Avani (avani) wrote,
Avani
avani

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An Essay about Scientific Articles (work in progress)


(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

George Orwell, "Politics And The English Language"

I would like all of you computer scientists out there to read this list, read it again, and repeat until you've internalized the idea that the point of technical writing is to convey information. A sentence like "It is envisaged that the algorithm is to be applied to real-world problems." should hurt. This sentence was from the first page of the nearest computer science paper I had on hand.

To an outside observer, it seems like the goal of publishing in computer science is to snow your audience as much as possible while sounding plausible enough that the reviewers can at least pretend to understand. Passive voice is everywhere, to make the paper seem professional. Researchers use field specific (indeed, sometimes even *lab* specific) jargon instead of common words; reviewers seem to prefer new jargon over accessible writing. Given that many researchers struggle to conform to strict length requirements, the pathological use of the typically less succinct passive voice is even more confusing.

Finally, there is the math. Math is wonderful stuff, not to mention frequently the meat of the paper. However, using complex mathematical notation without explanation or to convey a simple idea is at best obnoxious and at worst criminally arrogant. If your result is an ugly expression, fully define all of your variables. Don't expect a reader to track back through your adviser's c.v. to figure out your parameters.
(An aside, while we're on the subject of variables: There are 26 letters in the Roman alphabet and 24 in Greek. Taking out letters that are obviously bad variable names (In math: capital and lower case pi, capital and lower case sigma, i. You do take these out, don't you?), you are left with 52 24 8 - 6 = 78 characters left to name your variables as you see fit. There is no excuse for writing a paper where B,B, and B are different unrelated variables. When I rule the world, the punishment for this will be hanging by your fingers until they fall off.)

To be continued...
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  • Talking about Biocomputing

    Dear LazyJ, I'm giving a 20 minute talk about computers and biology to a potentially large, very mixed audience in a week(!). I have not yet…

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