The Impersonal Nature of Scientific Writing: Is it working for us? by Chris McNees

The Impersonal Nature of Scientific Writing: Is it working for us? Chris McNees

I was watching a video some time ago about world building in video games through in-game text, and at one point the host says, “…nobody has ever enjoyed writing, or reading, an academic paper.” I know that this isn’t a completely ubiquitous assessment of academics and their relation to scientific literature, but it still felt like something that was, to a degree, true. Why do we hate such a vital aspect of our careers? If writing and reading scientifically is so important, why do we treat it as such a massive obstacle? Reading academic literature correctly was the very first thing my mentor instructed me on in my first research position. The host in the video I watched, however, used the word “enjoyed”, and it reminded me that, to me, the process of writing and reading academic literature can sometimes be pretty devoid of human joy. 

I understand these are generalizations. I have definitely read publications that come off as much more engaging and entertaining and interesting than most others. I know there are some very effective and enthusiastic communicators in science. But I think something about academia that hinders its effectiveness and appeal to most audiences is that in order to be considered “correct” or “true”, we must strip it of everything that would make it recognizably human. Who talks like this to each other in real life? The restrictions on structure of academic text can be creatively stifling. And if we don’t enjoy writing it, why would others enjoy reading it? I don’t think truth needs to be dry, plain, and soulless; truth can be joyful. I think making a statement more human does not make it wrong or inaccurate. Perhaps the reason why public audiences – particularly in the time of COVID – are so distrustful of the sciences is that the way we use our language doesn’t seem human. The style and form we’ve adopted  in order to safeguard against inaccuracy make it come off as robotic, inhuman. 

When I was writing my master’s thesis, I remember one of the earliest and strongest critiques I got from my professor was that I needed to make my paper significantly less personal. It needed to be more direct, less fluff, etc. In my previous academic work (at least in undergraduate classes), the way I talked about my own research or the research of others was never critiqued for being too personal, it was usually praised as an excellent way to make topics easier to understand. My graduate instructor’ assessment, however, was that personability made the paper seem less formal, less professional. In some of the readings in the SciComm program, we learned about rhetorical devices and ways of framing arguments and statements, and these were things I really liked. Ordinarily I like to present information more than I like to just write about it. On my master’s thesis, I got a significantly higher score on my oral presentation than my written thesis, which was the exact same information given in two different forms. Having the opportunity to format the information, use different language, and inject character and tone into my work, as well as getting to directly address questions, seemed to leave a better impression. The data didn’t change, the information didn’t change, the results didn’t change, but my ability to communicate did, and I think that is because I could add myself back into my work. 


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The Impersonal Nature of Scientific Writing: Is it working for us? by Chris McNees - Global Health Systems and Services Online Graduate Certificate Program
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