Wednesday, April 12, 2017

It's not just you: science papers are getting harder to read

While browsing the health and medicine news over the past few weeks, I ran across this column by Phillip Ball in the journal Nature: It's not just you: science papers are getting harder to read. Do you agree? Are scientific papers getting harder to read? 

  • "Modern scientific texts are more impenetrable than they were over a century ago, suggests a team of researchers in Sweden. It’s easy to believe that.  You can be confident, for example, that if you pick up a random copy of Nature (which has long prided itself on the relative accessibility of its papers), you may find sentences like this in the abstracts:  Here we show that in mice DND1 binds a UU(A/U) trinucleotide motif predominantly in the 3' untranslated regions of mRNA, and destabilizes target mRNAs through direct recruitment of the CCR4-NOT deadenylase complex."
  • "So how could the readability of scientific papers be improved? First, by recognizing that good writing doesn’t happen by magic. It can be taught — but rarely is. Douglas suspects that many first drafts of papers are written by junior members of a research team who, lacking any model for what good writing looks like, take their lead from what is already in the journals. And there “they see the jargon and complexity as markers of what passes as scientific writing”, she adds. Such self-reinforcing mimicry could certainly account for the trends highlighted by Thompson and his colleagues. So where do you find good models of writing? Obviously, from good writers — not necessarily in the sciences, but anywhere2. There is hard evidence that sophisticated readers make sophisticated writers3. Why not encourage students to put down Nature and pick up Darwin, Dawkins or Dickens?"

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