As a freelance scientific editor, I find I’m not competing against other editors for manuscripts to work on. Rather, what I’m competing against is 1) authors not having an editor at all, and 2) authors just asking a scientific colleague for proofreading. These two traditions are part of what’s led to the perpetually terrible state of scientific writing in the literature. In essentially all other fields of publishing (literature, popular magazines, newspapers…), it is recognized that a phase of professional, critical editing strongly improves the quality of the work. Scientific publishing, however, seems not to have gotten the memo. Without any substantial involvement of a writing or communication specialist at any stage in the publication of most articles, it’s perhaps unsurprising that “most papers are badly written” (from a Nature editor, quoted here).
Having colleagues read your paper is often really helpful, and can spur great scientific discussions. Any fresh set of eyes is often good enough for a simple proofreading for grammar and typos. Great scientific ideas and correct grammar and spelling, however, do not mean your paper or grant is clear, easily understandable, or compelling. Colleagues often don’t point out problems in logic and clarity, for a number of reasons:
1. They’re your friend. Telling you that sections of your paper don’t really make sense or are not well-written = awkward and uncomfortable conversation.
2. If they don’t understand your paper, they’re liable to think that it’s because they’re not specialists in your field, when the real issue is logical flow, vague explanations, or not setting up the context properly.
3. They are a trained scientist just like you, not a writer or editor, so they may not be able to identify or verbalize exactly what the problem is with a given section, nor know how to fix it.
4. They’re busy, and don’t have time to read your paper carefully word-by-word, analyzing and correcting every problem.
5. If you’re in a research institute with mostly non-native English speakers, the few local anglophones are often asked by EVERYONE to proofread their papers. That poor American (Canadian, Australian, British, Kiwi…) postdoc down the hall would really rather be doing their own experiments than correcting your latest paper. And anglophone scientists aren’t better than non-anglophones when it comes to identifying and fixing structural or logical issues in a text.
Effective writing and communication are skills that don’t always overlap with those involved in doing great science. It’s unfortunate that more scientists don’t utilize people specifically trained in them! Most researchers aren’t aware of how useful a good editor can be for developing not just clear writing, but clear thinking. I’ve seen some sentences that are so spectacularly winding and impenetrable, when I pointed them out, the author had to spend some time thinking about what they really meant. Rethinking the gaps in logical flow in your paper makes it very clear when there are logical gaps in your research. That process helps you do better science.
Patricia Gongal works with researchers to improve the structure, clarity, flow, and style of their scientific writing, and has lots of opinions about science and academia.