Ask most scientists about their work and you’ll very likely be treated to an hour of animated explanation about the topic. There will be enthusiastic gesticulations demonstrating the processes involved and vivid illustration of the rollercoaster ride the project has been. Pick up a paper on the work written by the same researcher however, and the project is as dull as watching a pipette drip. Scientific papers are completely devoid of emotion, dry and empty of personality.
The obvious reason for this, is that science should be impartial, objective, without bias. It should not be egotistical nor self-praising. Science papers are written in a format allowing for the incremental advancement of science. The current standardized layout is considered the most useful for reproduction and transference of results. Yet, is this the best form for communication of scientific studies? Is there room to ply the reader with a little taste of the excitement the researchers had when doing the experiments? Can scientific paper writing be shaken up to improve public opinion and understanding of science, increase the rates of successful reproduction of experiments, boost collaborations, and make scientific reporting more transparent?
It is 160 years this month since On the Origin of Species was published; species have evolved, many have become extinct, and the field of genetics now exists. Yet, this seminal work can still offer insight into how to appeal to a more emotive side of the reader, without diminishing the grandeur of the science being reported. Darwin’s description of how he fished through pigeon excrement to retrieve seeds still makes me feel slightly squeamish, and his use of captivating language impresses the beauty of the natural world onto every page. This passage, for example:
“What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions?”
Darwin takes the reader on a journey, not just of his experimentation, but also through his thoughts, as he made his observations that would fundamentally change science. Every step he took seemed logical and he builds a connection with the reader so that they care what he has to say. But what if he had been presenting his findings in today’s scientific climate?
Scientists are under a growing pressure to publish their work quickly, and the process of publication is accelerated by following a set template. The modern scientific paper has evolved to have prescribed subheadings, sections and criteria to make this possible. This also allows scientists within the field to skim through a vast trough of information quickly, finding what is relevant to them without being bogged down in the detail of which experiments went wrong and what the weather was like that day.
But are we losing the journey in the process? Has the current paper template gone so far towards reducing years of work to a list of bullet points that it no longer truly replicates the scientific method? Researchers usually do not arrive at a result in a linear manner. Who has ever heard of everything going right in a series of experiments, with no negative results, all leading very simply to the conclusion described at the end of the paper? There’s a lot more swearing and disappointment involved.
By missing out these parts in a paper, it also takes away the eureka moment, the high that the researcher gets when they achieve a result. It’s difficult to visualize the scientists behind the work, yet we see the results that they choose to display, like an influencer’s Instagram feed. Science is a lot more exciting than publications make out. Sharing ideas with experts in varying fields through more descriptive, story-like science reporting, will enhance interdisciplinary collaboration.
The representation of science as a path that is easy to follow from A to B to C, also has a damaging effect on reproducibility. There is an acknowledged problem with the lack of successful replication of experimental results in most scientific fields. In an attempt to make a report succinct and easy to move through quickly, the authors often do not give sufficient detail for others to reproduce their work. In cookbooks, some of the most useful information comes from the notes on what can go wrong or handy tips for the best way to do something.
This is also true for science. Negative results and unsuccessful experiments are rarely reported or considered important for publication compared to the final positive results, but these omitted details could be the key to successful replication by other lab groups.
Darwin himself says, “I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.”
On the Origin of Species lies across the boundaries of current science reporting. It is almost a popular science book, as it can be read by a general audience, however, it encompasses details on Darwin’s methodology, and discusses his ideas and theories using his careful observations as evidence for his thinking, that had not been previously published in detail.
Can modern scientists emulate Darwin and provide written details of their work that lie somewhere between the dry scientific papers currently published, and popular science writing? We can bring back the human voice into science papers without losing the objectivity needed for accurate studies and progression.
I want to sigh when experiments fail, and cheer when they succeed. Slight modifications can be made to the current model of scientific publications to make it more accessible to a wider audience. By describing more of the author’s journey through experimentation and observation, we can improve replication rates and even increase science advancement through collaboration. Scientific knowledge and methods are ever-evolving and science reporting needs to adapt to the changing environment.