (Hartley et al, 1988; Oppenheimer, 2005; Shelley and Schuh, 2001). Furthermore, Sokal (1996) once famously wrote a spoof article in scientific and sociological jargon that went undetected by the editors (and presumably the referees) of the journal it was submitted to.

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