What's Right About Scientific Writing

Illustration: A. Canamucio In recent commentaries in Nature,1 the New York Times Magazine,2 and the American Scholar,3 the scientific article has come under attack because it has allegedly degenerated into a thick "molasses of jargon and academic code."2 Furthermore, according to scientist Peter Medawar in a 1964 Saturday Review essay,4 because the structure of the scientific article seriously misrepresents the way science happens, authors of scientific articles are also mendacious, perpetrators

Alan Gross
Dec 5, 1999

Illustration: A. Canamucio

In recent commentaries in Nature,1 the New York Times Magazine,2 and the American Scholar,3 the scientific article has come under attack because it has allegedly degenerated into a thick "molasses of jargon and academic code."2 Furthermore, according to scientist Peter Medawar in a 1964 Saturday Review essay,4 because the structure of the scientific article seriously misrepresents the way science happens, authors of scientific articles are also mendacious, perpetrators of a fraud. In other words, we have it on good authority that scientific prose is execrable, scientific communication dishonest. What's wrong with this picture?

It cannot account for the fact that science is a successful enterprise, an enterprise whose success depends crucially on the efficacy and honesty of its communicative practices. Contemporary scientists convey their discoveries in the writing conventions of their time, just as Newton, Franklin, Darwin, Mendeleev, Curie,...