Stephen, Be Heard!

September 14, 2014

The Dynamic Ecology and Phylogenomics blogs drew my attention to a new “must-read” article: On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed? by Stephen B. Heard (Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 7:64-72, 2014). The abstract is below.

While scientists are often exhorted to write better, it isn’t entirely obvious what “better” means. It’s uncontroversial that good scientific writing is clear, with the reader’s understanding as effortless as possible. Unsettled, and largely undiscussed, is the question of whether our goal of clarity precludes us from making our writing enjoyable by incorporating touches of whimsy, humanity, humour, and beauty. I offer examples of scientific writing that offers pleasure, drawing from ecology and evolution and from other natural sciences, and I argue that enjoyable writing can help recruit readers to a paper and retain them as they read. I document resistance to this idea in the scientific community, and consider the objections (well grounded and not) that may lie behind this resistance. I close by recommending that we include touches of whimsy and beauty in our own writing, and also that we work to encourage such touches in the writing of others.

To this nicely argued piece, I just want to add a few examples of indifference or hostility to my own attempts at whimsy, humor, and/or beauty.

(1) My grant proposals to the NWRCE and PNWRCE, 2010.

Striving to keep readers with me through the Conclusion section, I wrote:

We believe strongly in the importance of the central goal of this proposal, i.e., linking antibacterial compounds to Burkholderia proteins in a manner that will facilitate validation of new drug targets. This interest in compound-target links is not simply a fetish of the investigators involved in this project; within some pharmaceutical firms, knowing the target of a compound with activity against cells is considered absolutely vital for progressing compounds to leads.

A colleague discouraged me from using the word “fetish” on the grounds that “it reminds me of foot fetishes.” Perhaps she was right, but I kept it in as a tiny rebellion against unrelenting formality.

The proposals were rejected.

(2) G.J. Crowther et al., Identification of attractive drug targets in neglected-disease pathogens using an in silico approach, PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 4(8): e804, 2010.

This paper contained numerous lists of possible drug targets. Since one of the pathogens covered was Leishmania (the cause of leishmaniasis), the paper was known internally as the “Listmania paper” throughout 10 months of writing and revising. Meanwhile, we searched and searched for a compelling title distinct from that of our first paper on the same topic … while carefully avoiding the most interesting and evocative bit that we had come up with — i.e., the word Listmania. A coauthor killed the term by arguing, reasonably enough, that a pun about a pathogen might be insensitive to the pathogen’s victims. But a “catchier,” less cautious title might also have raised leishmania awareness more effectively.

(3) G.J. Crowther, The SingAboutScience.org database: an educational resource for instructors and students, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 40(1): 19-22, 2012.

The submitted manuscript included this:

The total manpower behind this website, rounded to the nearest whole number of FTE’s, is 0, so its maintenance is kept relatively simple.

Once the journal’s copy editor got ahold of it, it became:

The total manpower behind this website, rounded to the nearest whole number of Full-Time Equivalents (FTE’s), is 0, so its maintenance is kept relatively simple.

To me, this change reduced the sentence’s rhetorical punch and humor. Yet the edited version was (slightly) clearer, and I knew better than to argue for style over clarity. I reluctantly accepted the edit.

(4) G.J. Crowther et al., A mechanism-based whole-cell screening assay to identify inhibitors of protein export in Escherichia coli by the Sec pathway, Journal of Biomolecular Screening 17: 535-41, 2012.

Our submitted manuscript included the following:

While previous studies had included beta-mercaptoethanol in assay buffers, presumably to maintain cytoplasmic beta-gal in a reduced and active state, it did not appear necessary to preserve beta-gal function under our assay conditions; EC626’s response to maltose was similar with and without beta-mercaptoethanol (Fig. 3). Thus, in performing this assay, the unpleasant odor of beta-mercaptoethanol may be avoided.

A reviewer wrote, “The sentence which includes ‘the unpleasant odor of beta-mercaptoethanol’ is not appropriate.”

Here was another chance to stand up for ever-so-slightly-less-orthodox, ever-so-slightly-less-dry writing. This time I stood my ground and got my way.

“We respectfully disagree,” I responded. “It is a minor point, but the omission of beta-mercaptoethanol provided much relief to the rest of our lab, and this is worth noting.”

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