How to Write Like a Scientist (by destroying your writing)

Illustration for article titled How to Write Like a Scientist (by destroying your writing)

Scientific papers contain wonderful gems of knowledge and insight, but why are they often so dry? Comedian and molecular biologist Adam Ruben explains how you, too, can sound like the inside of an academic journal.

Ruben, who wrote the satirical guide Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School just wrote this tongue-in-cheek how-to. Considering his PhD advisor's criticism, "You don't write like a scientist," Ruben concocted a list of ways to make your paper more appropriate for publication:

2. Using the first person in your writing humanizes your work. If possible, therefore, you should avoid using the first person in your writing. Science succeeds in spite of human beings, not because of us, so you want to make it look like your results magically discovered themselves.

3. Some journals, such as Science, officially eschew the passive voice. Others print only the passive voice. So find a healthy compromise by writing in semi-passive voice.

ACTIVE VOICE: We did this experiment.
PASSIVE VOICE: This experiment was done by us.
SEMI-PASSIVE VOICE: Done by us, this experiment was.
Yes, for the semi-passive voice, you'll want to emulate Yoda. Yoda, you'll want to emulate.

9. Starting sentences with "obviously" or "as everyone knows" demonstrates your intellectual superiority. If possible, start sentences with, "As super-intelligent beings like myself know," or "Screw your stupidity; here's a fact-bomb for you."


As much fun as Ruben's having poking fun at academic writing, he means to call attention to a serious issue. Scientists are supposed to be advocates for their research, but in following the supposed rules of journal writing, they remove the human element from their work. Ruben would rather that journals hold to the rule he himself has told his science writing students: "Keep it interesting."

Photo by Dan Foy.

How to Write Like a Scientist [ScienceMag via Neatorama]

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Dr Emilio Lizardo

Most scientists are awful writers, just as most good writers know very little about science. I went to a technical school as an undergrad and the quality of the writing from my fellow students was just miserable. I'm not talking about dry writing like this post is but really bad writing. Like no idea that a sentence needs a subject and a verb in it. Or using the exact same, usually very simple, sentence structure through the entire paper. On the other hand, friends of mine with pure liberal arts educations can barely calculate 15% on a tip without an iPhone app to help them. It is just a matter of what you studied, what you are trained for and what was valued during your education. I realize I am generalizing but I still think it's true, present company excepted.

(2) is because you don't want to make your conclusions or findings sound like the opinion of one person.

(9) is more likely to take the form of "As described by *** previously."