Yours Transferredly: Reading Between the Lines


We scientists have to be very cautious about the way we communicate our work to our peers. Our whole career depends on our reputations' surviving long enough for us to make it, that is, to get a permanent job. Fortunately, there is a way of writing for your peers that prevents too many fingers from pointing at you when you turn out to be wrong and yet sends subtle but powerful signals to the important people amongst your readership--and the sooner you acquire it, the better.

The crux of this style is the use of understatement and cliché. We scientists would probably describe aliens landing in Hyde Park as a "possible extraterrestrial contact in central London" rather than saying it as it is. It is important you learn to recognise the hidden code in an otherwise straightforward-looking piece of writing and learn to use it yourself. It was only once I started writing papers myself that I realised there are some real gem-like phrases out there. So here is a sample of those classic scientific clichés:

  • "A model system for studying." Usually bandied around in introductions to talk up the system used in the investigation. The real question is whether the system is in fact a good model, and the answer may be rather subjective. Still, we all have to sell our work nowadays, so some authors might as well express their heartfelt opinion and claim that their system is a model or even a paradigm.

  • "Important," as in "important new evidence." All scientists like to think their work is important, but remember that, second only to international diplomats, scientists are the champions of understatement, so this word can be very evocative.

  • "Necessary and sufficient." This is a classic bombshell phrase used to describe in glorious simplicity a truly amazing result. It translates as "the result depends on this and nothing else." I aspire to including this phrase in one of my papers one day!

  • "Puzzling" or "intriguing." These are positive words for describing inconsistencies or inexplicable results. "Puzzling" suggests the authors have hit on an interesting anomaly, and it may be worth giving it some thought with a view to testing any ideas you might have. "Intriguing" is stronger and suggests the anomaly has "gotten under the authors' skin," so to speak, and that they themselves may be more likely to follow it up with further experimentation.

  • "Surprising." Nature is often surprising, so why should we be surprised when scientists use the word "surprising"? I guess it might be used to add a bit of kudos to the authors, on the assumption that the readers are convinced of their intellectual abilities. We might respond, "If these guys find this result surprising, I'd better take note."

  • "Exciting." Now just you steady on! Scientists aren't expected to get excited. Well, that's the stereotype. Au contraire, I say. In my experience, scientists often get very excited. This subjective word is often used to generate interest and enthusiasm in an area of research, rather than a specific result.

  • "Our preliminary results suggest ..." Basically, the authors are admitting they have no strong evidence to back up this particular idea. Watch out though, this might be a hint that they have an ace up their sleeve. In any case this type of phrase can be a useful signal for competitors, telling them it might be worth trying to repeat what these authors did to see if the result is reproducible.

  • "Taken together, these results show ..." This means: "Stay with us here, we're trying to convince you there's a connection." This phrase is handy when you want to try and bolster an argument by linking two supporting pieces of evidence supposedly pointing at the same conclusion.

  • "It is tempting to speculate ..." This is a standard cliché that can be used in discussions as a get-out clause in case the ideas that follow are subsequently shown to be wrong. But let's be crystal clear here. It is also often used to disguise lines of investigation that scientists may, even as we speak, be actively pursuing in that lab. If this really does describe wild speculation, why would anyone bother to say it in a scientific paper? You need to have at least a strong hunch about something before sticking your neck out like this.

  • "Future work." Often seen on postgraduates' posters. Let's face it, what this really means is, "We may get to this one day if we're lucky." As I've wised up, I've started using the common alternative "current work" on my posters, even if I am going to start work on it sometime in the next few weeks. "Current" just sounds more convincing that you are on the ball experimentally, whereas "future" makes it abundantly clear that you haven't even started work on it yet. Thinking about little details like this can turn a defensive poster into an assertive one. After all, no one wants his or her ideas pinched.

Of course, these are just a few examples, and the point is that you can, and should, find many more examples by reading the literature yourself. If you read things at face value and don't wise up to the hidden meanings in paper-speak, you might miss an opportunity to extend your own research. Worse, you might even get left behind if your field is one that moves on rapidly. Use every opportunity to consult experienced and trusted colleagues on what they think the authors mean when they use a particular phrase. This way you'll also learn another great lesson: Different people interpret the same passage in different ways. So much for scientific papers' being unambiguous and crystal clear! But that's another story. ...

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers