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Science Writing: Selling Your Research

Posted in: Writing, Publishing and Presenting

Browsing around on the Nature Network blogs, I came across one interesting discussion from a couple weeks ago that few researchers actually spend much time thinking about (I think). Martin asked, “I was wondering how much, if at all, the quality of the writing of a submitted paper is considered in the peer review process?” A fair number of people agreed that the quality of the writing in the end doesn’t really influence the decision to accept or reject a paper. But good writing, especially in the first paragraph, certainly helps.

The follow-up question, “But what is good scientific writing?,” inspired Martin to ask, “Do you know the Flesch score of your papers?” Flesch scores, calculating reading ease and grade level as a function of average sentence length and average syllables per word, are built into recent versions of Microsoft Word and Google Docs, or you could use the Open Source application Flesh. Flesh seems easier, and also works with PDFs.

I went ahead and downloaded Flesh, and tested my 5 most recent posts here at Bitesizebio. The results: 3 of them ranged between 23.1 and 24.1 for reading ease, and roughly 16th grade level. That’s consistent, but low (above 30 is recommended for reading ease, and the scale goes up to 100) – I probably lost the undergrad Molecular Biology majors a while ago. One, on ubiquitination, scored a reading ease of 5.7, landing it at a 20th grade reading level. (!) And one, on the history of cell biology, scored a respectable 41.4 for ease of reading, landing it at a freshman undergraduate reading level. Nick’s most recent post, in contrast, scored 44.4 for ease of reading, putting it at a HS senior’s reading level. Overall, I might want to rethink my writing style based on these results. At least for blogging!

For getting published however, the question remains: does readability matter? Maxine, a Nature editor, answers on Martin’s Publish or Perish 2.0:

The short answer is “no”. Clear and succinct writing helps, because editors and referees are very busy and so anything that helps them to absorb the message of the paper more easily is of benefit to the author. Authors are wise to pay particular attention to the summary or abstract paragraph, as that is what will “sell” the paper initially to the referee or editor. The Nature guide to authors has a step-by-step guide to writing a clear first paragraph here.

In short, work on your “sales pitch” when it comes to science communication.

Oh, and this post scored a 48.2 for reading ease, putting it in 12th grade.

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