— A Modest Ambition —
I founded Literate Science for a number of reasons. Partly it was sheer curiosity to see whether I could create an Internet-based business, however modest, from scratch; and partly it was to create a source of additional income. But a key driving factor was my heartfelt belief, after a decade as an academic scientist, that scientific writing can be better than it tends to be. I don’t mean popular science writing, or scientific coverage in the mainstream media, but rather primary written science, as found in academic journals, theses and reports.
Such writing has a reputation for being dry and dusty, and reading it the literary equivalent of trying to swallow several cream crackers without drinking. The reputation is not undeserved, but likewise, it is unfair to jump too quickly to criticise. For a start, most academics are not writing in their first language: at least, not always. English has become the lingua franca of international scientific publishing1, and therefore research must be written in English if it is going to make a major impact. Additionally, the need for precision can limit the scientist’s stylistic palate severely, and the narrow focus of most documents of this type necessarily makes them feel pretty detached from day-to-day reality.
Nevertheless, many or even most scientific papers are painfully boring to read, and some feel wilfully obtuse. (The boredom is reciprocal, incidentally: more often than not, PhD students grind through their theses because it is the only way to receive full credit for several years’ effort; and many is the post-doc who has hammered out a draft paper only because of the perpetual nagging he has received from his supervisor.) Fastidious academics have a tendency to enforce unnecessarily prescriptive writing rules, and any significant deviation from the usual academic stylistic mode is derided as flowery or (gasp!) “informal”.
And yet, broader readership is an increasingly important aim for this kind of writing. The Open Access movement, which has been rapidly gaining traction in recent years, advocates that the primary scientific literature be made publicly available at no cost to the reader, as opposed to the previously dominant arrangement in which a charge for access was made by the publisher. The argument is typically that most research is ultimately taxpayer-funded, and so has already been paid for. (One can quibble over the merits of this arrangement, but that is another discussion.) Granted, few individual members of the public are likely to start ploughing through back-issues of Nature and Science to quench a sudden thirst for information on genetic signalling pathways or carbon nanotubes, but the movement hints at a future of broader visibility, and scrutiny, for scientific writing.
My hope is that Literate Science will turn into a platform for advocating better expressiveness and clarity in primary scientific writing, whilst also directly offering a service for improving the English used in written science. Not such a modest ambition, admittedly, but it’s going to be interesting to see how it turns out!