Who writes the most stylish scientific papers?

Scientific papers often are written in a dry, formulaic style. Mine are no exception. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is scope for style in scientific papers. Not nearly as much scope as in many other forms of writing, but there definitely is some.

In ecology, I think Steve Ellner, Ben Bolker, Tony Ives, and Robin Snyder are all very good, often adopting a conversational style to walk readers through, and help them appreciate, difficult mathematics. I think of this as “tour guide” style. In evolution, Steven Frank and H. Allen Orr are very good. It’s perhaps no accident that all of these folks are theoreticians and modelers who publish regularly in general ecology and evolution journals. If you’re writing math-heavy papers for a non-mathematical audience, you’re almost obliged to be a very good explainer. A dry, “just the facts, ma’am” style isn’t going to cut it. Among folks who write math-free papers, I think my PhD supervisor Peter Morin has an admirably clear and straightforward style, but the distinction between his authorial voice and that of an average scientific author is perhaps more subtle.

Probably not coincidentally, Peter Morin, Steve Ellner, and Ben Bolker all have written textbooks, and Steven Frank and Allen Orr have written books as well. You have to be able to write well to do that, and I’m sure doing that makes you an even better writer.

I shouldn’t leave the impression that only theoreticians and textbook authors write well. Peter Adler and Jon Levine are exceptionally clear writers and great explainers.

So who do you think writes the most stylish scientific papers?

8 thoughts on “Who writes the most stylish scientific papers?

  1. Let me pass on the kind favor by saying that I’ve long been a fan of the writing of Roger Nisbet and Ottar Bjornstad. It’s not just that these two make the complicated appear simple — they do so in an elegant prose style. And if my writing is good, it’s because Roger, my doctoral advisor, made me keep rewriting until he was satisfied. Roger is not easy to satisfy. (And I’m grateful for that.)

    • Yes, Roger and Ottar are both very good. Now that you mention them, I’m embarrassed I forgot to mention them in the original post, as I’m certainly familiar with their work. Worth noting that Roger is another person on this list who’s written a book. (UPDATE: and of course, Roger and Ottar are both modelers as well)

  2. Interesting lots of modelers.

    Let me name some non-modellers:

    John Lawton – I know his commentaries in Oikos were an inspiration to both Jeremy and I but I think his research writing was also exceptionally clear.

    Mike Rosenzweig – he rather self-consciously set out to change the way he and other ecologists wrote. In particular, he emphasized writing in plain English – what a novel concept! And I do think he was himself an excellent writer and also impacted how other scientists wrote. I now read with amusement the instructions to author sections of journals on how to write methods – almost all of which have reacted one way or the other to Mike. Some instruct ‘use plain, simple declarative sentences like “We measured X using instrument Y”‘ – something they never would have said 15 years ago. Or else they – mostly BES journals – say “methods should be written in a formal passive voice” – probably one of the few places on the planet where one is outright ordered to use the passive voice.

    Gary Mittelbach, Peter Yodzis, Jim Brown

    Perhaps on a tangent, I wonder if “most stylish” is the same as “most clear”. My wife is a literature major, and for her every sentence has to be perfect. One has to feel almost is if one is reading poetry. Most of my humanities colleagues are the same way. That is stylish. For me, I care more about the big picture and do people understand what I say. There is clearly some overlap, but also some difference. I would argue the best writing in science aims for clarity, not style.

    • Thanks for the comments Brian.

      Yes, John’s Oikos column had a nice chatty style, but as you guessed I was thinking more of conventional scientific papers.

      Hadn’t realized that Mike Rosenzweig had such wide influence. I’ve only ever read his book on species richness, and that was a long time ago so I don’t really recall the style.

      Passive vs. active voice is controversial. When I submit to the BES journals I admit I ignore their order to use the passive voice, as I don’t agree with it. Passive voice is wordier. It also makes it sound like the research just happened, as if by magic. Methods in the active voice make it sound like the writer is taking responsibility for what was done, which I like. And it’s perfectly possible to write the methods in an active voice without starting every sentence with “I” or “We”.

      Gary Mittelbach, Peter Yodzis, Jim Brown–hmm, interesting. I’ve read good papers by all of them of course, but they never stood out for me with regards to style. Will have to go back and read them more closely. Jim’s books are more distinctive than his papers, I think, but in a book there’s more scope for style.

      Good question re: clarity vs. style. I suppose I’d say clarity is an aspect of style in a scientific paper–a very important aspect, as you say–but only one. Probably Peter Morin’s style is very much a matter of great clarity. But for some of the other folks I named, I do think they have style independent of clarity, or perhaps they achieve clarity through stylistic choices which most scientific authors wouldn’t make.

      There’s also style at the expense of clarity, of course. I’d cite Stephen J. Gould as exhibit A here. Debates over his ideas often were a matter of trying to pin down precisely what he was claiming (“punctuated equilibrium” is a particularly infamous example).

  3. Pingback: Some well-known tricks for clear writing | Dynamic Ecology

  4. Pingback: An homage to the writing style of Dr. Peter Adler -Or- How to write good science well. | BioDiverse Perspectives

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