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March 22nd, 2013

Science and the English Language – lessons from George Orwell

15 comments | 12 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Blog Admin

March 22nd, 2013

Science and the English Language – lessons from George Orwell

15 comments | 12 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

lewis2Drawing on George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”, Lewis Spurgin discusses the bad habits prevalent in science writing. He argues the imitative and pretentious nature of how scientists write science papers acts as a barrier to access and to thinking critically. Science is about finding the truth and making sense of things and an essential part of this is communicating clearly and honestly.

The open access movement seeks to make research published in peer-reviewed journals freely available for anyone to see. At the moment you have to pay through the nose to read a journal article if you’re not at an institution with a subscription. Supporters of open access, myself included, argue that this is deeply unfair. The public fund much of the research that goes into peer-reviewed journals, and therefore they have a right to see it should they want to. Open access is making excellent progress, and there are now many journals that are freely available online. But there is another barrier preventing people from accessing published research, and that is academic writing. It is, at least in the sciences (I haven’t read enough from other fields to make a judgement), poorly constructed, stale and pretentious.

Despite being written nearly 70 years ago, Politics and the English Language is still the best guide to how not to write. Orwell argued that bad habits were developing in written English, and that these made writing “ugly and inaccurate”. Furthermore, sloppy writing, Orwell suggests, encourages sloppy thinking. He writes,

[M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.

The other morning I re-read the essay on a train, and was struck by two things. Firstly, the points Orwell makes on what’s wrong with written English are still relevant today, especially in science writing. Secondly (and more worryingly for me), I realised that I have developed every bad habit possible, and that my own scientific writing is indeed ugly and inaccurate. Orwell lists four main bad habits that he felt were prevalent in written English in 1940. Below, I explain three of them and give some examples of how they are used in 21st century science writing. Then I’ll attempt to explain why I think it’s important that we scientists begin to change how we write.

The examples that I’ll give below are not the worst examples of science writing, and I don’t think that the authors are necessarily bad writers, nor that I am a good one. As I have said, many of the problems that I’ll discuss come up in my own work, and probably in this blog post. The scientists who wrote these papers, like myself and the majority of academics, have picked up bad habits because they have attempted to write in the “journal style” – something I’ll discuss later. If you are the author of a paper that I mention, or if the criticism I make reminds you of your own writing, I don’t mean to offend, but I don’t apologise if I do.

Dying Metaphors

A dying metaphor, according to Orwell, is one that is neither useful for evoking an image, nor one that has become a meaningful phrase in its own right. They are “worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves”. In science writing, dying metaphors can be most easily seen in journal article titles. Here are a few examples:

  • On a collision course: competition and dispersal differences create no-analogue communities and cause extinctions during climate change
  • Waking the dead: the value of population genetic analyses of historical samples
  • Survival of the Fittest: Overcoming Oxidative Stress at the Extremes of Acid, Heat and Metal

I’m sure I wouldn’t need to tell any scientists how much the latter of these phrases is overused (a Google Scholar search throws up over 1,000 articles with the exact phrase in the title). The other trend that you will have probably noticed in these article titles is the use of the colon. The “funny title:actual title” format has become a cliché itself. Based on a sample of 100 articles published in my field (“MHC evolution”) since 2009, 23% of papers use colons in the title. I myself have been guilty of this, but will not do so again (although, I may be tempted to write an article called “Punctuation in article titles: time for a colonic irrigation”). It’s not only lazy and repetitive – using colons in your titles also gets you fewer citations.

In case you think I am making too much of article titles, lazy imagery is not restricted to these. It crops up in papers more than you may have realised. Think how often you have seen phrases such as “cutting-edge” (1,640,000 Google scholar hits), “Achilles’ heel” (79,300 hits), “shed(ding) light” (492,000 hits) and “holy grail” (82,200 hits). All of them are employed not to aid in clarity, but out of laziness. For my own amusement, here are three more journal articles that all use the same crap metaphor:

  • Leader of the pack: gene mapping in dogs and other model organisms”
  • Leader of the pack: faecal pellet deposition order impacts PCR amplification in wombats
  • The leader of the pack: A service perspective on packaging and customer satisfaction

Operators or Verbal False Limbs

Orwell argued that political writers were replacing simple verbs with phrases,  to fill out sentences and save the author from having to think of the appropriate words. False verbal limbs are extremely common in science writing. Many of the examples that Orwell used in his essay are still used in science papers, (“be subjected to”, “have the effect of”, “serve the purpose of”), and numerous others can be found, such as “gives rise to”, “take into account”, “give the impression that”, “may be of interest”, “in addition to” and so on. Verbal filler can also be used to make simple statements sound more profound. Examples of this include “to our knowledge, this is the first time that…”, and the ridiculous “not un-” formation, which, embarrassingly, can still be found in many science articles (usually in the form of “not uncommon” or “not unlikely”, when trying to understate how common/likely something is).

A related issue is the extensive use of the passive voice in science papers. In the past, journals have insisted on the passive voice in methods sections, arguing that they would like papers to have an air of objectivity. This is nonsense – whether science is performed well comes down to how it performed, not whether it is dressed up in flowery language. Methods sections written entirely in the passive voice are usually extremely awkward and difficult to read, and more worryingly, they can be be misleading (“methods were selected”, “data were omitted”). There is a long history of argument for and against the passive voice in argument, which I won’t go over here (this web page already does a pretty good job of that). The passive voice needn’t be eliminated entirely from science papers, but I do think we should be using the active voice much, much more.

Pretentious diction

Pretentious diction is probably the biggest problem in modern science writing. Like verbal filler and the passive voice, pretentious words are used to give the impression of scientific objectivity. Examples include ameliorate, elucidate, a priori/a posteriori, utilise, parallel, assumption, furthermore, comparative(ly), exacerbate, heterogeneous, determinant (usually preceded by “multiple”), facilitate, etc. There are many, many more. They are usually Latinate words which have perfectly good everyday equivalents – not to be confused with jargon, which is often necessary (although I think overused).

Why should we care?

Science is about finding the truth and making sense of things. An essential part of this is communicating clearly and honestly. The structure, grammar and choice of words used in science articles makes them vague and inaccurate, which is exactly the opposite of how they are intended, and pretend, to be. And, as Orwell recognised, lazy writing encourages lazy thinking. The imitative and pretentious nature of how we write science papers acts as a barrier to thinking critically about what we’ve done, and how our experiments might be biased.

Science writing is also full of cliché, crap puns and metaphors, and borderline plagiarism. In short, it lacks imagination. It is no wonder, therefore, that nobody enjoys reading science papers. We often enjoy the story contained within scientific studies, but I’d bet that even most scientists don’t enjoy reading journal articles for their writing. Must this be the case? One could argue that imagery has no place in science articles. I think it has, and there are some examples where it has been used well. In my field of evolutionary biology, probably the most famous use of imagery in a science paper was Gould and Lewontin’s article on the “Spandrels of San Marco”. Gould was also excellent at using metaphor to illustrate the vastness of geological time (“Consider the earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the king’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history”). But, sadly, for every Spandrel there are a thousand Achilles’ heels, and so much light has been shed that we’ve all gone blind.

One of the most tragic consequences of the scientific writing style is the effect it has on students. Science students find it extremely difficult to get into the primary literature, and most undergraduates will not be able to properly critique a scientific paper until their final year. Complex methods used in many modern papers, and the jargon required to explain them, form a major part of this barrier, but I have no doubt that the writing is equally to blame. Even worse is the effect that reading journal articles has on students’ writing. Anybody that has taught at university level will know that undergraduates, when first charged with writing “in the journal style”, tend to come up with language that would be comical, were it not such a shame. Examples that I’ve seen include “sample quality was inspected with the aid of the eye”, “it is hitherto perceived that”, and “the null hypothesis remains not unlikely”. This is our fault as scientists, not theirs.

It is extremely easy to write badly. It requires no thought whatsoever to borrow phrases, fill out sentences and re-hash bad metaphors. Not doing this requires deep thought and conscious effort. Journals are doing their part in encouraging clear writing – most now encourage the active rather than passive voice, and most emphasise the importance of clarity in their author guidelines. But real change will only occur from the bottom up. We scientists need to start looking more critically at our writing, in the same way that any other non-fiction write would (or should at least). This will be a difficult process, and to change one’s writing habits will take considerable time and effort. As a starting point, I would suggest applying Orwell’s rules for political writing. They are as follows:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

So, to break rule number 1 and borrow from an old cliché, I’ll finish by saying this: scientists of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your pretentious diction.


This was originally published on Lewis’s personal blog and is reposted with permission. 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the author

Lewis Spurgin is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Groningen and a visiting researcher at the University of East Anglia. I write about science, politics, culture and writing.


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