Higher EducationScience

Writing in the digital age

As a college professor who requires students to do at least some writing in class, I have long despaired of the writing ability of them young’uns.  There seems to be no end to the bad grammar, poor construction, out right plagiarism, and of course the desire to sound “sciency” by making up the meaning of science terms as you go.

Some blame this on academia, suggesting we are teaching bad habits – which may well be true.  When I was taught to write as a scientist page charges still existed (they still do in many journals), so we were encouraged to be as concise as possible.  This often led to an impenetrable wall of jargon simply to cram as much in to under 10 pages to pay fewer fees.  The pretentious sound of the text probably does appeal to those academics who like being or at least sounding smarter than anyone else in the room, but there was a real reason for it initially.  Things have changed in many ways thankfully.

Mark Marino suggests we start writing not only for our professional publications, but also for new media, like Buzzfeed, an exercise that would stretch those writing muscles out of jargon and back to “plain” language.  This could be a valuable tool for science communication, but I disagree we should consider it peer review, as Marino suggests.

The RT is the purest form of peer-review

It’s a Buzzfeed article so I’m not sure how seriously I should take it. And that’s the problem.

I try to emphasize writing clearly and in simple language and if you must use jargon to use it well, but part of being an academic is presenting your ideas to peers for refinement, criticism, and improvement – not popularity.  A re-tweet tells you nothing except someone spent two clicks on you.  It also tells us nothing about how much the re-tweeter understood, agreed, disagreed, etc., and what they might have told us that would change the way we think about the ideas we expressed.  Part of where Marino is going is to be more effective communicators to non-scientists as well as our peers, and I agree we seriously need to be doing better in that regard.

I’m a huge fan of effective science communication, but can we stop pretending that our audience is stupid and needs to be spoon-fed?  I don’t see Buzzfeed as a decline in intellectual standards as Marino says would be the primary criticism; I see it as irrelevant to the development of the ideas being expressed.  My students don’t write well because they don’t get practice writing, but they do for the most part read well, and they know when we’re condescending to them.  A Buzzfeed article style can be a fun joke, a conversation starter, etc. but I hope it’s not the new paradigm of academic writing.  Neither does Marino, though, as he says this would be supplemental to the rest of our writing.

I get Marino’s point of taking our science out for a spin and seeing what comes of it, but there are more effective ways to do that using new media, including blogs and yes, even twitter.  Being able to articulate our ideas to an audience not immersed in our fields is valuable.  I just don’t see how boiling it down to a listicle for the clicks is the way to go.  I don’t get any real return in seeing what people really think of my ideas, I just see if they thought it worth sharing, and there are so many reasons why that could be.  Maybe I’m still too stodgy for new media though.

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.

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