Scientific writing is dry (but that’s OK)

This morning I was delighted to come across the IMA Fungus journal.  Put out by the International Mycological Association , the journal title (which primarily publishes species announcements and descriptions) playfully introduces each organism with a friendly “Hello, I’m a fungus!”  The truth is, scientific literature is seldom so fun and informal.

When I submitted my PhD dissertation draft to my committee, perhaps the most common complaint I got was that I was having too much fun with the writing.  Given the choice, I  always prefer to be playful than bland in my writing.  In science, this isn’t necessarily a good thing.  Primary scientific writing values clarity and correctness.  In trying to evoke vivid descriptions, I like to describe science with flair, pushing my metaphors to the absurd.  For example, I wrote that fungi forge weapons to wield against the parapets of plant defense, or that they brew novel molecules in musty cellular laboratories.

The problem is that while I have a lot of fun writing statements like this, it empowers organisms with sentience and intent.  It is incorrect.  So such statements are refined to purge embellishments (fungi produce molecules that specifically target host defenses, and produce diverse secondary metabolites in specialized cellular structures).

Me being dangerously informal during my exit seminar.
Me being dangerously informal during my exit seminar.

Obviously we should strive to be correct in our communication of science.  When publishing, it must be clear what we did, what we observed, and what we believe these results mean.  We must write knowing that english is not the primary language of those who are interested in our experiments.  But does this mean that we can’t have any fun?  I can’t speak for all scientists, but my love of biology is not sterile and precise.  It is colorful and messy.  It is most certainly anthropomorphized (despite my higher faculties being well aware that fungi are not sentient creatures).

We scientists are a fun bunch.  This fact is more than evident from any academic conference (take the raging party that is the Fungal Genetics Conference).  But our writing is often denser than German fitness bread.  Maybe it’s impossible to get away from that in our formal writing without introducing ambiguity or compromising our professionalism.  I suppose some day I’ll find out.

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