Monday, May 21, 2007

How to Write Consistently Boring Scientific Literature

I remember writing lab reports as an undergrad. We were instructed to write in passive voice, use jargon and remove all traces of humanity from our writing. My nascent attempts at levity and personality were stabbed at with red ink pens. The idea that scientific literature must be boring, passive and devoid of all personal touches is thoroughly ingrained in the scientific hive-mind. Why is it then that many of our favorite papers are often the most poetic? Darwin's On the Origin of Species is absolutely a masterpiece of literature. WD Hamilton consistently wrote humorous, imaginative papers. Richard Feynman's Six Easy Pieces doesn't hide his startlingly lucid, agile, and contagious enthusiasm. The lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov also wrote several successful fiction novels, including Lolita.

So why are many scientific papers such a bore to read? Kaj Sand-Jensen has some suggestions on How to Write Consistently Boring Scientific Literature.

1. Avoid focus
2. Avoid originality and personality
3. Write l o n g contributions
4. Remove implications and speculation
5. Leave out illustrations
6. Omit necessary steps of reasoning
7. Use abbreviations and jargon
8. Suppress humor
9. Degrade everything to statistical elements
10. Provide citations for self-evident statements

If you want to write good papers, do the opposite. Also, I might add, come up with a good title. Here are some examples of my favorites...

Geometry for the Selfish Herd
(WD Hamilton 1971)

The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm
(Gould and Lewontin 1979)

Homage to Santa Rosalia (Or Why Are There So Many Kinds of Animals?)
(GE Hutchinson 1959)

The Paradox of the Plankton
(GE Hutchinson 1961)

The Logic of Animal Conflict
(Maynard Smith and Price 1973)

Would Bohr be Born if Bohm Were Born Before Born?
(H Nikolic 2007)

One Ring to Rule Them All and in the Darkness Bind Them?
(Bena and Warner 2005)

Wise, Winsome or Weird? Mechanisms of Sperm Storage in Female Animals
(Neubaum and Wolfner 1999)

Can a Biologist Fix a Radio? or, What I Learned while Studying Apoptosis
(Lazebnik 2002)


  1. That is a great list that I need to print off right now and stare at while I write my next paper. If only they would teach us these things during our doctoral training.

  2. That title about Bohm and Born was inspired.

    It seems that academia is waking up to the need for good, clear writing. At least, the studies and papers that I've read so far in grad school (Library/Info Science) have not approached the level of obfuscation that my sig other had to wade through when he went to grad school for, of all things, communications. Sufferin' shimmies, that stuff was unintelligible!

  3. I like Nice Snake, Shame about the legs. (Coats and Ruta 2000)

  4. I am not sure how to post stuff on your blog John Dog but check this out about the possible new head of the NEA

  5. Asimov relates that he wrote his classic short story "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline" to practice the turgid style required by his doctoral dissertation. The last question the exam committee asked him was to tell them something about thiotimoline ;-).

  6. That's right Jonathan, a creationist is running UNOPPOSED for the The National Association of State Boards of Education. I usually leave the political aspects of evolutionary biology to the folks over at Panda's Thumb ( PZ Meyers at Pharyngula ( Both of whom have covered this travesty: