Monday, January 2, 2012

The Difficulties of Scientific Writing (An Update)

Writing is so hard!
When I was a young graduate student, with one publication to my record, I ambitiously wrote a piece for the Association of Psychological Science's (APS) Magazine, the Observer, lamenting the difficulties of scientific writing. Oh, to be a young researcher again!

I look back on this bit of writing with equal parts pride (the Observer goes out to all APS members) and embarrassment (here I was, early in my career, trying to tell people how to write). Anyway, as we are starting the New Year, I thought it might be fitting to take another look at this piece and give my new perspective on scientific writing, now that I've had a bit more experience. Here goes nothing!

In the original piece (which you can read here), I made four specific observations about scientific writing that I hoped, at the time, would call attention to the many common problems that researchers struggle with during the writing process. In what follows, I detail these four observations, along with my updates:

What I said: Everyone Struggles
What I'm saying now: Everyone Struggles (at first)

When I originally wrote the first piece, I had just successfully fought and won my first battle for publication: I had spent the entire summer before painstakingly watching and re-watching videos of strangers meeting each other for the first time, just learned specialized data analyses to assess behavior in social interactions, and had received what seemed like my very first set of positive reviews for a research paper. The whole process still seemed like a daunting task that might never be replicated, and I think my sentiments in the first article reflect this: "Every graduate student battles with these writing challenges," I lamented in the first article.

I still view writing as the great challenge of the empirical process, but I must confess that it doesn't feel quite like a back-and-forth battle any longer. Simply put, I've continued to improve, and I suspect others feel the same way, and for good reason: As your career continues, you are expected to teach others how to write effectively!

In the end, I still stand by my endorsement of Skinner's (1961) lessons about writing: Keep the context and time consistent to help promote the creative writing juices! This works for me, and I wonder if it works for you too?

What I said: Embrace Criticism
What I'm saying now: Approach Criticism Objectively

Approach my criticism objectively!
In the original piece I suggested that we as researchers must embrace criticism of our ideas, handed down by our colleagues in the scientific community. Looking back, this seems to be a bit of an over-statement, and reflects my inexperience. After all, some of the criticisms of your work that are lobbed at you by your colleagues can be wrong, off-topic, or motivated by self-interest.

I think it is still important to consider critiques of your work, but to do so in an objective manner. If for example, if someone accuses your work of being "poorly written" its probably best to focus on the ideas the reviewer has for improving the writing, rather than on the hostile tone of the comment. If however, a colleague would like you to review his/her entire career's work on construct A, when your paper is about construct B, maybe it is best to think hard about whether construct A adds something useful to your ideas.

What I said: Reviews Do Not Determine Writing Success
What I'm saying now: Reviews Should Not Determine Writing Success

I think I still believe most of what I said about manuscript reviews, to this day. For example, I find that I still "celebrate the submission of a manuscript to a journal" because this represents an important accomplishment (i.e., that you and your colleagues believe the research has merit). However, I think that though reviews shouldn't determine writing success, they often do. After all, if you don't publish, no one will ever learn from your research and other researchers won't be able to replicate and extend your findings. In essence, we must publish, and that means running the manuscript review gauntlet!

That's not to say that the review process is not without its hiccups of course, just that this is more of the reality of our field. Disseminating knowledge is the primary goal of research.

What I said: Enjoy Writing
What I'm saying now: Really Enjoy Writing!!!

I stand behind this last point 100%. In fact, it's probably one of the reasons behind why I got involved with this blog venture. PYM is another place where I can do something (writing) that I enjoy! The content is slightly different, but the goal is basically the same: Disseminate knowledge to a broader audience interested in why people think, feel, and behave the way they do. So, if anything, I'd like to double down on this last point!

I'm interested to hear the opinions of other writers/researchers on the difficulties of scientific writing. What has helped improve your writing? What do you struggle with?

Happy New Year!

Skinner, B. F. (1961). The science of learning and the art of teaching Harvard Educational Review, 145-167 DOI: 10.1037/11324-010


  1. This is so helpful, even as I'm applying to graduate programs and a research assistant currently I notice a painful absence of concise, good (not just technical) writing in the sciences. As a Psychology major pursuing a Ph.D. being published is high on my list of things to do and I aim to do it well. I'll keep this advice in mind and continue to fill that space for good writers in the sciences and proof-readers for colleagues as practice.

  2. Great! Thanks for sharing, I'm also having this dream when I was still schooling.

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