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Research Papers Used to Have Style. What Happened?
A Brief History of Scientific Writing
The advocates of the new science in the seventeenth century so reacted against the excesses of stylistic artistry that a reluctance to use any artistry at all seems to have prevailed ever since.
Since the founding of the first scientific journal in 1665, there have been calls to do away with stylistic elements in favor of clarity, concision, and precision.
In 1667, Thomas Sprat urged members of the Royal Society to “reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivered so many things, almost in an equal number of words.” Some 200 years later, Charles Darwin said much the same: “I think too much pains cannot be taken in making the style transparently clear and throwing eloquence to the dogs” (Aaronson, 1977).
Darwin and Sprat eventually got their way. Modern scientific writing is homogenous, cookie-cutter, devoid of style. But scientific papers weren’t always like this.
1. Scientists used to admit when they don’t know what the hell is going on.
When philosopher Pierre Gassendi tried to capture observations of Mercury passing in front of the Sun in 1631, he was beset by doubts:
“[T]hrown into confusion, I began to think that an ordinary spot would hardly pass over that full distance in an entire day. And I was undecided indeed… I wondered if perhaps I could not have been wrong in some way about the distance measured earlier.”
2. They get excited and use italics.
In 1892, a gentleman named William Brewster observed a bird called a northern shrike attacking a meadow mouse in Massachusetts. After tussling with its prey, he wrote, “[t]he Shrike now looked up and seeing me jumped on the mouse with both feet and flew off bearing it in its claws.”
3. They write charming descriptions.
Here’s French scientist Jean-Henri Fabre rhapsodizing about the emperor moth in his book, The Life of the Caterpillar (1916):
Who does not know the magnificent Moth, the largest in Europe, clad in maroon velvet with a necktie of white fur? The wings, with their sprinkling of grey and brown, crossed by a faint zig-zag and edged with smoky white, have in the centre a round patch, a great eye with a black pupil and a variegated iris containing successive black, white, chestnust and purple arcs.
All this to say: Scientists in the pre-modern era wrote freely, despite calls to do away with that freedom. At some point, narrative and literary styles vanished and were replaced with rigid formats and impoverished prose. The question now is: Have we gone too far in removing artistry from scientific writing?
A Brief History
To answer this question, we must first understand how we got here — when and why did our modern writing style first evolve? To my knowledge, there has not been a rigorous, empirical analysis of this topic. Such an undertaking would be difficult because style is not amenable to a simple definition. The percentage of papers written in IMRAD format (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) over time, though, may be a useful proxy for stylistic rigidity (Figure 1).
Although these data are far from comprehensive — based on a “randomly selected sample of articles,” nearly 1,300 in total, published between 1935 and 1985 — it seems that the post-WWII era was an inflection point for IMRAD style in scientific writing. Nearly every article published in the leading medical journals was written in IMRAD format by 1975.
The scientific community swelled in size after WWII. Between 1938 and 1953, funding for basic research in the United States increased 25 times over (in inflation-adjusted, constant dollars). With more money came a surge of papers (Kaiser, 2014) (Figure 2).
Increased scientific output strained the publishing infrastructure and created pressure towards greater clarity and concision (and thus homogeneity) in scientific writing.
“After World War II, science became big business…Money meant research, and research meant papers. And our journals were virtually overwhelmed by manuscripts pouring out of our research laboratories. What could be done in this crisis atmosphere? We look back now, and what was done makes obvious sense. The editors of the journals, themselves and working through their organizations, began insisting on tightly written manuscripts in the IMRAD format.” (Day, 1989)
The rapid rise in scientific papers was decisive in other ways, too; namely, the arrival of ubiquitous, pre-publication peer review.
In stark contrast to the modern publishing landscape, in which most journal editors simply sit back and wait for submissions to roll in, editors in the pre-WWII era actively solicited articles from personal connections. Editors who failed to source articles took up the pen themselves to fill empty pages (Burnham, 1990).
Given this constraint, it was difficult for editors to reject submissions for stylistic reasons or to insist on significant revisions — an author might just take their paper elsewhere. Peer review was quite rare through the 1960s.
Of the nearly 300 papers that Albert Einstein published between 1901 and 1955, only one (a paper on gravitational waves, co-authored with Nathan Rosen and sent to the Physical Review in 1936) seems to have been peer reviewed (Kennefick, 2005). Nature did not require external pre-publication review until 1973; before that time, external referees were consulted only occasionally. Papers submitted or recommended through trusted, personal connections were often published without review.
The massive increase in public funding that followed WWII also led to greater concerns about credibility in the scientific community. Peer review was the obvious solution to bolster that credibility, and the process soon “became a mighty public symbol of the claim that these powerful and expensive investigators of the natural world had procedures for regulating themselves and for producing consensus” (Csiszar, 2016).
But for everything that peer review did to increase scientific rigor, it also acted as a powerful mechanism to enforce style norms and push papers toward formality, clarity, and concision.
It’s not hard to find scientists who think proper scientific writing should be devoid of style (I was a teacher for 6 years, and IMRAD remains the de facto style taught in schools). But there has been an undercurrent of dissenting voices dating back to the very origins of scientific publications. In 1661, four years before the first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Robert Boyle wrote:
“And yet I approve not that dull and insipid way of writing, which is practiced by many...for though a philosopher need not be solicitous that his style should delight his reader with his floridness, yet I think he may very well be allowed to take a care that it disgust not his reader by its flatness…”
In the last hundred years, these debates shifted in focus, and scientists debated how best to balance standardization and free expression. This is the conflict that played out in the American Psychological Association (APA) in the 1920s and 1930s:
“In the case of psychology, it was only in the late 1920s, a time when the APA was experiencing the “growing pains” of professionalization that a formal document pertaining to publication standards was drafted. This period saw a dramatic increase in membership and an ever-widening definition of the topics and methods that pertained to one calling oneself a psychologist … This led journal editors who previously only had to manage a handful of submissions from individuals they often knew first-hand to flail under the sheer quantity (and variable quality) of manuscripts on topics that the editors might not have been familiar with, and it was finally decided by the editors as a collective that something needed to be done to address these burdens…” (Sigal and Petit, 2012)
Journal editors, under the auspices of the National Research Council (NRC), gathered in 1928 to discuss the problem. They decided to send out surveys to psychologists and editors to figure out what should be done.
The surveys revealed a wide range of opinions. Many respondents recognized a need for some kind of standardization and quality control in order to deal with the large influx of manuscripts, while others vehemently disagreed with standardization of any kind.
The chairman of the New York City Committee, Harry Hollingworth, did not mince words (emphasis mine).
“I want to put myself on record by way of a minority report, to the effect that for the Research Council to bother the scientists of the country with this kind of an effort at standardization and chain-store method should be condemned. Let any one who wants to run a journal do so, in his own way and with his own personality. If we insist upon cramping his style and insisting upon arbitrary form, censorship, and the like, we may make uniform pages, but we kill the life of science. And if the scientists of the country put up much longer with this eternal array of talk meetings and subconferences, we may come to have an elaborate and endowed scientific machinery, but we will have no people of scientific caliber to run the machine. It is my private belief that the best thing the Research Council can do is to make some effort to encourage personal variation, rather than cooperative conversation about trifling topics.” (NRC Proceedings, 1928d, p. 19)
In the end, the standardizers won out. A first draft of the APA’s publication manual was completed in 1928. After years of argument and editing, a first edition was released in 1937. Standardization followed in other scientific disciplines — the Council of Biology Editors released their first style manual in 1960.
The Life of Science
Language is the connective tissue of science. Mathematics and experimentation are the heart, but words are what make it come alive.
What is “the life of science” articulated by Hollingworth, and why is it killed by rigidity of form?
I believe he is alluding to a certain creative vitality that can only shine through when scientists are given full freedom to express themselves. Some scientists, for example, may choose to add a dash of humor to their writing. Aside from making the reading experience more enjoyable (not something that should be underestimated given how much scientists read), humor often juxtaposes ideas or introduces a novel way of looking at something commonplace, two things that are wonderful to do when searching for new ideas. And what can be said about humor can be said of other aesthetic qualities as well; infusion of beauty (either in content or language) or emotion may lead an author to develop a new metaphor or consider some minor aspect of a phenomenon in more detail, either of which could provide the seed of a new idea or observation.
Another way in which the aesthetic deficiency in scientific writing dampens our creativity is that it makes us less likely to use metaphor in our prose. Metaphor is a particularly valuable tool for creativity because it can bridge ideas between the sciences and other domains of culture, allowing virtually any phenomenon to serve as a source of scientific inspiration. Historical examples abound.
In comparing planetary motion to musical harmony, for instance, Johannes Kepler made revolutionary discoveries in astronomy.
Something akin to poetic creativity — the search for hidden likenesses — can be traced to the roots of scientific revolution. Kepler, who believed in the ''music of the spheres'' and tried to work out the notes sounded by each planet, discovered laws that describe how the planets trace elliptical paths about the Sun. (Broad, 1983)
Harmonices Mundi (Harmony of the Worlds), the book in which Kepler derived his laws of planetary motion, devoted three of its five chapters either wholly or partially to musical themes. Even today, computational astronomers at the Simons Foundation and elsewhere use music to describe supernovae.
Darwin developed crucial insights into evolution while studying economics.
One of the most striking examples of metaphor comes from the work of Charles Darwin, who hit upon ''survival of the fittest'' in his theory of evolution… Silvan S. Schweber, a Brandeis University historian, has shown how Darwin immersed himself in the economic works of the period just prior to his discovery, imbibing the belief that society functions best when individuals are free to compete and struggle to their own advantage.
''I think most scientists falsely deny the influence of culture for totally honest reasons,'' Dr. Gould said in a recent interview. ''They are trained that way. Most scientists genuinely believe they are reading nature literally, without inspiration from politics or culture. But it's no accident that you got Darwin in the 19th century, and that it was right out of the political economy of the day.'' (Broad, 1983)
And in 1979, Stephen Jay Gould and his co-author, Richard Lewontin, used metaphors — both architectural (spandrels) and literary (Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss) — to critique prevailing evolutionary ideas. Their essay, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme" was described as a “rhetorical masterpiece” by evolutionary biologist, David C. Queller, and remains highly influential (cited 10,202 times as of July 2022). The essay has zero empirical data. Gould himself described it as an opinion piece.
As a final example, the metaphor between biology and machine, once useful in helping scientists to think beyond the ‘specialness’ of life, is now becoming useful precisely because of its inadequacy — see “Is the cell really a machine?” (2019) and “Living Things Are Not (20th Century) Machines: Updating Mechanism Metaphors in Light of the Modern Science of Machine Behavior” for two recent examples.
The “life of science” demands a balance between the instrumental and the aesthetic in the same way that evolution requires a balance between selection and mutation. Selection improves the average fitness of a population, but drains it of diversity and limits its potential for future adaptation. Mutation increases diversity, but lowers the average fitness of the population.
Like mutation, aesthetics are diversifying and generative, but generally harmful to clarity and concision. And like selection, restrictions on style and format may improve the average quality of our writing, but at the cost of creative potential.
My pencil and I are cleverer than I.
— Albert Einstein
Despite the importance of style and aesthetics in scientific writing, there are good reasons to think that we shouldn’t do away with norms and conventions entirely. Efficient and accurate communication is paramount, and norms do not evolve for no reason. One could reasonably argue that proper scientific papers and journals are not the place for more stylized writing — that’s the domain of blogs and popular science books.
I’ve also been discussing style and scientific publishing as if they are fully divorced from the challenges and incentives faced by scientists. The truth is that scientists often have no choice but to adopt rigid norms because they compete in a hyper-competitive job market that values papers in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals above all else. It is difficult to justify aesthetic value when it unnecessarily opens an author to criticism.
Despite these challenges, there should be more effort on the margins to encourage style in scientific articles. Existing journals could add a section to their standard article format, for instance, in which authors can write freely and speculate on their work (eLife’s new “Ideas and Speculations” section is very much in this spirit, but a perusal of 50 recent articles suggests that only a small fraction of authors decide to opt-in).
Perhaps expanded length limits would also naturally lead to more stylistic writing. The primary reason for imposing restrictive length limits — namely, the cost of producing physical documents — is no longer a valid concern for journals that are fully or primarily digital.
Excessive brevity, imposed by journal length limits, can also have detrimental effects on clarity, as Dorothy Bishop, professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at Oxford University, argues in her blog:
“I recently read a paper that reported, all within the space of a single Results section about 2000 words long, (a) a genetic association analysis; (b) replications of the association analysis on five independent samples (c) a study of methylation patterns; (d) a gene expression study in mice; and (e) a gene expression study in human brains. The authors had done their best to squeeze in all essential detail, though some was relegated to supplemental material, but the net result was that I came away feeling as if I had been hit around the head by a baseball bat.
These recommendations, while good in theory, require top-down changes to editorial policies and publication formats, something which seems unlikely unless a broad swath of the scientific community demands it. Change seems most likely to proceed from the bottom up.
As a starting point, scientists might, as Stephen Heard suggests, “suppress the reflex telling us to question any touches of whimsy, humour, or beauty” when reviewing manuscripts, and freely announce admiration for stylized writing to editors, colleagues, and authors.
Another possibility is to create new publishing platforms (as Arcadia Research has done) or journals. I am the co-founder of Seeds of Science, a scientific journal that explicitly encourages speculative and non-traditional writing.
Maybe because writing is so often the final step in a research project (when we are exasperated and ready to be done with the damn thing), scientists tend to think of it as ornamental, akin to a peacock’s tail, and not as a core metabolic process in the cycle of scientific innovation.
This is a grave problem. The way that we write is inseparable from the way that we think, and restrictions in one necessarily lead to restrictions in the other.
The greatest thinkers in science (and business) are often prolific authors. They write books, blogs, and copious emails to sharpen ideas. Richard Lewontin, E.O. Wilson, and Paul Graham are but three examples. Dorothy Hodgkin’s scientific correspondence and papers, stacked together, extend 25.85 meters in length. Great thinkers, in other words, write all the time.
Unfortunately, the bureaucracies of modern science have created an environment in which all research must be justified in purely instrumental terms — “importance” or “impact” relative to expenditure. Researchers are evaluated by simple measures of productivity or influence — number of papers published, citation count, and grant dollars. In such an environment, it has become exceedingly difficult for scientists to take stylistic risks in their academic writing or to devote significant amounts of time to other forms of creative writing.
Individual scientists, then, must deliberately decide to value style. They must fight for their right to be playful, to be beautiful, to be wonderful. The life of science depends on it.
Cite this essay:
Bacon, R. "Research Papers Used to Have Style. What Happened?" newscience.org. 2022 August. https://doi.org/10.56416/837uwh