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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 24, 2014

Are There Good Writers In This Business?

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Posted by Derek

Here's a question sent in by a reader that I actually have trouble answering: who would you say are the best writers of scientific papers in our field? I'm not necessarily talking about the results in those papers, as much as clear presentation and layout, written in a way that gets the point of the paper across without having to decode the thing.

It's tough, because writing a journal publication means operating under a variety of constraints. One of the biggest of those is word count (or page length). The fierce compression that this can bring on makes unpacking some papers a sentence-by-sentence excavation job, but it's not that the authors would write it like that if they weren't forced to. The opposite situation would be a disaster, too, though - there are, I'm sure, plenty of people who would just ramble on and on given unlimited page space to work with. Pascal's apology for writing such a long letter ("There was not enough time to write a shorter one") is germane. Rare is the first draft that can't be tightened up substantially, scientific publication or not.

But many journal articles are tightened up so hard that they twang when you try to read them. Maintaining clarity and flow under these conditions isn't easy, and I'd be interested to hear about people who manage to stand out enough to be noticed. And since this is a blog, and this is the internet, feel free to bring up examples from the other end of the scale - people whose papers are inevitably a chore. Nominees?

(My impression, by the way, is that well-written papers are more likely to be found in the older literature. I'm not sure if that's just selection bias, since we get to choose over a wider range of time and subject matter that way, or if journal editors were a bit looser about what they would allow back then. The original Watson and Crick DNA paper, for example, would surely never be written up that way today).

Update: here's a Curious Wavefunction post on this from a couple of years ago, with some of his own nominations.

Comments (43) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


COMMENTS

1. TheScarletPimple on January 24, 2014 9:25 AM writes...

I love the Graur et al paper on ENCODE entitled"On the immortality of television sets: “function” in the human genome according to the evolution-free gospel of ENCODE". I'm not qualified to judge its scientific merits either way but it is refreshing to see that people can still write like that and get it published.

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2. Esteban on January 24, 2014 9:27 AM writes...

Only articles written in essay format would be informative for making such a determination. Scientists who've written chapters for compendiums would be a good place to look.

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3. simpl on January 24, 2014 9:36 AM writes...

There are several yearbooks of scientific papers, but Google and Amazon have problem with the question.
On a longer time scale, how about http://www.amazon.com/Oxford-Book-Modern-Science-Writing/dp/0199216819/ref=pd_sim_b_10? Noticably though, the authors are mostly reformulating their academic work for those who have the time for good writing.

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4. Jonathan on January 24, 2014 9:44 AM writes...

I've always found Arthur Johnson's papers to be incredibly elegant, in particular this one:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092867404001692#

It's approaching ten years since publication, but his general style seems to have held up well.

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5. NachoLibre on January 24, 2014 9:57 AM writes...

Danishefsky has a very distinct style and his papers can be quiet entertaining, but sometimes a chore

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6. Project Osprey on January 24, 2014 10:01 AM writes...

Surely that's the point of the ESI? I'm always delighted to find freshed-out experimentals in those

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7. Anon on January 24, 2014 10:26 AM writes...

If you want something relaxing to read try work by Mauro Ferrari.

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8. Anonymous on January 24, 2014 10:39 AM writes...

I really like the way Denmark, Carreira, and Macmillan write. I can usually tell when it's really them, or one of their students doing the bulk of the writing, with then "simply" doing the editting.

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9. NoDrugsNoJobs on January 24, 2014 10:48 AM writes...

I find John Katzenellenbogen's writing to be both eloquent and understandable

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10. biotechie on January 24, 2014 11:06 AM writes...

Unquestionably Sydney Brenner. I loved his writing ever since he worked with Crick and RNA Tie club on triplet genetic code. Crick F H C, Barnett L, Brenner S, Watts-Tobin R J (1961) General nature of the genetic code for proteins. Nature 192: 1227-1232.

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11. Ex Med Chem on January 24, 2014 11:07 AM writes...

My philosophy is that if you cannot explain something clearly and simply then you do not really understand it yourself.
So few chemists in my experience explain their work in a comprehensible manner, especially in presentations.
I'm convinced that many make it incomprehensible on purpose as they believe it makes them seem more intelligent. Their logic must be by baffling the audience such that they struggle to grasp what you are saying, the audience must be in awe of you since you actually understand this.
Thankfully I've moved from the bench these days and don't have to live the frustration of having to read a paper 10 times to decode what it is trying to convey. However I do have the same frustration when researchers send me their periodic reports.

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12. Reverend J on January 24, 2014 11:30 AM writes...

I remembered back in my graduate school days when I handed in my research progress report and one of the negative comments I got from my adviser was it was too "flowery" which I thought was funny because he's papers were so dry you needed a drink of water after reading one.

Fast-forward several years and after my PhD defense one of my committee members (who's written several books) said that my thesis was, "a pleasure to read" and I had barely change my style at all, so I guess it's all in the eye of the beholder.

My personal preference is make the document technical but also make it readable. You don't need five-syllable words when one will do.

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13. tt on January 24, 2014 11:35 AM writes...

Re comment 8: I know with MacMillan and Carreira, a lot of their writing style may be traced back to the influence of Dave Evans. He is tough when it comes to writing style and has firm opinions on the subject. Anyone that came from his group had his style imprinted upon them early and often. I remember him spilling a lot of red ink whenever a coauthor dare use the word "new" or even "novel"

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14. Anonymous on January 24, 2014 11:39 AM writes...

I always liked Arthur Kornberg's papers and textbooks. Nobel lecture:

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1959/kornberg-lecture.pdf

Also an entertaining (partial) autobiography:

http://www.amazon.com/Love-Enzymes-Odyssey-Biochemist/dp/0674307763/

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15. Curious Wavefunction on January 24, 2014 11:48 AM writes...

I tackled this question in a post (click on handle).

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16. Kevin on January 24, 2014 12:04 PM writes...

I think a better question is who writes a better SI? They don't have essentially any constraints, and often times contain some of the most important information.

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17. MITer on January 24, 2014 12:16 PM writes...

Dan Kemp. His seminars were outstanding as well.

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18. Hap on January 24, 2014 12:53 PM writes...

I'm biased, but I think Professor Whitesides's papers are well-written - I don't think they're terribly poetic, but they're clear and open (they don't hide undesired facts or judgments).

In synthesis, I think Curran's papers are nice to read, and RBW's are really good.

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19. anon the II on January 24, 2014 1:43 PM writes...

Who reads? The best papers are the ones where you rarely have to look any further than the graphics to get the message.

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20. steve on January 24, 2014 1:56 PM writes...

Back when I was working on limb regeneration I read a review by Elizabeth Hay, who was chair of the Anatomy dept at Harvard. She's passed on now but here's how she described what happens to cells that dedifferentiate to form the blastema during limb development:
"The cells lose their differentiative aspect in order to engage in the pleasures of proliferation".
The rest of her writing was equally elegant.

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21. alkaloid guy on January 24, 2014 2:41 PM writes...

Overman, Weinreb, Martin - strategy is always clear upfront; they don't oversell their natural products as the next big thing for cancer, ALZ, etc.

Danheiser, Denmark - very good at conveying in depth, non-handwavy explanations for mechanisms in a clear and organized manner.

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22. Anonymous on January 24, 2014 3:15 PM writes...

Linus Pauling's "General Chemistry" (Dover, 1970)

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23. An Old chemist on January 24, 2014 3:55 PM writes...

At University of Chicago, Phillip Eaton said in his class that Woodward's papers are always well written and we must read them to learn how scientific papers should be written.

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24. Anonymous on January 24, 2014 6:08 PM writes...

Is it really necessary to read a synthesis or methodology paper? In fact, these days the TOC image usually shows the reaction and states with bullets why its better than so and so's reaction and how high the ee is. Why read on? Just look at the substrate table--ok, got it.

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25. bad wolf on January 24, 2014 7:25 PM writes...

@19 and @24--I may be guily of this on occasion myself, but it appears pop culture is not the only place in which we're becoming a post-literate society.

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26. GradStudent on January 24, 2014 9:30 PM writes...

I've always liked Hartwig's style. His papers are a pleasure, and his organometallics books is dense but well styled. I agree with folks about Denmark, and also think Baran puts out pretty readable, interesting stuff.

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27. Anonymous on January 24, 2014 9:57 PM writes...

@25. No, its the area of science that has led to this (my thing is better than that guys thing). My e.e.s are higher or my synthesis is shorter. Too bad it has come to that, but the big interesting discoveries are reported elsewhere.

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28. Anonymous on January 24, 2014 10:07 PM writes...

Alois Fuerstner.
Well written article are more likely to be published in high impact journal.

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29. Anonymous on January 24, 2014 10:08 PM writes...

Alois Fuerstner.
Well written article are more likely to be published in high impact journal.

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30. Anonymous on January 24, 2014 10:08 PM writes...

Alois Fuerstner.
Well written article are more likely to be published in high impact journal.

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31. Anonymous on January 25, 2014 5:36 PM writes...

I always found A.Einstein's writing exemplary. Or perhaps the translators, as I read his work in English. At over 100 years old, his work on Brownian motion and Osmosis is still a beauty: http://users.physik.fu-berlin.de/~kleinert/files/eins_brownian.pdf .

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32. Lunar landing on January 25, 2014 10:41 PM writes...

Larry Overman. Papers are concise, all facts and very well written. Lectures are meticulous.

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33. Orthogon on January 26, 2014 10:04 AM writes...

I would agree with both Katzenellenbogen and Denmark.

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34. Anon on January 27, 2014 1:25 AM writes...

This thread is so incomplete without selections for a 'Mount Rushmore of bad writing'. Here are the top two in organic chemistry:
Dean Toste
Barry Trost
And don't even get me started on the papers they have written together

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35. Anon on January 27, 2014 1:29 AM writes...

@ 11
I see this problem more in physics when people try to explain things like uncertainty principle.

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36. T on January 27, 2014 2:55 AM writes...

This is confounded somewhat by the fact that some journals still do extensive copy editing. In some cases, the manuscript is practically incomprehensible as submitted (especially but not exclusively with authors who are not native speakers) and ends up being essentially rewritten, sentence by mangled sentence.

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37. T on January 27, 2014 2:59 AM writes...

p.s. This perhaps explains comment 28. High-impact journals are more likely to have the money for in-house editing.

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38. weirdo on January 27, 2014 12:00 PM writes...

tt:
Oh, Dave Evans. Thanks for that; yes, clearly a very positive influence. Can't forget that Carreira was a Denmark undergrad, too, so he was doubly influenced . . .

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39. SAB on January 27, 2014 12:25 PM writes...

Gary Keck has many well written succinct and easily decoded papers...start with compactin and read on...

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40. Anonymous on January 27, 2014 11:23 PM writes...

Jerry Atwood, Fraser Stoddart

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41. Carmen on January 28, 2014 12:14 PM writes...

Judith Swan has written extensively about the principles that underlie solid writing in scientific papers. Click on my name for one example.

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42. Dave on January 29, 2014 3:14 PM writes...

I enjoy Dave Collum's style, especially in his review articles (and for the record, I am a different 'Dave')

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43. KwadGuy on January 30, 2014 10:44 PM writes...

To produce well written, readable, and engrossing articles you need two things: 1) Good writing skills (already in short supply) and 2) Enough confidence in your place in the field and in your submission that you aren't worried about a writing style that breaks out of the dull workmanlike mold. (Recognizing that style in writing can often be off-putting to reviewers).

Few have both--and that's why so few articles are emminently readable.

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