Plain English in Science

I recently stumbled upon a U.S. government website about “plain language.” In a gist, the plain language movement proposes to write in plain, understandable language. It makes sense. The primary, if not sole, purpose of writing is to communicate. What good is writing if nobody can understand it? I had been enthralled by what makes good writing, so there was no way I wasn’t going to deep-dive into the topic. If writing plainly is so great, how do I do it?

Writing plainly comes with many rules. A basic rule of thumb is to write like you speak. (Grammar pedants would quibble that it should be “write as you would speak” but I don’t talk like that!) The rules range from using easy familiar words, active voice, and short sentences to tabulating information.

But writing isn’t one thing. Journalism and creative writing are governed by different rules. And you can even break rules in creative writing—only if you know what you’re doing. So I thought there must be rules for plain scientific writing. The reality is, there aren’t.

Plain language hasn’t gained traction in scientific writing

Scientific writing seems to be the only holdout in the plain language movement. I can think of a few reasons right off the top of my head why scientists don’t feel compelled to write in layman’s terms.

First, scientific writing, or more precisely peer-reviewed science articles, is not intended for laypeople to read. If the target audience is your fellow scientists, why painstakingly “translate” your writing into plain language? On top of that, it isn’t so hard to understand why scientists aren’t so happy about the movement if you consider that the opponents of plain writing have equated plain writing with “dumbing it down.” Which brings to my less-convincing second reason: authority.

Science needs people to believe it. To a degree, formal tone itself can help make it sound credible. But make no mistake. This is not because formality makes the information easy to understand; in fact, it’s the opposite of easy. Sounding formal is often unnatural and disrupts the flow of one’s reading. But because Ph.D.s run academic journals, the public tends to defer difficult-to-understand stuff to so-called “experts.” In effect, academese creates this layer of mysteriousness that bestows prestige upon the writer. But do you see the circular logic in this? Scientists avoid writing in plain English because it sounds informal but it sounds informal because scientists don’t write like that. Therefore, we shouldn’t write plainly???

Lastly, English may be the lingua franca of science but not every scientist is a native English speaker. Plain language asks us to write like we speak, but what if we don’t speak English? Writing as if we’re talking isn’t as easy for some of us nonnative English speakers, precisely because we didn’t have the chance to develop a voice, the inner voice that talks when we write.

Small things first

Honestly, I don’t (yet) have a case for plain scientific writing. It is truly a Herculean task to convince the entire community to move away from the deeply entrenched way of traditional writing. But the first steps don’t need to be big. It seems to me the biggest hurdle to plain writing is our mindset and the way we perceive plainly written articles. Have you never frowned upon a journal article that sounded as if it was talking to you, as if you were a friend? The first steps should bring down that mental barrier and the stigma attached to plain English. Surely, Patricia Nelson Limerick, in a New York Times Book Review article titled “Dancing with Professors,” observes

“I do not believe that professors enforce a standard of dull writing on graduate students in order to be cruel. They demand dreariness because they think that dreariness is in the students’ best interests. Professors believe that a dull writing style is an academic survival skill because they think that is what editors want, both editors of academic journals and editors of university presses. What we have here is a chain of misinformation and misunderstanding, where everyone thinks that the other guy is the one who demands dull, impersonal prose”

Editors are the gatekeepers of academic writing style. It justifiably falls on the editors’ plate to clarify they disfavor turgid writing. The ultimate dilemma in this though is when a groundbreaking scientific achievement is couched in bad writing. Should the editor persistently ask the authors to improve their writing? What if the authors withdraw the article and submit it elsewhere?

But editors are not the only players in this game, and at the end of the day, the most valuable capital in academia is your research ability. If you know your paper is impactful enough to be accepted somewhere, the power to bring about change lies in you. No editor would reject a novel paper just because it was badly written after all.

We as authors need to start somewhere to break this cycle. I would argue we should start small with contractions. There’s very little reason we shouldn’t use contractions in writing when it’s impossible to speak without them (unless you say “What is up?” instead of “What’s up?”). On a similar note, the Saxon genitive (i.e., the possessive suffix ’s) should be normalized. It can significantly declutter your writing if used in moderation. I am all for popularizing anglicized plurals as well. For example, formulas, curriculums, memorandums, and abscissas (or better yet “points in the x-axis”).

Obviously, we should stay away from obscure words. As part of the effort, stop requiring GRE for admission, which I can write an entire separate post about, but I digress. Anyway, it’s time we as a community started thinking about “how to write” as much as “what to write.”

Daeyoung Lim
Daeyoung Lim
Statistics PhD Candidate

My research interests include Bayesian statistics, biostatistics, and computational statistics. I’m an English grammar fiend and a staunch proponent of plain language.