Muddled and confused

Scientific papers are notoriously hard to read.

Viewed as literature, they’re remarkably inadequate. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I spent the first half of my MSc figuring out how to read the things. You can’t read them like you would a book. The technique seems to be start with the abstract, if only just to see if it’s actually worth continuing. Then read the introduction and then results/discussion section, leaving the data and data reduction sections for absolute last. (You really only want to wade through the methodology bits if it’s really worth it … these will be where writing quality reaches its nadir.)

But, oddly, I don’t think jargon or the technical content is actually the cause of this.

You see, the really big problem with papers is that they tend to be groupthinked. No sooner do you come up with a decent summary of something or a reasonably-readable description, then one of your collaborators will demand that it gets removed. Or they’ll want it mauled so that a citation to one of their papers can be shanghai’ed into it. Or they’ll hit ‘reply all’ on the e-mail and announce that it’s wrong (and sometimes regardless of whether it actually is…). The statements that get left alone are either utterly uncontroversial, the verbal equivalent of the colour beige, or they’re opaque enough that none of the collaborators (or the writer) actually understand what it says.

The bits that suffer worst from all of this seem to be the introductions. This is a pity, because in a way it’s one of the most important parts of a paper. If you can’t set out a clear background, then the interested reader might struggle with the rest of the work.

I write this because today, I’ve discovered that I’ve fallen victim to this. I’ve spent the last couple of years under one very basic mis-comprehension about the structure of the galactic halo. This emerged because of something fundamental, which *no-one bothers to mention* in any of their papers. Probably it would have been there in some of the introduction-drafts, but the group-mind will demand its removal as it’s ‘obvious’…

If I’d realised this single thing 18 months ago, it could have saved a lot of confusion.

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2 Responses to “Muddled and confused”

  1. A good criticism. I find a broad introduction or an impetus for research quite helpful when lucky enough to find one. The best way to change the situation is to include broader intros in your own papers… Become the change we wish to see, or something like that. Good post!

    `Ben

    • Yes. I have attempted a clearer intro with my current draft, which is partly what sparked some of this, actually. And that’s also what really brought the misconception problem home to me; because a lot of the ones I’d read lacked enough depth and enough references, I was falling into the same trap myself.

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