How Scientists Are Learning to Write

"That's jargon-ish. Even some people in the sciences don't have an intuitive understanding of what that means."


The students tried not to look sheepish as their professor projected the article on the whiteboard, waiting for their work to be devoured by their classmates. It was the second class for the nine students, all of whom are Ph.D. candidates or post-doctoral fellows. Their assignment had been to distill their extensive research down to just three paragraphs so that the average person could understand it, and, as in any class, some showed more aptitude than others. The piece on the board was by one of the students, a Russian-born biologist.

The professor, the journalist and author Stephen Hall (with whom I took a different writing workshop last year), pointed to the word "sequencing." "That's jargon-ish," he said, circling it on the board. "Even some people in the sciences don't have an intuitive understanding of what that means." He turned to another student in the class, an Italian native working on his doctorate in economics, for confirmation. "Yes, I didn't know what was going on," he said, turning to the piece's author. The biology student wrote something in her notebook.

Hall's class at New York University is one of several that have sprung up at colleges across the country that are designed to help early-career scientists hone their writing skills. Science requires an increasingly large amount of writing, whether researchers do it through articles for the popular media or grant proposals and research papers. Given the highly technical subject matter, scientists need special guidance when it comes to writing for a non-expert audience. But the educators who teach these classes rarely have much precedent to follow. Although the instructors typically design their own courses, several common threads among the classes reveal the challenges that researchers often face in communicating science in a digestible way—and why it's more critical than ever that they learn to do so.

Even though most of their efforts may seem to be concentrated in the lab, scientists spend a lot of time writing. "Scientists need to know how to write to get their work published and get grants—it's an important skill that people assume they already have [once they reach a certain level], so no one ever teaches them how to write well in these specific formats," said Kristin Sainani, a health policy professor at Stanford University who teaches both undergraduate and online courses about writing in the sciences. "In science, research is king, and it's important," she said, but over the past decade universities have started to pay more attention to the "soft skills" that scientists also need.

But explaining science is just as valuable for the lay public as it is for the scientists themselves. "Science has become more complex, more specialized—every sub-discipline has its own vocabulary," Hall said. Scientists at all levels have to work hard to explain niche research to the general public, he added, but it's increasingly important for the average person to understand. That's because their research has become central to many other elements of society, influencing realms that may have previously seemed far from scientific rigors.

Olivia Wilkins, a post-doctoral fellow who studies plant genetics at New York University's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology, recently took Hall's four-session workshop. She wanted to be a better writer, she said, because she wanted her research to matter. "Science is a group effort. We may be in different labs at different universities, but ultimately, many of us are working towards the same goals. I want to get other people as excited about my work as I am, and I believe that one of the ways to do this is through better writing."

Wilkins got a lot out of Hall's workshops, but she struggled at times—a fairly common sentiment among students. The NYU workshops may sound unappealing; they're not for credit and each session lasts three hours per week (not counting homework) for four weeks. But the numbers say otherwise; for the fall 2014 semester over 160 scientists applied for 40 spots, likely because of how useful it is.

The NYU course is one of several of its kind offered across the country for undergraduates and doctorate students in formats ranging from massive open online courses (like one that Sainani teaches) to small workshops and everything in between. Most of the courses are taught by writers with less science background than their students. "In my syllabi I tell my students, 'You are the technical experts, you know more than I do, no question about that. I may not catch if you name the wrong protein, but I'm going to know if you described this well enough to be comprehensible,'" said Katie Rodger, a faculty member who, among other writing courses, teaches writing for scientists at University of California, Davis.*

Rodger mentioned that, in chemistry papers, the style is so convoluted and poorly written that others in the field can't even replicate the experiments, an essential process in science. "The major journals and labs that are doing the publishing say, 'We have let this [style] get away from us,'" Rodger said.

Although these classes have sprung up in greater numbers over the past few years, educators don't have a real consensus about how—or even what—scientists should be learning in order to become better communicators. Hall was doubtful that instructors collaborated across institutions. Teachers usually draw on their own academic training or what they've learned in their own careers.

Brad Henderson teaches writing to undergraduate science majors at UC Davis, and doesn't share Rodger's relaxed attitude about the actual science the students cover.* "It drives me crazy when I'm talking with other writing teachers and they say they don't worry about what the student is technically talking about, they just look at the shape and form [of their writing]," he said "That's a real disservice. If you're going to write about science, you have to roll up your shirtsleeves and learn about science."

Even though they may disagree on the best way to teach writing, the teachers of these classes mostly agree on what makes writing good. They focus on some aspects  of writing that they teach to all their students, no matter the discipline, like using analogies to communicate complex ideas, Henderson said. But over the course of their writing and teaching careers, the teachers have found that science requires the writer to have a different set of abilities and training.

Sainani, like many other writing instructors, teaches her students to use the active voice and to minimize jargon. Jargon would be mentioning an fMRI in passing; the non-jargon way to describe it would to say that it's a process in which scientists detect brain activity by observing how the blood flow changes.

Students are sometimes the best to point out jargon used by their classmates from other disciplines. "[Students] all become jargon police by the third or fourth session," Hall said.

"I tell my students to hold themselves accountable for being fancy or sophisticated in their writing style just to seem smart," Henderson said. "They should write sentences that are concise, clear and correct that celebrate the pure scientific content they're trying to communicate."

Most teachers strive to combat the assumption that writing ability is innate. "On day one of class, a lot of people who went into science think they don't have that talent," Sainani said. "I start with saying you can absolutely learn the way you learned to do science. Writing takes a lot of practice like anything else—if you don't do it, you don't get better."

* This post originally stated that Katie Rodger and Brad Henderson teach at the University of California at Berkeley. We regret the error.