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The unpublished book chapter - a science fiction story

Scientists Anonymous

The book “Scientific Writing: A reader and writer’s guide” started with a story, more precisely a fictitious story. Its purpose was not to break the ice; global warming does that very effectively already.  Its purpose was to demonstrate that you have all it takes to become a better writer. You have a reliable, fast, and state-of-the-art simulation engine that we use throughout the book: your mind. Everything you read is happening in your mind using the images you willingly provide. The material for simulation today is a science fiction story based on the assumption that writing habits influence speaking habits, a reasonable assumption for educated people. What if it applied to scientists…

When you are ready to start the simulation just take your eyes to the next paragraph, and let your mind do the rest.  Time for me to get a cup of coffee.

It all happened in the name of Science. An anonymous survey among scientists revealed that science was not as rigorous as people assumed it to be. In a bold move to restore confidence in scientific publications, the journal owners replaced their senior (in experience) editors with senior (in age and experience) scientists who imposed their writing style. Everything had to be written using the passive voice. Mentioning oneself was strictly prohibited. Captions of figures and tables were restricted to two lines. Facts had to be thoroughly established before the present tense could be used. And wherever a quantum of doubt existed, verbs indicating possibility were compulsory. This last requirement terrified honest scientists who got into the habit of turning well demonstrated facts into probable ones.

Scientists found themselves trapped in a language ghetto. Little by little, the way they wrote influenced the way they spoke. The way they spoke created an affective gap between them, their spouse, their family and the rest of the world. Science had created a language and a style that had spread beyond its paper boundaries to invade the lives of good people. The phenomenon remained largely unnoticed until Suzan, the wife of Dr. Simon Edgar who had commited suicide in his lab, sent to the Washington Post her husband's diary. Its last entry dated June 1 2005 became national news.

“Today, for Suzan's birthday, a bouquet of flowers was bought. Prior to offering the flowers, the phrase “My darling, I love you” was repeated many times privately. She was then approached. When standing in front of me, after she had remained for at least seven seconds waiting, I heard myself saying “you are loved by me.” Tears of frustration appeared on her face and the flowers were not well received.


The story spread to CNN and National Public Radio and before soon, scientists all over America exposed the destructive role language had played in their relationships with family and friends. So when Dr. Mark Whyndam, a scientist who, like Dr. Simon Edgar, had faced such hardships launched “Scientists Anonymous”, chapters of this society spontaneously opened not just in America but all throughout the world.



“I’ll be brief”, said William. It was his third meeting at the Berkeley chapter of ‘Scientists Anonymous’. The meeting had just started. He introduced himself to the other three scientists sitting in the university lounge. “William, name common knowledge to some in attendance; Graduate of U.C.S.D; Domain, bio; Scientists anonymous, three months yesterday, doing better.” His tone of voice indicated he had finished speaking, so the others clapped and said they valued his contribution according to the ritual common to all S.A chapters. William was concise to a fault.
“I am Roberto”, announced the man sitting to the left of William. “Last week, I worked on my family photo album and replaced the captions of ‘picture 1—son’ and  ‘picture 2—daughter’ with more informative text. He opened the album on his lap and read aloud ‘My son Pedro at his 2 year old birthday party, face spattered with his first banana split; Ice cream from Walls, bought at Dixon’s ice cream shop and ripe Chiquita bananas, imported from Colombia, bought at local foodstore”. Roberto was clearly making great progress in writing meaningful captions, even though he still had to fight that compulsive urge to be unduly precise.

“We value your contribution Roberto” was still reverberating when the third participant stood up. She was in her thirties, and wore a conservative grey blouse tucked in a knee length black skirt.

“Martha, I think, from the University of Nebraska.”

“Good evening Martha”, they chimed in.

“I find it near difficult to be sure about anything. I can be potentially confused when it comes to stating what might be a fact.”

Roberto was the first to break the silence. With a grin, he said “We think we value your contribution Martha”. All laughed.

Last was a young Chinese woman.

“My turn?” she asked as she pointed to her nose.

All nodded with an encouraging smile. She stood up.

“Xiao Hong, Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Science, PhD in IT. Good evening everyone.

“Good evening Xiao Hong,” the group responded.

 “Yesterday an unlabelled Mother’s Day meshed recyclable thermoplastic laundry basket present was given to mother and received with coldness.”

After they had reversed engineered the compound noun (this took about 5 seconds), the group shouted “We value your contribution Xiao Hong”!


            The meeting had begun…



Welcome back. Don’t we all have magnificent simulation engines! With the writer's words, you recreated the story and collaborated with him to build your very own “cinematic” version.

How well did you do with memory? You know, writers often think readers remember all the important parts of their story.  Fact is, readers (and particularly the reviewers who go through their paper) remember only a few points—the ones that are most relevant to them or to Science (Table 1a).

Main paper ideas

Important to Writer but not to Reader

Important to Writer and Reader Important to Reader but not to Writer
Identified by reader Fine Great Great
Not identified Fine Disastrous Disastrous

Table 1a: Point of view of Reader about “getting” or missing the points made by the writer.

What matters is what the reader perceives as important.
In a writer centric perspective, (Table 1b) the first and last column would be reversed.

Main paper ideas

Important to Writer but not to Reader

Important to Writer and Reader Important to Reader but not to Writer
Identified by reader Great Great Fine
Not identified Disastrous Disastrous Fine

Table 1b: Point of view of Writer about Reader “getting” or missing the points made.

What matters is what the writer perceives as important.

In a scientific paper, the writer imagines that the paper's contribution is the most important part to remember, but readers may be interested in other parts of his paper. As writer of this introduction, it was important for me to give examples of scientific writing that make reading difficult. Are you able to remember them?

Do take a piece of paper, the corner of a paper napkin, or any ephemeral writable and erasable surface, and try to complete Table 2. We will get together again on the other side of this table when you’re done. It should not take more than a minute.
Name Scientific Writing Problem
Suicidal Dr. Simon ?
William, Bio UCSD ?
Roberto, the photographer ?
Martha, may be from Nebraska ?
Xiao Hong, Mother's daughter ?

Table 2 – How much of the Scientists Anonymous story do you remember without reading it again?

Here are the answers in list form.
[Suicidal Dr. Simon: passive mode; you are loved by me]
[William: abbreviations, sentences too concise; UCSD, bio ]
[Roberto the photographer: uninformative captions; excessive precision; picture 1—son]
[May be Martha: lack of assurance in writing; potentially confused]
[Xiao Hong: extra long compound nouns; …recyclable thermoplastic laundry…]

To become a better writer, it is essential to understand the cause of communication failures between writer and reader. Every single missing or incorrect answer is entirely my responsibility as the writer of this book. I only have myself to blame for your imperfect score.

Here are 5 possible reasons explaining why you may not have achieved perfect recall.

1) You just forgot. You got the gist of the story. You remembered the names and problems at the beginning and at the end but not much in the middle? Do you know why that is? What is the impact of fugitive reader short-term memory when it comes to understanding a scientific paper?  Why do we seem to remember better the beginnings and ends of things? Should the writer care?

2) You forgot because you were interrupted or distracted during your reading and had to temprarily suspend your reading before returning to it. What is the impact of distractions or interruptions on understanding? Can the writer help the reader recover from such events? Can the writer reduce their occurrence at all?

3) You enjoyed the story, but since you were not hunting for any specific information, you lacked a purpose. Not knowing what specific point I intended to make, you decided by yourself what was important and what was not. You honestly assumed the specific problems of scientific writing were not worth remembering at this time. Is there anything I could have done to help you improve your score?

4) You could not identify a problem or two. Were you not familiar with these problems common in scientific writing? Could the writer have helped you recognise and identify these?

5) You were in a hurry and moved through this chapter as fast as possible to get to the parts of the website that are of most benefit to you: learning how to write better scientific papers. Details are bound to get lost. What could I have done to maximise a time-to-result driven reader like you?

Did you recognize yourself in one of these situations?

Do you now believe that I, as the writer, am responsible for your imperfect score?

Had I warned you that I would ask questions about the typical problems in scientific writing before you started reading the story, your score would have significantly improved. You see, the writer is in charge of the reader.  Efficient scientific writing is one that guides and channels the reader's attention: the writer clarifies his intent as much as possible to restrict the reader’s range of interpretation, and to help the reader identify what is important and remember it.

Caring for the reader needs and controlling reader expectations are two key aspects of the techniques of scientific writing.

Care for the reader. Writing requires from the reader more than the writer thinks. The usual writer expectation is that readers provide the prior knowledge necessary to interpret the writer’s prose. Little does the writer know that, to do so, readers need a great deal more than smart brains. They need memory. They need attention. They need time. And they need motivation. Why would the writer go beyond the call of duty and care for the reader to that extent? Because the writer cares to make the reading experience as trouble-free, interesting, short, and fruitful as possible.

Control the reader. Written words create expectations. “Because it was raining that day,” creates the expectation that the writer will explain what happened because of the rain. After the sub-clause starting with “because”, comes the main clause “The paint did not dry on time”. As soon as the punctuation ends the sentence, the reader knows why the paint did not dry, the expectation raised is fulfilled, but another expectation is born: on time for what? While reading, expectations are constantly generated by the reader. They drive reading forward. Through creating and controlling them, the writer guides the reader.

Besides controlling expectations, the writer is channelling and propelling the reader’s eyes along ‘spring-loaded’ sentences that draw reading forward at greater speeds. He is also pacing the absorption of knowledge based on proven brick-laying techniques. Always in control, the scientific writer never leaves holes for the reader to fill with the wrong assumptions. Little is left to the imagination of the reader.