photo of scribbled edits on science writing Scientists aren’t actually bad at writing. No, I’m not trying to put myself out of a job – they still need me! 🙂 But the more impenetrable scientist-ese I read, the better I understand that what looks like gibberish to outsiders is not a symptom of bad communication – specialized, maybe, but not ineffective.

I remember the first few times as a student I was able to read a scientific paper and explain to someone else, with analogies and simple language, just what it was actually saying; this, I thought, must be a useful skill. Because the article I was translating sure wasn’t readable on its own.

In a sense, that’s what my job is now; but it’s actually easier than that. I don’t have to sit around with a jargon-filled paper in one hand and a medical dictionary in the other, because the first step in an assignment is to call up the person who did the research, and have a quasi-normal, human-to-human conversation about their work. While it’s important to be able to read their papers so you have smart questions to ask, that’s only one part of the job. (“Duh, what was that paper about?” would work about as well in an interview as in my mandatory journal club class in grad school: not at all)

Some scientists are better than others at this sort of plain conversation. Generally, anybody who has run their own lab for decades has explained their work to countless funders, conference attendees, and prospective students. Those who are earlier in their career, or do less cross-discipline work, seem to be the hardest to talk to. They’ve learned how to communicate with colleagues in their field, but haven’t figured out yet how to get others interested in their work.

I’ve often heard people – some of them scientists, some of them readers who are baffled by scientific papers – claim that scientists are bad at writing or bad at communicating. That’s rarely true. The issue is that communicating with scientists in your field, and communicating with people who aren’t, are two very different skills.

Scientists are taught to speak with precision. Like when I took my first serious biology class in college – for the first time, our lab reports were expected to read like scientific papers. We were to speak precisely: say, not about the enzyme “doing” something, but about what the effects of such-and-such were in terms of Michaelis-Menten kinetics. Work in the multisyllabic buzzwords from class, we learned, because those are the words that actually mean something.

Those big words aren’t “sloppy thinking” or “bad writing”; in fact, each one calls to mind – for the right audience – whole areas of scientific discipline. Hepatobiliary disease? Oh yeah, the reader might say, I remember that whole course I took in hepatobiliary disease. It triggers memories that a simpler synonym (liver disease) may not. Are you developing efficacious treatments for a disease? That brings to mind the medical concept of efficacy, which is a little different than saying that a treatment is “effective” (or “works good”).

Like any good buzzword, the point of most scientific jargon is to give a name to a large or complicated phenomenon. So it makes sense that scientist-ese doesn’t consist of patient explanations in small words; rather, it’s a string of multisyllabic buzzwords meant to shovel information past the reading scientist’s eyeballs. When those buzzwords have meaning to you, this makes for a very skimmable text.

The best examples of shoveling are in the introduction of scientific papers. The intro sets the stage for the research by quickly blowing by the initial problem, the state of research to date, and the reasons why anybody should care. If you’re in roughly the right field, all the buzzwords will be familiar to you and you can get on to reading the research. The situation is similar to a recipe, a knitting pattern full of abbreviations, computer program code, whatever – if you know what the abbreviated concepts are (“form this type of loop on your needle by moving the yarn like so…”) you can breeze right by the “K 30” line and get what you need out of the more interesting parts.

In fact, the really interesting parts of scientific papers, like the interesting parts of recipes or code or knitting patterns, tend to be written in plainer english – because that’s the part where you have to explain what’s going on.


Aspirin in the air

October 7, 2008

Aspirin, by Chaval Brasil

Aspirin, by Chaval Brasil.

Scientists testing the atmosphere above a walnut grove in California found aspirin in the air.

Actually, they found a chemical variant of aspirin, methyl salicylate (MeSA), which you may not have heard of but you’ve certainly smelled and tasted. It’s also known as oil of wintergreen, ingredient of Ben-Gay liniment and wintergreen Life Savers. (It’s both the flavoring in those Life Savers and the reason they sparkle when you chew them).

Scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research say that plants use MeSA as a warning chemical, puffing it into the air to communicate “ecosystem-level stresses” to other plants.

Researchers had found earlier that tobacco plants release MeSA into the air when they are infected with a virus. The NCAR scientists found it above the walnut grove when temperatures got cold enough to damage leaves. The signal may give undamaged plants a head start on beefing up their defenses.

Aspirin-like chemicals seem to trigger a plant’s Systemic Acquired Resistance response, which is essentially the plant version of an immune system. The SAR response helps plants both to resist disease and to recover from it.

photo by joebaz

Willow bark. Photo by joebaz.

Aspirin is better known, of course, for its effects on disease symptoms in people. Its variant salicylic acid was known as a pain reliever and fever reducer long before it was chemically formulated in 1853 (as acetylsalicylic acid) or manufactured in pill form (by Bayer in the 1890s).

The bark of willow trees contains a lot of salicylic acid, and was used by Native Americans and ancient Sumerians, to name a few. The flowering shrub called myrtle and, of course, wintergreen, are also sources of pain relief preparations.

But with this new information about how plants use MeSA, people can now make use of the chemical in another way. Farmers could use the MeSA signal much like plants do – to detect stress or disease before it spreads. Since the MeSA signal appears before there is any visible damage to the plants, a farmer who monitors the signal can take action – applying pesticides, for example. “The earlier you detect that something’s going on, the more you can benefit in terms of using fewer pesticides and managing crops better,” is how one of the scientists put it.