#holidayreading – the forgotten tribe, scientists as writers

Over my “holiday”, actually not holiday I’m working, I’m catching up on research about writing. In fact, I’ve just been reading about the writing practices of scientists.

Lisa Emerson interviewed 106 scientists –  distributed across four countries and multiple science disciplines (but excluding pure mathematics). She wanted to address/redress the common myth that scientists write badly and don’t care that they do. They allegedly churn out tedious experimental reports that nobody can or wants to read. 

I’m with Emerson on debunking this, if it is something that people believe – some great academic writing comes from scientists. Witness this year’s Royal Society short list for science writing for instance. The list includes Ed Yong’s I contain multitudes and Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex, both of which are highly pleasurable reads, as well as being worthily informative.

The starting point for Emerson’s research was that postgraduate scientists generally learn academic writing differently from those of us in the arts and social sciences. Working in lab teams, postgraduate scientists tend to co-write with a supervisor or with peers. This apprenticeship model differs from the ways in which say, a literature scholar works alone in a library on text, shows their writing to a supervisor and gets feedback. There is no co-writing. Because of this difference, the writing habits of scientists needed a specific research project, Emerson asserts.

coverBefore reading the book, I’d have assumed that some scientists do see writing as very important and also see themselves as writers, whereas others don’t –  much like the rest of the academy then. And indeed, that is actually what Emerson found. Emerson divides her scientist interviewees into two broad groups – those who are routine writers, they don’t like writing much, but they see it as part of the work and they do it – and adaptive writers – they like writing, even if it is hard work sometimes. Adaptive writers spend time working on their writing craft, and experiment with a range of genres and styles of writing. Even as senior scholars, they still write a lot and don’t delegate writing to junior members of their team.

Emerson’s interest is in how her group got to be either routine or adaptive. She is not judgmental about a career choice to engage widely with the public or not  – both are equally valid and both are needed she says. Rather, her concern is with the patchiness of learning about science writing and how that might be understood and changed.

So, here’s a bit of a potted summary of some of her key points.

  • Adaptive writers tended to have positive experiences of writing during childhood and school – and actually most of her adaptive and routine writers had taken language rich subjects at school so this wasn’t about subject choice. But, Emerson notes, schools could do a much better job of teaching scientific writing.
  • Scientific writing was largely learnt through co-authorship, supervision, reading and imitation with most scientists,  routine and adaptive, having negative experiences of working with an advisor. Positive experiences were where supervisors talked through changes – not just rewriting or asking for changes without explanation which was the more common experience. (Emerson’s interviewees did produce some teethgritting examples of worst practice; these are always instructive.)
  • Very few of the entire group had any assistance with guided reading designed to help them learn the rhetorical conventions of their discipline – they learnt this through a kind of immersion in the discipline rather than anything explicit.
  • Support for writing post PhD, including participation in writing groups, was important for all of the scientist interviewees. Mentorship was key, with adaptive writers reporting higher levels of support than routine writers. Two of the group had experienced specific writing programmes during their undergraduate years and reported the significance of this experience. 

Emerson argues that the lack of undergraduate attention to scientific writing, and patchy experiences of the postgraduate apprenticeship mode, clearly point to the kinds of  interventions that might improve scientific community engagement with writing. As she see it, “the challenge for the scientific community is to begin to model and articulate the attitudes and beliefs towards writing that they wish to see in their graduate students”. Emerson sees an answer not in courses or modelling per se, but rather in ongoing and deliberate conversations about writing, conversations that go on throughout an academic science career.

I reckon that this is the kind of book that ought to be part of a resource kit for supervisor development. I can imagine that a discussion of extracts from this book could kick off a pretty interesting intervention to bring writing into greater focus in teaching/learning/supervision. The book isobviously of interest to those in science but it does also have some pointers for those in other disciplinary areas too, particularly as lab-based models of research spread more widely across the academy.

And – yay – Emerson’s book is open access online. 

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Lisa Emerson, science writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to #holidayreading – the forgotten tribe, scientists as writers

  1. Many thanks Pat for bringing this bk and some of its highlights to my attention, and, of course, for all of the other material on supervision that is so valuable, sometimes as a reminder and memory jog, as well as new insights, Much appreciated

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  2. nyctootcyn says:

    I am looking forward to when I have time to check out Emerson’s book this weekend. Whenever I write I want to try out different styles, but when writing collaborative reports everything I do is revised and edited out and we end up with a paper with a clunky introduction and conclusion and no flow. It actually drives me to never author a paper with certain people again so I am not limited to their style. Especially after reading through several notes on writing from the American Chemical Society which freed me from having to write in the passive voice ever again, I now know I could write much better reports with practice and time.

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