What do postgrads think of the papers they read?

Author: Beverley Moore

During a recent course for life science postgraduates at Keele University, I asked students what they thought made a science paper work well.

Here’s what they said:

  • novelty
  • precision
  • clarity
  • objectivity
  • good analysis
  • good structure
  • information that flows well and is easy to follow
  • getting straight to the point
  • concise wording
  • a clear, simple abstract
  • a clear, unambiguous message
  • appropriate technical language
  • clear language
  • no waffle or unnecessary information
  • useful figures
  • clear figure legends

So far, so good – few scientists would disagree with these as key characteristics of a good paper. What happened next was more revealing. I asked participants to raise a hand if most of the papers they read displayed these key characteristics. Not a single hand went up.

The problem of poor communication in science isn’t new. As long ago as 1690, John Locke complained that “Vague forms of speech have so long passed for mysteries of science, and hard words mistaken for deep learning, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them that they are but a hindrance to true knowledge.”

Does it have to be this way? No. Groups of students like those at the Keele workshop show that there is hope. Each of them had chosen to come to the workshop – the training wasn’t mandatory. They had recognised that  clear writing doesn’t just happen but involves specific techniques that can be learnt. And they wanted to learn.

From the positive feedback on the workshop (100% of those who handed in evaluation forms said they would recommend the training), I’m confident there are now another 23 scientists with a better understanding of the principles of clear writing – and how to apply these principles in producing papers they themselves would want to read!