On Reading

Sometimes I read a scientific paper and struggle to pay attention.  I have to re-read sentences because I cannot grasp the message, or I just turn my attention away, probably to Facebook or email.  Sometimes I struggle to stay awake.  At my desk, I lean backward in my chair and close my eyes, submerged by lethargy.  I’ll wager you have experienced the same feeling at one time or another, and, like me, you take responsibility.  You tell yourself you are too tired to concentrate, or worse, the content is above your head.  After all, you are reading a peer-reviewed paper – writing that has been reviewed, edited, and emerged primed for publication – so it can’t be them, can it?

Well actually yes, it could be!  The problem is not that the author cannot write, but that they adopt a scholarly flair to sound more erudite (translation: smart ass).  This style of writing – which we’re all guilty of to some degree – unnecessarily complicates the prose and makes the message less accessible.  Take for example a 2014 Journal of Zoology article titled “Does human pedestrian behavior influence risk assessment in a successful mammal urban adapter?”  The title is really asking: Does walking toward a squirrel make it run away?  The authors use several phrases that sound scholarly – such as ‘successful mammal urban adaptor’ and ‘anthropogenic structures’ – but these could be replaced with terms easier to understand (e.g. ‘mammal adapted to cities’ and ‘man-made structures’) and still retain all the information (for a full breakdown of the article see www.whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com ).  Here’s another example from the book ‘Style’, written by Joseph M. Williams:

“The adolescents who had effectuated forcible entry into the domicile were apprehended.”

Put more simply:  “We caught the kids who broke into the house.”

The same message is presented in two ways – one erudite and complicated, one simple and direct.  Note the difference is more than just a choice of words; it includes the position of the subject, verb and object in the sentence, and use of passive or active voice.  This simple example demonstrates how turgid writing can complicate a very simple message.

In science, a turgid style of writing is treacherous when the reader cannot distinguish between the complication of language and complexity of idea.  I have read papers and believed I was not up to their intellectual demands.  Although this is often true, especially when reading about a new topic with esoteric terms, there have been more than a few occasions when I read a piece of writing on a new subject that was turgid, wordy, and indirect, and mistakenly believed the subject was complex.  It is natural to defer to that which seems difficult.  Only later would I read another paper and be shocked at the simplicity of the idea when it was explained in direct and clear prose.

This problem is not recent, nor is it confined to science.  Read this following passage, written over 400 years ago (another example from ‘Style’):

“If use and custom, having the help of so long time and continuance wherein to [re]fine our tongue, of so great learning and experience which furnish matter for the [re]fining, of so good wits and judgments which can tell how to [re]fine, have griped at nothing in all that time, with all that cunning, by all those wits which they will not let go but hold for most certain in the right of our writing, that then our tongue ha[s] no certainty to trust to, but write all at random. But the antecedent, in my opinion, is altogether unpossible, wherefore the consequent is a great deal more th[a]n probable, which is that our tongue ha[s] in her own possession and writing very good evidence to prove her own right writing; which, though no man as yet by any public writing of his seem[s] to have seen, yet the tongue itself is ready to show them to any whosoever which is able to read them and withal to judge what evidence is right in the right of writing.”

  • Richard Mulcaster, The First Part of the Elementary,1582

Erm, what?  That was a difficult sentence to follow! You probably assumed that’s because it was written in the 1500s, and you are not an expert in 14th century prose.  A similar mentality can arise in science when you read about a poorly explained concept that is new to you.  You think: “It is difficult to read because I lack the understanding”.  Read this next passage, which was written thirty years earlier than the first (here the word ‘inkhorn’ refers to the complicated and pretentious use of words):

“Among all other lessons this should first be learned, that we never affect any strange inkhorn terms, but to speak as is commonly received, neither seeking to be over-fine, nor yet living overcareless, suiting our speech as most men do, and ordering our wits as the fewest have done. Some seek so far for outlandish English that they forget altogether their mother’s language. And I dare swear this, if some of their mothers were alive, they [would] not [be] able to tell what they say. And yet these fine English clerks will say they speak in their mother tongue, if a man should charge them for counterfeiting the King’s English.”

  • Thomas Wilson, Art of Rhetoric,1553

Well, that was much easier to read.  Since this excerpt mostly refrains from the ‘inkhorn’ style of the preceding passage it is clearer and more direct, so the message is accessible even today.  These examples show how easy it is to make mistaken assumptions about a piece of writing when it is written in a confusing, wordy and turgid style.

So next time you are struggling to read a paper, be critical of the writing.  Yes the writer is an expert on the subject, but this does not mean they can write about it clearly.  Don’t begin a new topic by reading only one paper – pick several papers on the same subject and compare their explanations.  There is no better way to reveal turgid writing than to contrast it with a clear and simple example.  Ask the question: “Is this difficult to read due to complexity of idea, or complication of language?”  It is a liberating experience when you realize that sometimes it’s not your inability, but the author’s lack of clarity, that can make reading such a struggle.

 

References

Coyne, Jerry A. “A Poorly Written Paper On A Lovely Rodent”. Why Evolution Is True. N.p., 2014. Web. 5 Jan. 2016 [website: www.whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com]

Williams, J. M. & Colomb, G. G. (1990). Style: Toward clarity and grace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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I am a PhD candidate in physical oceanography at the University of Miami. I use observations (from both remote and in-situ instruments) to understand and quantify how coastal ocean currents are changing in time and space. I am particularly interested in problems with an environmental or societal focus, including: transport pathways of pollutants, larval dispersion and search and rescue operations. My PhD dissertation is on the Florida Current jet structure and its frontal instabilities, which I will defend in Spring 2016.

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  • Amee Gollop

    Nice post Matt, I liked the use of the 400 year example and then the irony that an even older example was easier to follow.

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