Scientific papers are often hard to read, even for specialists that work in the area. This matters because potential readers will often give up and do something else instead. And that means the paper will have less impact.
The fact that many scientific papers are hard to read is surprising. Scientists want others to read their papers—they don’t try to make them difficult to get through! So why does this problem arise? And how can we fix it?
The curse of knowledge
One problem is that scientists are incredibly knowledgeable about every detail of their research: from the studies that inspired them, to their methods and results, to the implications of those results. This means that they’re about as far away as it’s possible to be from someone who is new to the topic, so often they’re the worst person in the world to write up their study.
This problem is so common that it has even been given a name in psychology literature: the ‘curse of knowledge’. The curse means that people tend to unwittingly assume that others have the necessary background to understand what they are saying. Put simply, it’s easy for a scientist to miss out crucial points or steps because they’ve forgotten how important those things are for understanding their work.
Another aspect of the ‘curse of knowledge’ is that scientists tend to write like scientists. They use jargon, technical abbreviations, and phrases that they would never use in everyday speech. This ‘science speak’ usually makes things harder, not easier, for potential readers. This is particularly true with readers of interdisciplinary research, or with readers who are new to the specific subject area, who are less likely to know the meaning behind the jargon.
So how can we fix the writing problems that come from science speak and the curse of knowledge?
Writing as a research skill
The first step is that we need to acknowledge that writing is a skill that needs to be learnt, just like any other aspect of scientific research. Indeed, good writing can require a much longer learning period than many familiar research techniques. Once you have learnt how to pipette, you can do it, but writing is something that you can keep improving throughout your career.
Writing can be learnt in multiple ways. Courses can be run, usually for undergraduate or graduate students. But learning to write needs practise and motivation, and these courses are often run before the students need to write up their own research, An alternative is guide
books, that provide advice and tips, that writers can read and apply as they go along, as they produce the different sections of their paper. But what exactly needs to be learnt?
The next step is to pause and imagine potential readers. A potential reader is likely to be time-limited, stressed, and easily bored. They have a million other things to do and will take any excuse to give up on reading your paper. They might be a PhD student trying to get to grips with their subject, or a professor who doesn’t really have time to read papers anymore.
They key point is that they don’t have to read your paper—it’s the writer’s job to make them want to. This leads to a fundamental principle of scientific writing: the reader must come first. It is the job of the writer to help the reader understand the content of their paper by making things as clear and straightforward as possible.
Unfortunately, putting the reader first does not always come naturally, and can require a change of thinking on the part of the writer. Luckily there are a few general principles that help with this:
- Keep it Simple. Use simple clear writing to make it as easy as possible for the reader.
- Assume nothing. A paper is more likely to be hard to read because it assumed too much, rather than because it was dumbed down too much.
- Keep it to essentials. A more focused paper will better at both getting the major points across and keeping the attention of a time-stressed reader.
- Tell your story. Good scientific writing tells a story. It tells the reader why the topic you have chosen is important, what you found out, and why that matters.
The beauty is in the details
The above advice might still seem a bit vague, but it’s just an overview. In our recent book, Scientific Writing Made Easy, we build upon these guiding principles to provide a toolkit for writing the different parts of a scientific paper. We provide both a structure for each section, and detailed tips for how to fill that structure out. We make writing easier and less scary.
Our toolkit can be applied to different types of paper across the life, human, and natural sciences. While there are important differences, a lot of the same principles can be applied whether someone is writing up a laboratory experiment, a mathematical model, or an observational field study.
Learn more about Scientific Papers Made Easy with this review from the Stated Clearly YouTube channel.