The Friday Funny: How to write like a scientist

A couple of years ago we quoted a paper on psychological research called “Keeping it simple” (Peterson & Park, 2010) that observed:

… the evidence of history is clear that the research studies with the greatest impact in psychology are breathtakingly simple in terms of the questions posed, the methods and designs used, the statistics brought to bear on the data, and the take-home messages.

In the post, Simplicity and Genuine Utilization, Jane lamented our tendency in evaluation to overcomplicate things thanks to our training in the [social] sciences.

Nevertheless, we do realize that some of our colleagues are also in the business of communicating not to normal people (clients) but to editors and reviewers of academic journals who have the power to publish them or let them academically perish.

For the benefit of our evaluation colleagues in academia, here is a selection of snippets from Science Magazine columnist Adam Ruben, author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School … Enjoy!

How to Write Like a Scientist

(click the title above to read Adam Ruben’s full post on the Science Magazine website – we’re posting just a few tantalizing snippets here)

2. Using the first person in your writing humanizes your work. If possible, therefore, you should avoid using the first person in your writing. Science succeeds in spite of human beings, not because of us, so you want to make it look like your results magically discovered themselves.

4. The more references you include, the more scholarly your reader will assume you are. Thus, if you write a sentence like, “Much work has been done in this field,” you should plan to spend the next 9 hours tracking down papers so that your article ultimately reads, “Much work has been done in this field1,3,6-27,29-50,58,61,62-65,78-315,952-Avogadro’s Number.” If you ever write a review article, EndNote might explode.

9. Starting sentences with “obviously” or “as everyone knows” demonstrates your intellectual superiority. If possible, start sentences with, “As super-intelligent beings like myself know,” or “Screw your stupidity; here’s a fact-bomb for you.”

10. Your paper will be peer reviewed, so include flattering descriptions of all of your peers. Scientists call these “shout-outs” or “mad props.”

12. If you’re co-authoring a paper, most of your notoriety will derive from the order of authors and not from the content of your paper — so make sure to have vehement and petty debates about whose name goes first. Here are the general rules for authorship:

FIRST AUTHOR: Weary graduate student who spent hours doing the work.

SECOND AUTHOR: Resentful graduate student who thinks he or she spent hours doing the work.

THIRD AUTHOR: Undergraduate just happy to be named.

FOURTH AUTHOR: Collaborator no one has ever met whose name is only included for political reasons.

FIFTH AUTHOR: Postdoctoral fellow who once made a chance remark on the subject.

SIXTH AUTHOR: For some reason, Vladimir Putin.

LAST AUTHOR: Principal investigator whose grant funded the project but who hasn’t stood at a lab bench in decades, except for that one weird photo shoot for some kind of pamphlet, and even then it was obvious that he or she didn’t know where to find basic things.

Related posts:


References/further reading:

Keeping it simple: Christopher Peterson and Nansook Park on the lasting impact of minimally sufficient research. The Psychologist, Vol. 23(5), 2010, pp. 398-401.

Unlearning some of our social scientist habits: Jane Davidson on how academic training in the social sciences can impede genuine evaluation. Journal of Multidisciplinary Evaluation, 4(8), 2007, pp. iii-vi.

2 comments to The Friday Funny: How to write like a scientist

  • Chris Coryn

    This may be your best yet!

  • Kelci Price

    Awesome. I really enjoyed this post. ‘Scientific’ writing is painfully bland and unappealing, not to mention painful to craft. It makes me cringe when people invoke the APA manual as a stylistic reference for evaluation writing. The advice it offers (beyond how to appropriately reference other sources) is generally the antithesis of what I think is needed to craft a useful and interesting story. It’s fascinating to me that evaluators tend to think that the word ‘report’ equates to a boring and very long technical document. It doesn’t have to be this way! I appreciate your quest to improve evaluation reporting.