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This Is Just Another ""Typical"" Essay

We’ve all seen it a thousand times in the literature: “Figure 2 shows the results of a ‘typical’ experiment ...“ Now, Webster defines typical as “pertaining to a type; being a representative specimen.” And an informal survey of my nonscientific friends and relatives resulted in the following list of synonyms for typical: something that usually happens, average, normal, ordinary, and ho-hum. But to scientists publishing research papers, “typica

Jeffrey Moran

We’ve all seen it a thousand times in the literature: “Figure 2 shows the results of a ‘typical’ experiment ...“

Now, Webster defines typical as “pertaining to a type; being a representative specimen.” And an informal survey of my nonscientific friends and relatives resulted in the following list of synonyms for typical: something that usually happens, average, normal, ordinary, and ho-hum.

But to scientists publishing research papers, “typical” typically means, at worst, the best possible example of the experimental results. What scientist is going to publish a figure showing a coefficient of data variance of 50+% when on one occasion the numbers actually came out as desired? In fact, typical frequently means “even better than the best” since illustrators typically utilize devices such as log scales and large dots to make the data as smooth and as pretty as possible. Hence, in the scientist’s jargon, synonyms for typical might be...

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