Cramped by too much writing

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The Independent Culture
Even After 25 years in the business, I cannot shrug off the sinking feeling of discovering a bulky package from a scientific journal in my pigeon-hole. If your latest finding is accepted for publication, a short letter or post-card suffices to inform you that the manuscript is now with the publishers. An A4 manila envelope, on the other hand, means the manuscript is being returned because it is unsatisfactory. One's "peers" (other scientists in the same field) have dared, from the bunker of anonymity, to assert that the work is not worthy of publication.

I know of no scientist who has only ever received letters or post-cards. It is part of the ritual of publication to huddle with the other aggrieved co-authors, sighing or exclaiming at how the referee could have so missed the point, or been so pedantic, or simply so flagrantly stupid. At the root of one's misery is that any paper that you have written is very much your baby. It contains the fruit of months of work, sometimes more, as well as revealing your particular interpretation, maybe a completely novel viewpoint. Small wonder at the feeling of utter devastation on realising that others can judge it as not worth reading.

Usually, you can work out a compromise: some revisions, some emphatically argued last-ditch stands, and the ball is back in the court of the benighted editor. But usually, finally, and frequently much revised, your paper, your small brick in the wall of scientific knowledge, finally appears in print.

This is the sole path to gaining research grants, jobs and all-expenses- paid invitations to conferences. Obviously, therefore, the heat is on to publish, and publish quickly, before rivals can grab the lead: the ensuing frenetic trafficking in publications whilst constantly glancing over one's shoulder in fear of a competitor gaining ground, has an unfortunate knock-on effect. A large number of scientists tend to rush their work into print piecemeal, with each finding standing alone in an independent paper as an independent fact. Although such chopped-up morsels of knowledge may be intrinsically sound and complete on scientific grounds, they make it harder for the reader to see the big picture, envisage the complete story. Moreover if, for the individual scientist, the goals are set in the print equivalent of sound-bytes, then that individual's corresponding ideas may too start to be in danger of becoming equally fragmented.

Then there is the problem of style. Scientific papers must take the biscuit for cramping any form of individual writing style, and cramping it deliberately. It is only by imposing a formalised, impersonal narrative, that we retain the semblance of adhering to that most basic of scientific ground rules, objectivity. Think how suspect it sounds to read: "I made up a solution of saline," compared to the tortuous yet dispassionate: "a solution of saline was made up," where clearly no idiosyncrasy, no eccentric tampering, could account for the findings. Leaving aside the frustration of any literary aspirations, another difficulty is that this anodyne and cautious prose conceals none the less the much-treasured personal view. Although most scientists try to be as "objective" as possible in their assessments, personal predispositions will inevitably leak in. We are, after all, only human: it takes far more than adopting the writing style of a Mekon, for us to reason like one too.

At the same time, everyone else's publications have to be read. True, one's trusty PC now performs much of the donkey work of delivering summaries and keeping track of references. But there always seems to be more to read: learned journals proliferate to accommodate burgeoning specialisations, and to provide sufficient publication space for a community whose members are increasingly desperate for vindication in the killing fields of research grants and tenure. But the most important commodity is time; not only to experiment, but to think about what you are doing, and why. It is time for reflection that is most at risk today, as one frantically taps at the key-board.

! Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, and Gresham Professor of Physic, London.