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Zombie Nouns and Alzheimer Flowers: Challenges in Reading Academic Science

In 16 years of school, I have cried only once over academics. Say what you will about low blood sugar, flu recovery, or skipping a pre-requisite course, I blame the flowers.

I was a sophomore in college, and I had fallen in love with cognitive science. My first class in cognitive neuroscience was fascinating, and my adoration for brains grew daily. Even the textbook was unusually enjoyable. I went to each class and listened to all the podcasts. Twice.

The professor, Rich Ivry, had an unusual approach for handling discussion outside of lecture. Every Friday, a graduate student led a handful of students in reading and critiquing primary research articles relevant to the week’s material. I was new to  cognitive science (having just abandoned a business administration track), and reading these articles was undeniably challenging.

Subjects in the study were asked to differentiate minty and floral scents. Loss of smell may be an early indicator of Alzheimer's Disease. (Dilys Ong, CC)
Loss of smell may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s Disease.
(Dilys Ong, CC)

Which gets us back to academic heartbreak. Remember the flowers? At semester’s end, we had a final assignment: review two articles addressing a current topic in cognitive neuroscience. It seemed straightforward. I picked a relatively recent theory that olfactory degeneration often indicates early Alzheimer’s disease. Loss of smell could improve early diagnosis of AD? Fascinating. I set to work reading about fMRI scans, autopsies, and the crucial experiments in which subjects either detected odors, or distinguished minty scents from those that were — you guessed it — floral.

From the two articles I had picked, I rapidly discovered not all journal articles are created equally. One was straightforward, intuitive, helpful. The other was as unintelligible as a math page on Wikipedia. I read it thoroughly half a dozen times, made diagrams, charts, summaries. I tried every trick, but there was no conquering this overly-folded, overly-inked monster of bleached wood pulp.

The Jabberwocky of journal articles. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Jabberwocky of journal articles. (Wikimedia Commons)

I was confused by obscure terminology, disheartened by 22 non-bibliography pages, and as I read for the dozenth time about Lewy bodies and lavender oil, I began to cry.

My review could have ended there. Slap my doctor’s note on a page of thoughts more convoluted than the neurofibrillary tangles I was supposed to understand, and hope for the best. But that day I was lucky. Salvation came as the gentle, patient ear of one of my best friends (and the glucose-laden Jamba Juice that came with him). He listened as I tearfully explained the experimental design into a compassionate chalkboard. In this way, I did finish the review. Explanation, I humbly reminded myself, remains the best reinforcement of knowledge.

I had encountered a problem common to novice scientists. Peer-reviewed journal articles include enough detail for experimental repeatability, but often at the expense of readability. I had barely learned that “lesion” was a generic term for brain damage, be it from stroke, tumor, or trauma — not just a cut. My interest was strong, but I was unprepared to properly evaluate methods and dig through statistical jargon.

Authors of science literature often use ‘nominalizations’ or ‘zombie noun’ versions of more dynamic verbs. (Eustace Dauger, CC)
Authors of science literature often use ‘nominalizations’ or ‘zombie noun’ versions of more dynamic verbs. (Eustace Dauger, CC)

If you are struggling with academic science literature, don’t worry. You are not alone, and it is not your fault. The language used in these articles adheres first to standards of science,  and second to those of communication. The literature is full of technical terminology, passive phrasing, and worst of all, zombie nouns.

Why is the writing so bad? Simple. We scientists aren’t trained to write. We spend years learning math, physics, chemistry, and biology in classes that rarely require essays.  I can speak from experience about my campus. As an institution, the University of California emphasizes theory and research, a balance to more vocational schools. The UC Berkeley approach emphasizes curiosity and innovation (perhaps why we produce so many entrepreneurs), but the price is minimal training in how to apply that knowledge.

When your education is knowledge-based, rather than skill-based, things like science writing fall through the cracks. When I emailed the English department this summer asking if they had any science writing classes, they replied, “The English major focuses on British, American, and Anglophone literature. We do not offer courses on technical writing.” The closest matches I could find were the introductory journalism class and a UC Berkeley Extension course (neither of which were offered this semester).

If you are a student in science, chances are the only literature training you receive is how to reconstruct these guys’ arguments. (Creative Commons)
If you are a student in science, chances are the only literature training you received is how to reconstruct these guys’ arguments. (CC)

This puts us in a pickle: The scientists can’t talk and the talkers can’t science. Or can they? Learning science directly from the literature is just one option. Alternate education tools are on the rise, and among them are popular online videos. Some of the successful sites include TED Ed, VSauce and It’s Okay to be Smart.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are also gaining popularity. Last week, I enrolled in a class offered by Stanford University on Writing in the Sciences. The curriculum covers how to be clear, concise, and organized when communicating scientific ideas. Finally! There are over 28,000 students enrolled, so we know there is demand to improve science literature.

Of course, not all journal publications are so problematic. PLoS does a nice job of formatting articles for accessibility, and encourages authors to submit their articles for professional editing before publication (scientists, meet writers). Other review sites, like Science2.0, offer community spaces for scientists and the public to openly discuss the latest discoveries. Hopefully these trends in more accessible science reporting and education will continue, improving the link between science and the scientifically curious.

For those of you still muscling through that first stage of overwhelmed confusion, it does get better. After two years of classes and working in a research lab, I now teach a class at Berkeley on how to read primary literature in cognitive science, and have since made peace with my Alzheimer flowers.


Jahlela is a senior undergraduate student studying cognitive neuroscience and music at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an avid photographer, sings constantly, and loves all things science. Follow her  @jahlela or on tumblr

jahlela AT berkeley.edu

  1. I can relate to this article. I often feel that academic writing is actually designed to make the concept matter more complicated and difficult than it need be. A sort of ruse to make the writer sound more intelligent. This problem is not confined to the sciences either..

  2. As a sometime science writer (popularizer) and a humanities graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, I was thrilled to read this post. It is beautifully crafted, humorous and pertinent. With young people like Jahlela coming through the pipeline, I’m certain the worlds of neuroscience and writing about neuroscience are in good hands. Thank you.

  3. This is not necessarily a conspiracy by academics. Remember that many papers are written by reseachers who only use English as a second, third, or fourth language. It is much easier to use those complicated-looking zombie nouns with a handful of common verbs – to have, to be, to study, or (my ‘bête noire’) to perform – than to master a whole range of more apt verbs, many of which are irregular. There is also a vicious circle. If researchers only read English in lab protocols and research papers, of course they will mimic this when writing. Reading widely, reading anything that is not science-related will help broaden the vocabulary for writing.

  4. Great post! I’m a scientist turned professional writer/editor and have made it my life’s goal to slay the “overly-folded, overly-inked monster of bleached wood pulp” that is scholarly scientific writing. I took the same Stanford MOOC and it was fantastic.

  5. Eric, it certainly is not confined to the sciences! I had an enlightening conversation yesterday with a professor of history about the same problem among historians. He also chuckled through a side note about how poorly written literature reviews can be. Gotta love the irony.

    I am sure there is an element of authors wanting to bump up their image with beefier terminology. Publication is exciting, and why not make it a little more grand? Sounds good at the time, but is that triply-compounded sentence whose verb I finally found after I drew a syntax tree really winning you citations? I have my doubts.

  6. These are great resources, Katharine! Especially looking at the discounted student memberships. Hopefully other readers can take advantage of them. Would you consider becoming a teacher in the medical writing field to help the situation?

  7. Thank you for the kind words, Alison. I am terribly excited about science writing (and brains, of course). What sciences do you popularize? Popularizer is a great non-nominalization, by the way.

  8. You bring up good points, Rachel. English is the standard language of science, but that doesn’t make it easy. I am thankful to be a native speaker. That said, perhaps the industry could benefit from templates that help non-native speakers organize and phrase their reports?

    We also can’t discount graphics, which can speak volumes with few words. iPads are starting to crop up at research poster presentations, and I have seen PDFs with embedded videos. This shift toward multimedia science ought to help break some language barriers.

  9. Thanks, Stacey! It is my first MOOC, and I like it so far. I am a few weeks ahead, but they haven’t released the first essay assignment yet, so now I’m waiting for the class to catch up.

    When you work with authors, do you find there are common bad habits or misconceptions about how to write a successful paper? Are there any that might be easy to fix if they were addressed earlier in a science career?

  10. Pretty much this is true; worse, we teach out students that this is good writing. Or should I say, our students are taught by us that this is good writing.

    The other problem is scientists over qualify everything that they say (at least, this is my experience, although I have very little data to show this, and can cite no peer-reviewed research which demonstrates the issue clearly).

    Simple writing is a good thing. Short sentences are easier to read. Clarity should be valued.

  11. I love your saying “Why is the writing so bad? Simple. We scientists aren’t trained to write. We spend years learning math, physics, chemistry, and biology in classes that rarely require essays. ” You are so right!

  12. One thing I often run into is that scientists get so deep into the results that they have a hard time stepping back and putting everything into a larger context. Even verbalizing an overarching hypothesis or the “why” behind what they are doing can be difficult. (And the answer is not, “So I can get published and/or funded.”) I know when I was in grad school, I would have benefitted from stepping back and seeing the whole picture, and where my work fit in it. And then being forced to communicate that. In words. Preferably to people not in my field.

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