Kai Sand-Jensen has a great paper in Oikos (of all places?) where he asks the great question why are scientific publications boring?, and comes up with ten recommendations how to write boring papers. I’ve taken his list and paraphrased them below:
1) Avoid Focus: Far too often the main results are hidden after paragraphs of densely layered questions, ideas and arguments. Please be clear and directly state your main hypothesis.
2) Avoid originality and personality: Please present your studies with originality and be excited about them! If they’re not exciting, why are you bothering to publish them?
3) Write l-o-n-g contributions – Short papers are good. Long papers may show off your deep understanding of the nuances of your topic, but you’ll be the only one reading it (Some fields are worse than others here – I won’t mention any names though!).
4) Remove implications and speculation: These are the fun bits of science. Removing them makes your paper pointless. Sand-Jensen appropriately quotes one of the most gorgeous lines in biology here:
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material. (Watson & Crick 1953)
5) Leave out illustrations: Pictures are truly worth a thousand words. Besides, most of the time, they’re the only thing anyone looks at. I’d argue that there’s a corollary to this: you should leave out useless figures (cough median-joining networks cough). Only keep the ones that explain your study and results beautifully
6) Omit necessary steps of reasoning: This one hits home – I’ve been working on replicating an analysis done a year ago, but the details are just not available in the paper for me to work out what’s going on. A flowchart would have been wonderful.
7) Use many abbreviations and terms: Whilst this shows how learned you are, it immediately makes your paper inaccessible to anyone interested.
8 ) Suppress humor and flowery language: I can’t put this better than Kai Sand-Jensen did:
Naming a new species Cafeteria, or for that matter calling a delicate, transparent medusa Lizzia blondina, shows lack of respect and will prevent us from ever forgetting the names. I highly discourage creating these
kinds of clever names, because science writing should remain a puritanical, serious and reputable business.
9) Degrade Biology to Statistics: That is, do not “reduce all species to numbers or statistical elements without considering any interesting biological aspects of adaptation, behavior and evolution”. I may be guilty of this one myself preferring the big-picture approach, but I do try to remember why I find the topic interesting at all – and that’s got nothing to do with, oh, Bayes Factors.
10) Quote numerous papers for trivial statements: Not everything needs a reference, especially not the trivial points. I know you spent hours finding and reading those boring papers, but let it go…
In short: reading science should be fun, and writing science should be fun… and now I’m back to writing up a boring paper.