Thursday, January 10, 2008

What's wrong with adjectives in science journals?

I just finished writing a review response -- always a good exercise to generate blog topics. The reviews were helpful in most respects, micro-managerial in others. One micro-edict was to remove terms like "strong" and "solid" from the discussion, as in "strong left dominance." These terms were deemed "unnecessarily strong." Yes, that's right, "strong" is too strong. This tendency in scientific writing -- to avoid enthusiasm shall we call it -- is not unique to this reviewer. One journal Ursula Bellugi and I submitted a paper to actually edited out the word "remarkable" (one of Ursie's favorites) because the very word itself was against journal policy. No joke.

What up? If a finding is indeed remarkable, why can't we say so? I know, I know, it's not up to the author to decide what is remarkable or strong; that is something the reader can decide for themselves. We need to write objectively, right? Well that's junk. Almost everything we write in a scientific article is subjective in one way or another. We frame the experiment in terms of the theoretical issues we deem important, and we interpret our findings according to our own theoretical, intuitive, and yes emotional biases. We can't help it, we're human, and it's ok. Other researchers are free to examine our findings and impose their own biased interpretations. That's how science works. If we wanted to be perfectly objective, we'd have to publish just the methods and results sections, or maybe just methods and raw data (analysis is subject to subjectivity too).

Disallowing words like remarkable doesn't eliminate subjectivity, it induces the characteristic robotic monotony of scientific prose. At least now, journals are allowing authors to refer to themselves in the first person. I hate writing (or reading) things like "this author has claimed..." Bluck! What an exciting step forward for us pocket-protected nerds that we get to write the word "I" in our publications. Woohoo! Think how much more fun it would be to write or read an article that not only is informative scientifically, but maybe even mildly entertaining, or at the very least include the use of actual adjectives that hinted at the human behind the keystrokes. That's what I like about blogs: I can use as many adjectives as I want, as well as the word "bluck"...

So did I cave and edit out "strong" and "solid"? Nope. Instead I made a (rather nerdly) argument that "strong" was scientifically justified. Funny thing is, I actually used restraint in using the phrase "strong left hemisphere dominance." What I really wanted to say was "freakin' strong and totally remarkable left hemisphere dominance."

Stay tuned to see what actually comes out in print. That is, if I didn't just kill my chances of getting a favorable re-review. (No really, I thought the review was quite helpful generally...)


Brad Buchsbaum said...

I have mixed feelings about these kind of pat-yourself-on-the-back words. One I see (and have used myself) a lot is "strikingly".

As in: "Strikingly, the left STG was more activated than the right STG."

Well, really, how striking was it if I have to tell my captive audience that they ought be struck
(stricken?) by my findings.

On the other hand, a little enthusiasm about one's own work never hurt anyone. A rule of thumb is to use 3 or fewer remarkables or strikinglys per full length manuscript!

Greg Hickok said...

There's no doubt that you can overdo it. "This amazing result will clearly rock the field" is an annoying statement, for example. Maybe the difference is, like you said Brad, using these terms to pat yourself on the back, which comes off poorly.

Sometimes, though, an adjective is actually useful in accurately describing a result. In my particular case of the use of the phrase "strong left hemi dominance" I was describing an effect where left hemisphere damaged patients made an order of magnitude more errors than right hemisphere damaged patients. This seems to me quite accurately described as a "strong left dominance."

I guess generally I'm just annoyed at having to write and read snoozer science prose. Oh well, perhaps this author should have considered a more literary writing career. ;-)