Hogwash in science writing
by Jim Caryl
I hate political correctness in scientific papers. It’s especially insulting given the readership of such articles. I especially hate the use of the term “sacrificed” or the one in the current paper I’m reading “euthanised” to describe the killing of test animals as part of an experiment. In the latter it was the killing of test chickens to look at the results of antibiotic trials on their gut flora. However, perhaps “killing” has it’s own connotations, but it’s semantically different from “murdered”. Perhaps “rendered dead” is the way to go?
I’m reminded of an excellent, if wax-lyrical, 1955 Nature article by John Baker entitled English Style in Scientific Papers. It was popularly received as it was one of those moments where someone sticks their head up and pull no punches when telling everyone that they’re behaving doltishly. His subject was the grandiloquence and foibles that “are the enemies of good English” and hinder the effective communication of science. [Those with subscriptions can see an online copy via an Editorial and recent reprint in the Journal of Biological Chemistry Classics series:l article via link].
John Baker described how he loathes the “grandiloquence” that has crept into scientific papers, and waxes particularly about the use of such terms as “vide supra” rather than “see above”, which he finds particularly amusing when in the such papers the lack of Latin knowledge is often demonstrated by the author not realising the word “data” is pleural. He is also bemused by the use of “circa”, “ca.” or “c.” ahead of a year, rather than just saying “about”, or the use of “juxta-“ instead of “near”.
I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of grandiloquence without even realising it. It’s just the climate you’re trained in. Although, I do find myself using the words “putative” (cf: supposed or thought to be) and “ligate” (cf. to bind or join) in common day situations, which is a little sad. Especially as most people outside of science stopped using such words years ago. The one thing that does catch all scientists out though, is phrase construction. Baker suggests that you wouldn’t, in ordinary speech, say “a tea containing cup”, you’d say “ a cup containing tea”. So why then do scientists say “iron containing globules” when what is meant is “globules containing iron”? Or they say “eight micra[sic] thick sections” when they mean “sections 8 µ thick”. A scientist would never say “the Jones associated people”, yet write “the nucleolus associated chromatin”.
He cites, as one of the worst examples of piling up qualifying words (other than adjectives) in front of the noun they qualify, the example “adenosine triphosphate activated actomyosin contraction” when of course it should be “the contraction of actomyosin, activated by adenosine triphosphate”. Where does such piling of adjectival phrases come from? Well it’s a German-American import apparently.
Writing in 1955, Baker comments that it is not surprising that a Germanic sentence construction should have crept into scientific papers given that many American scientists are of German descent, evident by the list of authors in journals published in the USA. He suggests it is the product of a generation of scholarly Americans writing in the manner they’d become accustomed having grown up with parents who constructed their sentences in their native, German way. Word piling works in German, where they have sufficient inflection to carry you through the adjectival phrases to the eventual qualifying noun, but in English, well, one just gets lost. None the less, despite many of us English and Scots having an otherwise syntactically clear, logical sentence construction, we find it necessary to copy the American-German import, just because that’s the culture of scientific papers.