Scientific and Technical Communication in Context
Part 1; Part 2; Part 3
→ Reading Scientific and Technical Texts
Writing Scientific and Technical Texts
Part 1; Part 2; Part 3
Part 1; Part 2
Part 1; Part 2
Persuasion and Critical Thinking
Part 1; Part 2
Participation and Policy
Part 1; Part 2
Definitions, Descriptions, and Instructions
Part 1; Part 2
Part 1; Part 2
Scientific Articles and Abstracts
Formatting, Designing, and Using Graphics
Part 1; Part 2
Steve Fuller: "Putting People Back Into the Business of Science"
Part 1; Part 2
William Keith: "Science and Communication"
Sujatha Raman: "Challenging High-Tech War"
Dale L. Sullivan: "Migrating Across Disciplinary Boundaries"
Tobias, Chubin, Aylesworth: "Restructuring Demand for Scientific Expertise"
Part 1; Part 2
Practitioners entering scientific and technical fields are confronted with an ocean of information, and the tide will constantly rise. As a reader, you will struggle to stay current with the literature in order to maintain and advance your position in your field. It is a truism that the task of reading all the information published in leading journals, in all but the most narrowly defined specialties, is impossible. The problem for you as a reader will not be reading faster, but learning how to select what is worthwhile to read slowly. As a layperson reading in areas outside your field of expertise, you will confronted by a language not your own. The problem for you as a reader will not be to become an expert in dozens of fields, but to recognize the techniques for reading in your own field, and relate them to other fields. In this chapter we will examine strategies for how to read and critically assess scientific and technical literature, from the perspective of the practitioner and the layperson, in a timely manner.
Our approaches to reading often vary widely, and for the most part remain unexamined. Typically, we understand reading as a passive, individual activity about which we receive no formal instruction after childhood. Implicitly, it seems, we develop our own reading strategies. You may prefer to read in a certain place under specific conditions. Pressed for time, you may only read the introduction, conclusion and subheadings to an article to be discussed in class that day. You may skip the words in a physics textbook altogether to get to the mathematical formulas. You may read a newspaper in a ritual manner, one section proceeding the next. While each these strategies are unique, academic disciplines encourage certain possibilities for reading by regulating the expression, production and presentation of a text. In part, how we read results from the activities going on "behind the scenes" of the words we read.
Behind the scenes of a text may lie the complex linguistic skills of a poet, or the complex research skills of researchers in a laboratory. In a poet's case, the activity of writing is generally private. Poets use imagination and personal insight in deciding what is true. However, consumers usually see the services of poets as minor. Reading poetry is associated with leisure. In a researcher's case, the activity of writing is public within their profession. Researchers use each other's work in deciding what is true or factual. Consumers see research as valuable. Reading science is associated with accomplishing a task. What we face, in part, when reading a poem or research article is the organizational structure that helps write the text. As readers we approach poetry, rightly or wrongly, as the product of a less formal, highly individual process, which makes poetry more accessible. Reading poetry, one does not have to contend with the technical apparatus, graphs, charts, references to instruments, jargon, and references to other work, found in scientific and technical writing. Scientific and technical writing is less accessible. Further, readers of scientific and technical writing await a unusual dilemma:
The peculiarity of the scientific literature is now clear: the only three possible readings lead to the demise of the text. If you give up, the text does not count and might as well not have been written at all. If you go along, you believe it so much that it is quickly abstracted, abridged, stylized and sinks into tacit practice. Lastly, if you work through the author's trials, you quit the text and enter the laboratory. Thus the scientific text is chasing its readers away whether or not it is successful. Made for attack and defense, it is no more a place for a leisurely stay than a bastion or a bunker. This makes it quite different from the reading of the Bible, Stendhal or the poems of T.S. Eliot. (Bruno Latour, Science in Action,1987, p. 61).
If Bruno Latour's irony rings true, reading a scientific or technical article is tantamount to going to war. Such a description runs counter to the general perception that "nothing happens" in a scientific text. Latour contends that if a reader wanted to dispute a claim, or enter a controversy introduced in a scientific or technical research article, she would confront an extraordinary array of resources available at the writer's command, laboratories, machines, instruments, chemicals, equations. In the face of these resources, and given a limited amount of time, almost all readers would abandon their challenge and concede the fact of the matter.
In mentioning other types of literature, Latour illustrates different reader responses to literary texts. Generally, the writer of a short story of poem invites the participation of the reader. This can be achieved in numerous ways, the use of language, dialogue, setting, tone, character and plot devices. Latour claims the "demise" of scientific and technical texts because they chase away readers, the "defeat" of the reader is the goal of a scientific text! To achieve a "fact of the matter" the goal of the scientific and technical writer, from Latour's perspective, is to prevent challenges. Preventing challenges to a text is achieved by making it impervious to attack. The same textual devices making a poem or short story "reader friendly" are absent as a text appears more objective. If challenges are prevented, Latour suggests that the text should not have been written at all, because no one, except a few experts, will be able to understand it. Absent challenge, the text is accepted as fact, abstracted, and received as another piece of knowledge fitting a larger puzzle.
Latour pinpoints many of the initial responses we have when encountering scientific and technical literature. As you know, scientific and technical writing can be dense, and ask for (or seem to ask for) very close reading. Many scientific articles may intimidate you not so much by their content as by disciplinary jargon, long tables, and pages of footnotes. To provide a more mundane illustration, for the uninitiated, reading scientific and technical literature must be somewhat like reading the ingredients listed on the label of a can of soup. Words with common associations strike a chord in us , chicken, peas, celery, and lend an immediate basis for critical assessment and choice. I like chicken, peas and celery, so I'll buy the soup. Other words listed as ingredients, ferrous sulfate, thiamin mononitrate, monosodium glutamate, generate few associations, and little basis for a choice. Until the reader has a context in which to place these terms, they remain meaningless. For the lay reader, these ingredients may represent the center piece of a controversy about the use of food additives. The chemist may see these ingredients as the basis for a laboratory experiment having nothing to do with soup. The health specialist or environmentalist may see these ingredients as threatening to the interests they represent.
It may surprise you to learn that many technical documents are written not to be read. More precisely, documents are designed to allow certain readers to avoid reading certain parts: a company president, for instance, might read only the recommendation section of a final report; the project manager might read only the recommendation and conclusion; only a study group for a subsequent project might read the entire report. What allows this procedure is a commonly recognized format: the company president knows there will be a recommendation section, and knows where to look for it: she opens the document to the table of contents page, looks to the bottom for a page number, then moves to it. When she has found the information she needs, she files the report, or sends it to the next reader. A first reading of scientific and technical texts generally includes a consideration of what you need, and how you initially respond to the text.
Most readers are unaware of the mental models they possess which motivates their reading of a text. In scientific and technical fields, the largest percentage of reading (66% for students, 78% for people on the job) is done in order to perform a task. Readers tend to ignore lengthy introductions and manuals and strike out on their own. Reading in the sciences and technology is generally performed to gather information for practical application. As the readers of scientific and technical documents are, generally, practitioners in the field, the writer usually assumes the same or a higher degree of knowledge on behalf of the reader. By following familiar forms supplemented with indexical headings, scientific and technical documents direct a reader's movement through the text.
In a study of seven physicists in a variety of subspecialties, Charles Bazerman (1988) examined the basis on which the choices of what to read were made. Given the unbelievable amount of literature that surfaces in physics, the researchers had to rely on time saving measures to stay current in their fields. Bazerman's study suggested that scientists originally made choices of what to read based on the requirements of current or future work. In addition, choices about material on which to focus included a consideration of the author's reputation and the appearance of key words in the title. Once these initial criteria were met the scientists moved to other reading strategies, selecting sections of articles to read, judging the significance of the research, determining how to use the material in their work, taking notes and, finally, re-reading the article. These schemes for reading, Bazerman concluded, were a combination of individual experiences, some dating to childhood, and the scientist's "map of the field", a conception of where the field will go and how professional needs will change.
Determining our needs for reading can be partially traced to the social roles we play, writers, editors, advocates, dissenters, experts, judges and laypersons. The skills we acquire in becoming professionals, the ways we learn, think, communicate, and act, integrate novel, marketable expressions of individual talents and preferences with the goals of a particular group. Our contributions to the organization in which we work must be both unique and adhere to certain social constraints. Of course, the community in which we work shapes, and is shaped by, larger social groups, businesses and institutions. As scientific and technical communicators assuming many social roles, we may feel a tension between more immediate roles- such as a parent and electrical engineer, and less defined ones, such as a member of a democratic society.
Different models offer explanations for how we read and process information. The design of texts, size of margins, length of paragraphs, use of subheadings, amount of white (empty) space on the page, placement of visuals, mirror assumptions about the reading process. For instance, your initial impressions from looking at a text, the size of the type, the number of references, the use of color, can influence your approach to a text, or if you will read it at all. How you read indicates what your needs are. On one hand, the number of references an author makes in a text may suggest authority and knowledge of a field. You may read such a text closely in order to familiarize yourself with the current state of research. On the other hand, the number of references may intimidate you, and you may jump to the conclusion. In part, you decision of whether or not to read on is based on your assumptions and initial response to the text.
As you approach scientific and technical literature, consider the assumptions you bring to bear on a text, and how these assumptions affect how you react and read the text.
Presuppositions. Consider what reactions or impressions do you hold about a particular field or profession, its representatives, and its methods. On what grounds, personal experience, hearsay, news reports, reading literature in that field, are these reactions and impressions based? Laypersons sometimes allow their presuppositions to prevent them from going outside their personal field of expertise, or to provide an excuse to ignore the work of others. This reaction can lead to confusion with respect to legal, medical and insurance documents, or lead to a missed opportunity to bring to insight to bear on your own work and the work of others. Everyone must deal with representatives of other professions. Compare the image of your profession or field to the one you approach as a layperson. By relating the images, language and presentation of ideas of other professions to your own, you can build a context with which to understand the language of experts.
Presentation. Consider how you respond to the way the text looks. Are you impressed by the print quality? Is the text dense with words, tables, statistics, logical notation and/or visual aids? Does the look of the text invite you to read it? Typically, readers have similar reactions to the way a text looks. On one hand, if a page has a number of pictures and visual aids the information presented may not be taken as seriously. On the other hand, a page with many words, tables, or mathematical formulas gives the information authority. The use of color, high quality paper and type, suggests the financial commitment to the presentation. By comparing the look of past and present issues of a journal or the books in a series, you can get an indication of how the information is valued and why it is pursued.
Presence of the authors. Consider how you respond to the presence of the authors in the text. Do you get an impression of who the authors are and what they want to accomplish? Does the use of first-person and active voice make the information presented personal and therefore less legitimate? Does third person and passive voice suggest that the findings have been confirmed by other researchers? The authority we place in a text, as readers, results from the mental picture we get of the authors. Ordinarily in scientific and technical communication, we get no feeling for the authors on first reading; rather the research is presented as the product of faceless institutions or disciplines. Your reaction to the authors of a text creates a personal context which can sustain your interest in dense and complex material.
Next time you travel to the library go to the periodicals section. Of course, depending on the library the number of periodicals being received will vary, but survey the major journals in your field. Here, you will get some idea of the writing standards of your field and profession. In comparing the range of practices of journals published in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities you will encounter the following rough trends:
Articles in the natural science disciplines (physics, chemistry and biology) are more likely to have multiple authors than articles in the social sciences and the humanities;
Articles in the natural sciences are more likely to be significantly shorter in length than articles in the social sciences and the humanities;
Articles in the natural and social sciences are more likely to follow the same format (note the use of subheadings) than articles in the humanities;
Articles in the humanities are more likely to have larger bibliographies, more footnotes and refer to a greater number of different scholars, than articles in the natural and social sciences;
Articles in the natural and social sciences are more likely to rely on visual aids than articles in the humanities;
Articles for each discipline have a good deal of jargon and specialist language, the audience for professional journals is usually small, similarly educated specialists and professionals.
As a potential practitioner, you will need to determine which sources of information best suit your needs. These needs will be quite different from your needs as a lay reader. As a lay reader, you may, for example, find secondary sources more helpful in acquainting you with the current debates in a particular field. Here are some factors practitioners and laypersons can consider in choosing primary and secondary sources. Keep in mind that these factors should be considered together as a guideline, not as the sole basis for your choices. As you become familiar with the literature in a particular field, you will be able to more readily define the scope of your reading.
The press and/or journal: Within specific disciplines, commercial and university presses, which publish books and journals, and journals, which publish articles, garner reputations based on who sits on the editorial board, commercial success, circulation and the percentage of manuscripts they accept and reject. With notable exceptions, high prestige journals in a field have higher rejection and circulation rates than lesser known journals. Most journals and presses adhere to blind review system in which a manuscript, with the author's name removed, is sent to a number of referees (usually between 3 and 5). Each referee writes a report calling for the papers' acceptance, rejection or conditional acceptance depending on the author's willingness to revise the paper.
The well-regarded journal Science rejects about 80 percent of the manuscripts submitted; the New England Journal of Medicine has a rejection rate of about 85 percent. In many cases, the author will resubmit a rejected manuscript to another journal. Given the proliferation of journals, tenacious authors can eventually find a home for their work. To determine how a paper has been received, examine the time lag between the original presentation of the manuscript and the actual date of publication. You can determine this by looking to see when the paper was first presented at a conference (usually indicated in an acknowledgments footnote), or the dates of the original experiment. Knowing the specialties and rejection rates of journals and presses are a first step in the evaluation of information sources.
The Title: The title of a source will have key words that will allow you to determine its relevance to your needs.
The Author(s): Practitioners recognizing an author's name can select a source based on his/her reputation. The layperson unfamiliar with the author's reputation can consult citation indices to a degree, help establish the regard the work has in the field, or related fields.
Affiliation of the authors: Just as the reputations of researchers can help you decide what sources to read, so can the reputation of the institution with which the researchers are affiliated. Usually researchers are affiliated with either a university, a private laboratory, a national laboratory, or a think tank. Knowing the reputation or political leaning of a particular institution (especially in the case of think tanks) will enable you locate the strengths and potential biases of the research.
Support: The National Science Foundation (NSF) is the dominant source of funds for scientific and technological research and development. In 1987, according to one estimate, the NSF funded slightly less than half of the research projects in physics; the major source for the other half of physics funding came from the Department of Energy. Over 80 percent of funding for research in civil engineering and anthropology came from NSF. The extent of federal funding in certain research areas has triggered debate over how research priorities are set, and how "politicized" the content of science has become. Still there are other source of funding for research such as private donors, pharmaceutical companies and private foundations (e.g., The Heritage Foundation). Many of these contributors to research and development express clear interests and political agendas. As with knowledge of the affiliation of the authors, knowledge about the source of funds can give lay readers and practitioners a sense of the purpose, importance and direction of the research.
Journal articles in science and in technology have similar structures. This structure can serve as a basis for scanning and selecting relevant literature for both practitioners and laypersons. Before the article reaches the journal, it will most likely have been presented orally to a number of different groups, and been commented on by audiences at conferences as well as reviewers.
Please note that other types of scientific and technical communication, proposals, instructions, oral presentations, follow well-defined structures. Your knowledge of the elements and derivations of these structures can serve as the basis for judgments, from the perspective of both a practitioner and a layperson, about the organization, thoroughness and complexity of different types of scientific and technical communication.
Generally, journal articles contain the following elements:
An abstract or introductory summary. Given the explosion of the amount of technical literature, many scholars suggest tongue-in-cheek that the abstract is the real article. The abstract is perhaps the most important part of the article, clearly it is the only part many people read. Abstracts may vary in length in proportion to the article's length. The reader can get a good idea of the content and technical density of an article from its abstract. Writing a clear, accessible abstract has become a necessary skill, as abstracts are used in access publications (publications which list and index abstracts) and on-line data bases. Index and abstract publications , Biological Abstracts, Chemical Abstracts and Index Medicus, and on-line systems, MEDLINE (Index Medicus), PsychINFO (Psychological Abstracts), SCISEARCH, either selectively or comprehensively collect abstracts and article titles for literature searches. Both practitioners and laypersons can get a feel a field of research by consulting abstracts in journals, access publications and on-line databases.
A list of key words and phrases. Not all journals provide a list of key words and phrases. However, journals that do either substitute key words for an abstract, or list them after the abstract. Key words are reoccurring terms selected by the author. Like the abstract, the list of key words gives an indication of the concepts and vocabulary with which you need to be familiar in order to comprehend the article. The title of the article also contains key words necessary for cross-referencing in access publications.
An introduction. The introduction of a science article lends a historical context to the research by relating it to prior studies. In numerous cases, the research presented is performed to answer specific questions, or to correct errors of previous research. Such research deals with points of contention internal to a narrowly defined field of study. Here practitioners and laypersons can determine the relevance of the research to their concerns from its historical position.
A methodology section. For the practitioner, the methods section may be the most important and substantive part of the study. The methods section presents the design of the study, the procedures followed, the means for data collection, and an evaluation of the procedure. Researchers evaluate the soundness of the methodology in determining the soundness of the results. If the methods are flawed, the data gathered will be flawed. However, a researchers' expectancy that following certain methods will lead to an anticipated results may lead to self-deception. For the layperson, common sense provides a basis for critically judging the methods and results of certain experiments.
Many researchers have claimed that "thinking" animals, horses, dolphins, chimpanzees, apes, have the capacity learn language and respond to questioning. At the turn of the century a German schoolteacher, Wilhlem Von Osten, announced that a remarkable horse, nicknamed Clever Hans, could count by tapping out numbers with one hoof. Clever Hans would perform this feat not only for his owner, but for other audiences as well. A psychologist, Oskar Pfungst, investigated Von Osten' s claims. Pfungst determined that Von Osten's expectations, unconscious cues and the horse's ability to imitate his trainer were the actual reasons for the animal's ability to "communicate." The specter of this incident still haunts some animal researchers. Recently, for instance, the ability of apes to use sign language has been disputed on similar grounds. Of course, surveying the methods section of a scientific or technical article, it is unlikely a layperson could draw conclusions about the validity of a researcher's findings. However, healthy skepticism of a researcher's methods or procedures based on personal experience with, for example, health care, statistics or household chemicals and technologies, does have a place in critically scanning scientific and technical literature.
A results section. Presented in a narrative form, the results section offers an analysis of the researchers' findings, and contains tables, graphs, charts and photographs. Again, the information represented may be incomprehensible to you as a lay reader, but your familiarity with criteria for the presentation of visual information can be a basis for assessment. Tables and graphs which present too much information, for example, may indicate the author's confusion about the data's significance. The authors' can offer interpretations of experimental results in this section or the discussion section.
A discussion section. The discussion reviews the study and may give ideas for areas of further research. Here the authors have room for apology, speculation, promotion, and instruction (for replicating the experiment). Depending on the authors' reputation and style the discussion section allows for the authors' to "let their hair down." This section, for practitioner and lay reader, can be the most interesting rhetorically From a rhetorical point of view, it is important to keep in mind what the discussion does not say as much as what it does say. Disciplines have different attitudes toward presenting events that go on" behind the scenes" in an article. Research articles in the natural sciences, for example, give the reader an impression that the series of experiments was performed in an orderly fashion with no mistakes, interruptions or disputes among laboratory members. Articles in some social science disciplines include a more introspective, critical treatment of their methods, procedures and results, often citing limitations and failures. Lay readers can draw distinct impressions about the relation between the subject matter of the research and how results are organized and presented.
References or a bibliography. The practitioner can determine how well the authors know the previous literature, as well as find relevant material for their research. By knowing the literature of their field, practitioners make judgments about where the authors wish to position themselves with regard to previous research. Drawing comparisons between disciplines, the lay person can see how well defined and organized a field is. For example, there tend to be fewer references in an article in the natural sciences, than in an article in a humanities discipline. Some researchers conclude that writers in highly specialized disciplines have a precise idea of what their audience knows (or should know), and need to make fewer explicit references. Writers in less specialized disciplines, or with interdisciplinary concerns, must simultaneously educate their audience while legitimating their views to researchers with varying levels of expertise. As a result, the writer must appeal to a wider range of literature. From scanning the references section of journal articles over a period of time, laypersons and practitioners can identify the leading researchers and important techniques of a field by the number and consistency of references to a particular author or work.
Scientific and technical writing does not inspire readers, especially from outside a given subject area, to perform a second, more thoughtful reading. As Latour suggests, one reason for this is the armor plating of the text, references and devices designed to take readers straight from the text to the laboratory. Lay readers cannot get around these devices. But reading is a truly interdisciplinary activity, we learn, at least implicitly how to read a variety of material in a number of different ways. On a second reading, you can bring to light aspects of a technical text by techniques you have learned in other disciplines. In this section we will draw a comparison among reading literary and scientific texts. Both types of kinds of texts depend on shared and specialized uses of vocabulary and metaphor. In comparing and contrasting how vocabulary and metaphor work in science and other disciplines, we can take the first steps, as potential practitioners and lay readers, to understanding one of the unique rhetorical features of scientific and technical texts, witnessing.
We read texts from particular points of view. These points of view originate within the cultures, institutions and classrooms in which we participate. Our reading and writing practices depend on a complex system of values. Neither can we "rise above" this system of values to offer objective readings or descriptions, nor do these values determine all our possibilities for expression. While it is important to realize the social origins of how we read and write, it is also important to keep in mind that the boundaries separating disciplines and organizations are largely artificial. We can effectively bring the reading practices of one field of study to bear on other fields of study.
Scientific and technical writers are trained to use the conventional elements of documents such as the technical report and experimental article, but they rarely study them. To study a technical article or scientific book the way you would study a short story or novel seems incongruous. If, for example, you enrolled in a course on Victorian prose you would expect to study the literary and critical works of authors such as Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot and John Ruskin. Most likely you would not expect study the theological, scientific and mathematical works of William Paley, Lord Kelvin, Charles Darwin and George Boole. But how does reading science compare to reading literature?
On the surface, reading scientific texts is nothing like reading literature. Properly speaking, of course, science writing is not story telling. The imagination of a scientist is not the same as that of a poet or storyteller; it reflects the ability to see formal connections before they can be proven in a formal way. Scientific writing deals in general causes and procedures to get at testable hypotheses. Scientific writing seeks higher and higher abstraction to produce statements that can be applied in the most general way. Scientific knowledge is considered unique because it is subject to experiment. A literary text cannot (and perhaps should not) be verified or falsified. The facts of nature (e.g., the freezing point of water) exist independently of how well they are communicated. However, the seemingly unique aspects of science frequently translate into reasons why "outsiders" cannot comprehend its literature. For example, many people trained in other disciplines such as the humanities do not feel their interpretive skills apply to scientific and technical writing. In drawing this conclusion, we fail to recognize the shared standards of communication existing among disciplines.
Some theorists do not see scientific knowledge as having privileged status and argue that scientific texts can be treated to similar types of rhetorical and literary analysis as many forms of literature. If we entertain for a moment the notion that scientific texts can be studied like literary texts, what would our class in Victorian prose (mentioned above) look like? Literary critics typically look at the features of a text, genre, narrative, description, dialogue, use of metaphor and irony, authorial presence (or absence of), and how certain texts compare to and influence other texts. While scientific and technical texts do not feature all of the elements of literature, they do share many important formal elements, narrative, word choice and arrangement, and use of symbols. For example, one could study the features and the ideas presented in Darwin's The Origin of Species and trace their development in the novels of George Eliot. As readers of scientific texts, we neglect questions as to what influences Darwin, or any scientist, might have felt, his rhetorical purposes, and how the reception and understanding of his work was determined by later writers such as Matthew Arnold. Science and technology are not just the source of ideas for literature, frequently scientific and technical writing reveal literary themes and devices.
While at Cambridge University, the famous English literary critic I.A. Richards (1893-1979) presented his students with unidentified poems and asked for their anonymous responses to them over a week. In Practical Criticism (1929), he published the findings of his experiment. According to Richards, students had fundamentally misread the poems, unable to read the texts in order to derive any meaning. Given the quality of the students, he found it absurd that they had no instruction in how to interpret a text. Interpretation itself, Richards contended, could be taught. Students could be instructed on how to derive the meanings of texts, and then learn to make meanings in the process of interpretation. Richards took up the task of instructing students how to perform detailed readings of texts. The interaction between readers and words (or symbols) illustrated Richards' idea that readers do think not just about concepts but with them. From the principles of close reading, Richards' made apparent the need to pursue not only how meaning is made in the process of writing, but the way meaning is made in the act of reading.
It is easy to see that how we write, say, in a humanities course and an electrical engineering course are different. Since we write differently in those courses, doesn't it follow that we would read differently in them as well? We seem to think of reading, however, as a universally applied process. You just "do it." As the example above shows, by examining science writing in, for example, the context of literary analysis, you can see how different reading techniques, like close reading, can shed light on subjects within various disciplines. The interaction between readers and words, demonstrated in the use specialized vocabularies and captured in metaphors, shows that readers do think not just about concepts but with them.
You are coming into possession of a highly technical vocabulary. The disciplines and fields you study distinguish themselves by the use of technical terms. While it is impossible to draw a sharp distinction between a technical vocabulary and general vocabulary, you can get an idea of a technical vocabulary by the frequency in which the words appear in ordinary conversation. Words such as 'catalysis', 'heuristic' and 'homeostasis' would be unknown (while possibly recognized) to the ordinary person. Accordingly, technical terms originating in one field, or used differently in various fields, 'magnetohydrodynamics', 'fermions', 'induction', pose a problem for practitioners who must communicate across professional boundaries. Here lies the problem of the absence of a shared vocabulary among experts and laypersons.
For the author of a text, one task is to determine the educational level of the readers and the best way to present information to them. For the reader of the text, one task is to derive the author's meaning. However, many scientific and technical communicators face the task of writing for multiple audiences, with multiple educational backgrounds. The simple solution to this problem has been to choose a "lowest common denominator", determine that groups' technical knowledge and write or speak to them. Often this solution offers more problems than it solves by being inefficient, and possibly offensive to the reader. By examining the causes and possible solutions to the use of exaggerated technical vocabulary, you can devise strategies for presenting and reading scientific and technical documents for different audiences.
Causes of Confusion
Assumptions. While authors must make assumptions about the knowledge of the reader, they usually draw a series of inconsistent conclusions as a result. If the writer assumes the reader knows the meaning of 'friction' then they may conclude the reader must know about convection, radiation, and the laws of thermodynamics. Assumptions on the part of the writer can develop into an almost endless chain of other assumptions and conclusions. Relatedly, the author may take the time to explicate an easier term while neglecting a more difficult one. The lack of consistency in the author's level of assumption can frustrate the reader and needs to be avoided by the writer.
Habits. Authors and speakers fall into customary patterns of vocabulary use. These patterns are reinforced within disciplines and professions. As a practitioner in a field, you need to be aware that the habits you develop do not exclude diverse audiences.
Lack of recognition. Practitioners in a field may fail to realize the language they are using is indeed technical to a given audience. In attempting to define or simplify a term, the author or speaker can lend a definition as difficult or esoteric as the term itself. The definition reflects assumptions the author or speaker about the audience's knowledge, and can neglect how common terms have specialized uses. For example, charm can be defined as the fourth flavor of quark. Even with the proper context, subatomic particle physics, this definition gives no insight to the lay reader because it involves other technical terms, quark, as well as idiosyncratic uses of daily language, flavor.
Specialized use. As illustrated in the example above, another source of confusion between scientific and technical communicators and audiences and can be the use of words common to everyday speech in a specialized sense. Subatomic physicists in describing particles of matter not only refer to their 'charm', but 'color' and 'spin' as well. We are familiar with all of these words, but their meaning is quite different in reference to subatomic particles. The specialized use of terms and concepts also changes over time. Scientific concepts such as 'force', 'matter' and 'time' have historical origins and different applications in given theoretical frameworks. As theories have changed, so have the meanings of these concepts.
Attention to use. Paying attention to how you use technical vocabulary is, of course, necessary for both the writer and reader keeping in mind the points of confusion mentioned earlier. By considering scientific and technical communication in context, the social and historical contexts in which the use of a word or term evolves (like mass or weight for example), you can begin to see beyond your disciplinary training in considering the perspectives of diverse audiences. Reading critically, you can begin trace the source of confusion, assumptions, habits, lack of recognition, ambiguous use, between what the author tries to convey and what you are able to understand. In instances where the author uses everyday vocabulary in a clear, commonly accepted manner, the lay reader can establish grounds on which to understand technical vocabulary.
Word lists. Some researchers suggest that the ultimate solution for bridging the communications needs of experts and lay persons would be to develop a list of words to which the author must confine her exposition. Once determined, this standard vocabulary could then be taught in schools. Specifically, such a list would be developed for writers, news reporters and science popularizers, who must convey highly technical information to lay audiences. Insofar as popular accounts of science and technology depends on a technical vocabulary lay readers can understand (Tom Clancy's novels are an example) a word list does exist. Accordingly, proponents of scientific literacy argue that students be taught an essential vocabulary of words and terms so that they are prepared to make informed public and personal decisions about science and technology.
Word Origins. Most scientific and technical terms (medical terms are a good example) are formed by Greek and Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes. Knowledge of these root elements enables lay readers to make sense of certain technical terms.
Metaphors are figures of speech in which comparisons are implied in order to reveal similarities between seemingly unlike things. For example, the Italian novelist Primo Levi in the opening of The Periodic Table compares his ancestors to the inert, noble and rare gases: "The little that I know about my ancestors presents many similarities to these gases. Not all of them were materially inert, for that was not granted them." Metaphors help ground common experiences among the writer or speaker and the audience.
Metaphors play a powerful, if somewhat disputed role, in scientific and technical communication. In appealing to a lay audience, for instance, technical communicators use metaphors to compare specialized concepts to objects in the audience's experience. Antibodies and interferons (a protein that interferes with the virus's attempt to reproduce inside the cell) are compared to a "defense system" that "attacks" an "invading virus." This kind of comparison is contentious in that it ascribes human characteristics to non-human objects, invites an unwarranted value judgment and influences treatment. To extend the metaphor and the impressions it leaves, the virus is "bad" because it "attacks" your body when its "defenses" are "down." To "combat" this "invader", you devise a "battle plan" that may include rest, aspirin and lots of fluid. You have probably heard doctors describe viruses as "sneaky" "tough" and "resilient." Of course, the virus itself does not embody these characteristics, but the treatment of viruses and diseases follows from a model of "attack" and "defense." Critics of cancer research claim, for example, that metaphors controlling our ideas about disease have closed researchers and physician's minds to alternative and inventive forms of treatment. Problems in treating cancer or AIDS appear intractable because the medical community is stuck in rut in conceptualizing the function of disease.
Metaphors inspire a chain of associations that must also be critically considered. The leap from comparing diseases to "invaders" to reconceptualizing the treatment of cancer is at best treacherous and at worst malicious. As a reader and writer, you need to determine your critical priorities, and how those priorities fit into the language of the discipline in which you study. In reading a textbook, set of instructions or proposal, examine whether you understand the metaphor being used and if you see it as essential or incidental to the description being given. For example, one of the root metaphors for science in the seventeenth century was of nature as God's clock. According to this metaphor natural effects proceeded like clockwork according to the Creator's grand design. Consequently, the purpose of experimental science was to examine the clock's mechanisms. Although God might produce the same effect through different causes, scientists could determine a probable cause for a natural occurrence because nature was regulated. The clock metaphor has been understood as essential to the conception and advancement of early modern science.
A more recent but quite different example of the use of metaphor in science is James Lovelock's "Gaia hypothesis." Gaia, the ancient Greek mother goddess of Earth, is a metaphor for nature and the unity of all living things. The Gaia hypothesis postulates the Earth as a living organism existing interdependently with other living organisms. Earth itself is portrayed as a delicately balanced "superorganism." Highly controversial, many natural scientists consider the Gaia hypothesis New Age pseudo-science. While Gaia as a metaphor is essential to Lovelock's hypothesis, it is incidental to the modern conduct of biology and environmental science.
As both a writer and reader, you need to determine the essential or incidental influences of the use of metaphors in scientific and technical communication. The values embodied by metaphor are expressed in the practices of a community. Describing nature as an earth goddess or a mechanical clock, for example, leads to different notions of what it means to do research, perform an experiment and report its results. Metaphor is an necessary element of technical communication that carries with it the values of a community, a set of values that require critical examination.
Show me. Seeing is believing. Aside from being clichés, both statements capture the healthy skepticism we feel when someone, even an authoritative source, tells us something contrary to common sense. If we actually witness, among others who will confirm our story, the effects of room-temperature fusion in a jar or the ascension of a "monster" from the depths of Loch Ness, then we will be convinced (at least partially) the phenomena or object exists. The relation between seeing and believing is the basis for the experimental research article in science and technology.
Robert Boyle (1627-1691), lamented the difficulty in concisely reporting his experiments: "I have ... delivered things, to make them more clear, in such a multitude of words, that I now seem even to myself to have in divers places been guilty of verbosity." Hoping to reflect the honesty and accuracy of his experiments to his readers, Boyle decided no detail or contingency was too small to include even if it meant that he "... knowingly and purposely transgressed laws of oratory in one particular, namely, in making sometimes my periods (i.e., sentences) or parentheses over-long ..."¹ Boyle's insistence on a full, objective account of experiments by "scientists" (the word was not to be coined until the mid-nineteenth century) had two important consequences for the conventions of modern scientific and technical writing.
First, Boyle and the English experimentalists strongly argued that if science were to be empirical, then it must be witnessed. In fact, Boyle contended, the more times an experiment could be repeated with the same outcome, in front of an increasing number of witnesses, the closer one would come to establishing a fact. Debate persisted over who should witness an experiment, and how observations should be reported and interpreted. Boyle faced the practical reality that the lay public could not be directly involved in the experimental process. Visual aids and a plain narrative reporting style were Boyle's solutions to the problem of actual witnessing. Accordingly, visual aids and narration were meant to "stand for" the performance of an experiment. In reading an experimental account supplemented with visual aids the reader would virtually "see" the experiment taking place.
Second, since accounting for all the details and contingencies effecting an experiment is impossible, Boyle submitted to the practical constraint of choosing which details and contingencies to include in his report. Today, we must recognize that authors' choices as well as other constraints, journal space, cost of printing and publication, time, influence what counts as objective scientific and technical communication.
As many of you know from your experiences in the laboratory, writing a fully detailed narrative account of all experimental activities and contingencies is impossible. Your account would need to possess an endless array of details, mistakes, conjectures, speculations and interruptions. Today, the relationship Boyle sought to foster between experimenters and witnesses has changed. By almost any standard, science and technology have achieved extraordinary success over the last three hundred years. The need to convince public witnesses of the overall value of scientific and technical research no longer exists. Accordingly, failed experiments are only occasionally reported, and most experiments are not replicated.
The role of witness, for the most part, has been handed over to experts, peer reviewers and other researchers. Consequently, scientific and technical knowledge has been difficult to hold up to scrutiny. Still, the legitimacy of specific research projects must be satisfactorily explained to a taxpaying public, and the role of the public as witness has changed as the science and society have changed.
In the sciences and technology, journal articles are the staple of published work. Journal articles are generally written for practitioners, not wide audiences. Recent changes in editorial practices of some academic journals, however, are based on a desire to reach out to the lay public. Still one of the better sources for understanding the communicative practices of your profession, and other professions with which you will interact, can be found in academic journals. Nevertheless, there are a variety of information sources about which you will need to make judgments. Determining whether a source of information is good or bad, or appropriate or inappropriate depends on individual judgment, the methods and research being pursued and the standards of the community in which you participate.
Roughly, information sources can be distinguished as primary or secondary. Primary sources are original works, journal articles, conference papers, monographs (textbooks, published symposia). Secondary sources, reviews, indexes, abstracts, data collections, dictionaries, manuals, literature reviews (in dissertations), are derivative of original works. An example of a primary source would be Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Secondary sources would be those works commenting on Darwin's research, or research using Darwin's findings as an empirical basis. The cumulative nature of science and technology, however, denies such a hard and fast distinction, almost all scientific and technical literature is secondary in that it derives from previous work.
The work of science and technology is cumulative. Through references and citations, researchers acknowledge previous work in an area, lend support to her own arguments and look toward the future of the research. A reference gives credit to previous work, places the research being presented in that context and demonstrates the author's familiarity with the relevant literature. A citation shows what the research being presented receives from other research and may lead the reader to future work in that area. If you looked at an article published in a sociology journal in 1982, for example, you might find a research paper offering an explanation for the rise of violent crime in the United States the previous year. Looking at research done on violent crime in 1985, you may see a citation, or a number of citations, to the 1982 paper. As your research progresses, you may find an increasing number of citations and references to the 1982 study in subsequent research. As a result, the importance of the 1982 research has been established. Nevertheless, you need to establish why and in what context the work was considered important. The 1982 paper may be cited as a example of a famous statistical blunder leading to misinformation about the causes for the rise of violent crime. Generally, however, the number of citations a paper receives indicates its confirmation and authority in the field. Roughly half of the available papers are cited in any one year and of that half, three-quarters are cited only once.
Introduced in 1964, the Science Citation Index covers scientific and technical literature in the natural and behavioral sciences, as well as in agriculture, engineering and medicine. The index is published every two months and is made up of three sections, a Source Index covering current articles, a Citation Index covering references appearing in these articles and a Permuterm Index covering keywords appearing in these articles. The Source Index is arranged alphabetically by the name of the first author of the journal article. Other source items include names of secondary authors, abbreviations of journal titles, volume, page, and year of the publication and the number of references it contains. The Citation Index is arranged alphabetically by the authors' name followed by a chronological list of the author's cited articles. The Permuterm Index is used essentially as a subject guide to the article in the Source Index. Bimonthly issues are compiled into an annual index, and five-year indexes have been compiled since 1965. Retrospective indexes have been published. There is also a Social Sciences Citation Index and an Arts and Humanities Citation Index. Accordingly, Journal Citation Reports analyzes the frequency of citations to journal titles, noting which titles have been cited most and least frequently. The coverage of each of these indexes has continued to increase, mirroring the increase in the number of publications and citations.
The relevance of citation indexes generates a good deal of debate. The number of citations attributed to an author, paper or journal has been taken as an indication of the impact and influence of the work or journal title. Put simply, the greater number of citations the greater the significance of the work. Through citation analysis, sociologists have studied the relation between the scientists productivity and the recognition of their work. Nobel Prize winners, for example, have citation rates almost thirty times greater than other scientists after they win the award. It seems that with respect to citation, the rich get richer. While peer recognition influences citation rates, however, it is impossible to determine whether content or reputation is the basis for frequent citation since authors are not anonymous.
Sociologists and historians have also used citation sequences as the basis for claims about the progress and impact of certain ideas and techniques. The ideas and techniques presented in research papers may be picked up and cited in later work, or completely forgotten. Frequency of citation can also be seen as a product of the number of articles published about a subject in a given year. As well, many researchers have argued that even though a work has been cited, it may not have been read. In many fields for a journal article to be considered relevant, an obligatory citation must be made to a standard bearer in the field, or to an article explaining a technique used by researchers. Self-citation is also customary in many fields. Many researchers also cite their pervious work as a bid for self-promotion. However, self-citation is not seen as a statistically significant in comparing citation frequencies.
Still, given disputes about the merit of citation, these indexes can be powerful tools both for retrieving information and for evaluating the current state of the art. For instance, one way for a layperson to frame a current scientific debate would be to compare what the participants understand as the relevant focus of research with the number citations to the topics in papers and journals.
1. Consider the different contexts in which you read, for pleasure, for class assignments, for work. How do you approach reading in each of those contexts? How does having a choice of what you read influence how you read? What strategies do you employ in choosing what you read? How do you approach assigned readings in class? In what specific manner do you read? Do you skip sections of the text? What triggers your attention? Particular words? Images? Equations? How much time do spend reading each week?
2. What does Bruno Latour means by "the demise of the text"? How are facts established in scientific texts? Why should facts be challenged? How is it possible for a lay person to challenge a claim of scientific knowledge? What role does the laboratory place in the writing and reading of scientific and technical texts?
3. What role do you think the reader's purpose plays in defining a reading strategy? How do your own social roles , as a student, parent, resident, voter, fan, employee, influence what and how you read?
4. In surveying how physicists read in their discipline Charles Bazerman challenges: "Sometimes the articles are so poorly written that the reader cannot follow the argument or its meaning." Generally, what do you think bad writing indicates? When reading bad or confusing writing do you stop to re-read the material or give up? What strategies does a writer use to write well and accessibly about complex or dense subjects?
5. The piecemeal reading of texts makes information seem personal. Frequently, the basis of scientific knowledge, from reading journal articles, is not a question of comparing experimental results against the framework of nature, but against personal frameworks. Often researchers admit that if they know the writer personally, and their reputation is bad, they won't read a journal article. How do these attitudes response square with your image of how science is conducted? If reading practices are often personal, in what respects does that make scientific knowledge more personal than objective? Why should a person's reputation make a difference in choosing to read scientific literature?
6. How does reading on the job differ from other types or reading? When you are asked to read something, as a requirement doping your job or performing a task, what do you assume about the writing itself?
1. During the semester keep a reading journal. Document the kind of material that you read and how you read it. In the journal consider (among other things) your personal habits, when you read, in what location, if you mark the text, if you read a text from beginning to end, if you read selections, your preferences, the way you select material, and how you read material selected for you.
2. Go to the library and pick a leading professional journal (the journal needs to have existed for 20 or more years ) representing a discipline with which you are not familiar. Once you have selected the journal the journal, find a copy of it (bound in the stacks) from 15 to 20 years ago. In a short report to your instructor, compare the two journals according to the criteria in this chapter. Consider, for example:
Does the journal look the same, cover design, length, font type, print size, how the table of contents is presented, ratio of words to figures, use of graphics? What are the differences and similarities?
Are there any common members of the editorial board from the two eras? Is the journal still published by the same company, or located at the same university?
If you can find a statement of the purpose of the journal (perhaps on the back cover of the journal) draw a comparison the stated purpose of the journal and the editorial policies from the two eras. Are there any differences?
Are there differences in the journal articles themselves, consider relative length of the articles, the number of footnotes, the number of sources cited.
In comparing these characteristics, draw some general conclusions about the health of the discipline. Does the discipline appear to be growing and changing, staying the same, or declining? What are some of the characteristics you found in comparing the journals which leads you to you conclusions?
3. Before the modern scientific era, metaphor was used frequently, but with some hesitation, by early modern naturalists, scientists and inventors such as Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Jean Lamark, William Paley, and Charles Darwin. And today metaphor is a device often used by popular science writers such as Stephen J. Gould and Carl Sagan. Select a piece of historical technical writing and identify the metaphors used. Nature, for example, is often considered metaphorically. In a brief paper provide an analysis of the rhetorical purpose of the use of metaphor. In your analysis consider whether or not you think the use of metaphors led to a particular approach to doing science. From where do these metaphors originate? Do you think this approach is wrong in the modern era?
Another version of this assignment is to examine the modern incarnation of the use of metaphors in popular accounts of science. Writers such as Barry Lopez and James Glieck have written about biology and physics, respectively, for lay audiences. Compare the use of metaphor in popular science writing to the use of metaphor in historical scientific and technical writing.
Bazerman, Charles. Shaping Written Knowledge. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
Brennan, Richard P. Dictionary of Scientific Literacy. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1992.
Duin, Ann Hill. "How People Read: Implications for Writers" The Technical Writing Teacher. Vol. 25: 185-193, 1988.
Fuller, Steve and Sujatha Raman (eds.) Teaching Science and Technology Studies: A Guide for Curricular Planners. Blacksburg, VA: Science Studies Center, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1991.
Kronick, David A. The Literature of the Life Sciences: Reading, Writing, Research. Philadelphia: ISI Press, 1985.
Restivo, Sal. Mathematics In Society and History: Sociological Inquiries. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992.
¹ See Robert Boyle "New Experiments Physico-Mechnicaical, touching the Spring of the Air" in Thomas Birch ed. The Works of the Honorable Robert Boyle. London: J&K Rivington, 1772. Quotes taken from Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 63-64.
The Possibilities Of Reading
A First Reading
Reading What You Need
Responding to Assumptions
Characteristics of Technical Literature
Scanning the Literature
Identifying Structural Elements
A Second Reading
Literary and Scientific Texts
Using and Translating Technical Vocabulary
Consulting Citation Indexes
Works Cited and Consulted