A little piece for the Guardian

A_man_reading_the_'Lancet'_in_a_gentleman's_club,_a_friend_s_Wellcome_V0011414[1]

Hi all. I’m  VERY aware I have been ignoring this blog. There’s various  reasons (my job at NHM being the largest I suppose) but I’m going to be more active… I promise! I’ll be trying to post up writings on new research, any links to multimedia I’ve been involved in, but I thought I’d start with this from a few weeks ago. It was my first piece for the Guardian and at least a couple of people read it – which was encouraging. You can read the original here: http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2015/mar/11/why-the-science-manuscript-must-also-have-literary-merit More soon, yo!

The manuscript is the currency of science. It is the point of conclusion, the quantitative, accepted measure of creative output, and the primary source of scientific knowledge. It is the initial package in which scientific knowledge is first presented to the world. It is the researcher’s darling, their pay dirt, and their greatest frustration.

Five months ago I had written my latest manuscript with my PhD supervisor. Although my thesis had offered me the glorious leg room of 60,000 words to somehow develop my tangential thoughts, I soon found myself taking on the unasked-for role of the ruthless editor, highlighting the most unambiguous aspects of my writing, but accepting the price this came with – I was exorcising the joy of discovery, and the individuality, from my work.

It was then 18 months later and 60 miles from where I’d slaved into the night in front of micro-CT software, hunted for references in the departmental library, and lived and breathed mammalian anatomy, that I found myself utterly bored by what I had written.

The science was sound – goodness knows how many times we had checked and rechecked every detail, scrutinised every citation, made sure each data point in my principal component analysis had the correct acronym, and appeased every reviewer comment, no matter how small. But it was the tone, the impersonal, black-and-white nature of my text that meant writing up my discoveries had turned from what should have been a triumphant exercise in celebrating new knowledge, into something that just needed to be submitted.

Sadly this is the nature of things and perhaps not surprisingly this work, this conduit through which scientists’ research is digested by their peers, is both everywhere and nowhere. Papers take months to write; each paragraph agonised over, each figure slowly, incrementally improved with each revision. Authors double, triple, quadruple check minutiae, forgiving the publishing houses that consider it appropriate our colleagues should accomplish this on behalf of our peers for free. 

But then, what? Perhaps it is the vast quantity of papers published, perhaps the insistence on the third person, perhaps it is the fog of terminology, or the limited scope and high specificity – whatever the reason they just sit. Then, it is with the researcher’s relief that they may be discovered by the journalist, for it is the hard-backed, wide-ranging distillations of science that do the admirable job of showing readers the creation of knowledge, rather than these netsuke of our understanding of the world.

On Monday, the Wellcome Trust revealed the shortlist for their 2015 book prize, which celebrates excellence in popular writing around the themes of medicine, health, and medical science – whether fiction or non-fiction – and is now one in a collection of awards aimed at championing accessibility, readability, and creativity in popular scientific writing. This year’s selection, as in previous rounds, is wonderfully diverse, from Marion Coutts’s devastating memoir of her husband’s illness, to Alice Roberts’s personal voyage into human anatomy. But for all my admiration of these extraordinary works, I can’t help but think back on the thousands of papers I’ve read and ask: why begin the celebration of these worthy attributes of good writing at this level of communication? Why not award literary creativity at the very core of scientific knowledge?

I am keenly aware that (save for the odd rhyme) my work so far has consisted of another set of papers concurring with the style model of scientific reportage, wrapped up in terminology hardly attractive to someone who perhaps hasn’t though about anatomy as much as I had found myself doing during my mid-20s. We appear to have normalised a dichotomy of performing the worthy occupation of extrapolating the deep beauty of nature whilst accepting the alienating constrictions the swollen rules of scientific literature dictate upon us. This, in my view, is mistake.

Is it really important to celebrate literary craft within the medium of equations and p values? Perhaps ten years ago I wouldn’t have thought this was something to call attention to. But the laudable calls for transparency within the scientific literature and universal access to research via open access licensing are resulting in the deserved exodus of knowledge from ivory towers. Surely this should be a moment when scientists should reconsider their audiences and, even at this level, we should appreciate authors who steer their writing away from the baffling and towards the universal. Let us seize upon this change, and award creativity within the reportage of science at its core.

Postgraduate students often scramble through plays and novels, frantically attempting to find lyrical introductory quotes for their thesis chapters days before they hand their PhDs. Why is it that the assumption that the inclusion of poetry within their already dense work will add gravitas and reason to their quantitative wanderings, soon evaporates? Perhaps because this would be both naive and false: having found a rhyming couplet about moles would not have improved my work on underground mammals. 

But perhaps it would be nice to quote the occasional non-scientist in our scientific works. 1869 is not 2015, but it is fascinating to revisit the first edition of the journal Nature, which not only began with a line of Wordsworth’s A Volant Tribe of Bards on Earth are Found, but followed this up with an editorial in which T H Huxley riffed on Goethe’s Aphorisms on Nature. And it isn’t as if scientists don’t allow for more creative avenues of explanations. Lecture rooms are awash with metaphors, tutorials brim with new ways to visualise concepts. The nature of how science is reported has never been bullet points and experimental instructions, but prose: introductions developing concepts and ideas, discussions expanding interpretations and exploring how the results support or reject hypotheses.

Richard Feynman could not understand how the addition of a form of knowledge alongside another could detract from the appreciation of an object – a flower, say. He was a scientist talking about an artist friend’s view of science but, in the same way, what if the inclusion of a little more creativity in our scientific writing could enhance the uptake of ideas, could increase readership, could hold attentions? Prizes such as the Wellcome Trust’s rightly celebrate the inclusion of all within the reach of science. But they should also galvanise researchers.

Science communication is my bread and butter, and perhaps I have spent too long in the cathedral of nature, admiring the melding of scientific knowledge with Romanesque architecture. But the germ of an idea has taken root. Let’s read, be inspired, and begin experimenting with the manuscript. Let’s celebrate excellence in scientific writing at its source. Let’s try inserting a trifle more humanity into our work – and let’s see who picks up a copy.

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