Perils of being politically correct
ecently I read a scientific paper about some new imaging method in rats. The paper was co-authored by eight writers. They had slaughtered four rats. This makes two authors per rat. With two authors per rat, no rat has a chance.
Of course, they did not slaughter the rats; rather, in their own words: "The rats were sacrificed", conjuring up of something precious that is offered to the gods for a greater good. What is difficult to determine in this case is the question who is or are the god(s)? The publisher of the journal, the head of their institute, God, or mankind in general?
Some other authors do not sacrifice animals but "euthanize" them. The noun "euthanasia" is well known. It means the act or practice of putting to death in a merciful manner a person who is suffering from incurable conditions or diseases. The verb, however, is a recent addition to the English language. There is something slightly distasteful about this word because of its application during the Nazi period. Inflicting injuries in animals and euthanizing them afterwards is also rather tasteless.
The rats were simply killed – hopefully for the sake of mankind.
I am not opposed to animal experiments; there is no doubt that medical research needs them.
"Did we euthanize or sacrifice the laboratory animals we killed?"
What I do oppose is the exaggeration of political correctness in scientific papers. Many authors try to write their scientific papers in politically correct language so as not to offend certain readers, for instance those people who have sponsored the research. A paper written in this way is not necessarily a well written paper. Political correctness often deviates into the absurd and nonsensical. Articles like these offend me.
In the United States it is politically correct to describe a person with white skin color as a Caucasian, a black person as an African American, and a Latin American as a Hispanic. Most Europeans are white (or somewhere between pinkish and brownish), but in such a paper would you describe a black Frenchman as Afro-European?
Every time I read or hear the term "Caucasian" I imagine a member of the mountain tribes, stout, bearded, on horseback, riding on the slopes of the Elbrus. I do not imagine a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in his Chevrolet (politically correct: ‘in his or her’ Chevrolet).
It sounds rather strange that Europeans, contributing scientific papers on clinical studies to U.S. journals, refer to their patients as Caucasians which in the United States is the political correct replacement for "Aryan", a term coined by the Compte de Gobineau, which was later turned into the infamous racial political theory of Houston Stewart Chamberlain and the followers of Adolf Hitler.
A more appropriate term is "Caucasoid geographical race" or, better, "European geographical race". By the way, there is no racial, but rather a linguistic background in these terms – which is usually unknown to the users.
These examples are some of the most poignant illustrations of aberrant language in scientific publications. You find them as often in papers written by native English speakers as by authors for whom English is a second language.
If a paper submitted to a scientific journal is written in rudimentary English and looks as if a termite has bitten the letters into the paper because the authors do not have access to a Laser printer, the likelihood that it will be rejected is far higher than a paper submitted in excellent English printed flawlessly.
Content is of minor importance.
Many run-of-the-mill articles published in scientific journals and books use a peculiar, yet characteristic language and narrative. You have to learn how to read between the lines to understand what has really been done and is being described.
The following is an abridged prototype paper. The real meaning of the phrases in the paper is given in italics. Authors of papers like this usually follow the motto:
"Stealing from one source is plagiarism, while stealing from many is research."
MR Imaging of the Ear Drums
by Ink Blot, Carl Murks, and Joe Shlabotnik
Introduction. For a long time it has been known that MR imaging is of advantage in ear diagnostics, but to our knowledge, no one has performed MR studies of the ear drums yet (= we did not look up the original references nor any other reference). It is believed that (= our boss believes) MR imaging of the ear drums is a highly significant diagnostic area for exploratory studies (= we all know it is a totally useless topic). In the following paper we present a pivotal study performed at our institution.
Materials and Methods. We acquired T1-weighted images of 6 ears (= all three co-authors were examined, each of them having two ears; say no more about what was done).
Results. Three of the imaging experiments were chosen for detailed study (= the results of the others were too bad and did not make any sense). The figures show typical results (= the results fitting best our ideas are shown). Statistics were performed with the Sidecar-Tripleburger test (= we opened a book on statistics randomly and choose the first statistical procedure we came across). The statistical results are correct within an order of magnitude (= they are completely wrong but hopefully the journal editor and the reviewers are too lazy or incompetent to check).
Discussion. The aim of the study was to image the ear drums. It is generally believed that such MR imaging procedures have a great future (= in the meantime our boss has convinced a friend about the value of his idea, so there are already two who believe in it). While it was not possible to provide definite answers to our scientific questions (= the experiment was unsuccessful, but we still hope to get it published) the results correlated closely to visual findings (= we looked into the ears and were able to distinguish clean from dirty ones). The results are of great theoretical and practical importance (= they are interesting to our superior and the public relations agency of a manufacturer of cotton ear-cleaners).
A careful analysis of the obtainable data reveals a definite trend (= we lost our notes and erased some of the data files. Anyhow these data are practically meaningless). A statistically oriented projection of the significance of these findings leads us to the conclusions that a task force is needed to cope with the results (= even a wild guess has not brought any solution and we do not know what else to do with the results). It is clear that much additional work will be required before a complete understanding of the phenomenon will be possible (= we do not understand anything we saw even though somebody else tried to explain the results to us). It is hoped that this study will stimulate further investigation in this field (= this is a lousy paper, but so are all others in this miserable field; we hope it will be published and we can apply for some research grants).
We are aware of the far-reaching implications of this study for the practice of ear, nose, and throat medicine (= our boss will get a lot of money from the public relations agency of cotton ear-cleaners, which now has scientific pictures of dirty ears before and after cleaning).
Acknowledgments. We are grateful to Elli Pirelli for assistance and Ein Stein for valuable discussion (= Pirelli is the technician who did the work and Stein explained to us what to do with the results).
"A good scientific paper should be written in an easily readable, self-explanatory style, with short sentences."
Good science writing
A good scientific paper should be written in an easily readable, self-explanatory style with short sentences. If and when you are a well-established scientist, you can start writing prose. The editor of the journal to which you submit your paper will not dare to reject it. Then scientific papers sound like this:
"Water in biological systems is often regarded as the broth of life, solvent for the macromolecules of the cytoplasm, and space-filler for the nucleus. Tissue cells are bathed in extracellular water, through which small molecules ... shuttle between cells and the grand circulation."
It is far more pleasant to read such a paper because it is easy reading and entertaining. If the contents are up to writing style, then such a paper is perfect because it combines good science with good penmanship. But there are few good scientists and few good writers in this world. The combination of a good scientist and a good writer in one person is even rarer. In many instances papers in the style in the last paragraph decline into prose that is too exuberant and flowery. The reader should not giggle when studying a scientific paper:
"Ours is a dynamic view of water in which water molecules move freely throughout their environment. ... Much work remains to be done, of course."
Publishing many papers is good for your curriculum vitae, which hopefully will finally contribute to your personal fame and fortune. Even better for your standing in an academic society, however, is being editor or co-editor of one or more journals.
Theoretically, when you are the editor, you should be able to take responsibility for the contents of your journal. But like authors, editors come in two types: those taking their job seriously and those seriously taken by their job. The first ones spend days and nights checking their authors’ manuscripts and arranging solid peer reviews that are the litmus test for the authenticity of research. The latter type of editor also cares, but accepts brief and hurried reviews, which is reflected by the quality of the journal.
Some editors consider their job in the same way politicians see their profession: "I have reached the peak of my glory, now I can relax." This, however, should not be the case. Being an editor involves being a leader. It implies taking responsibility, demonstrating courage, and making decisions based on an independent point of view, not only about the selection of what should be published but also about how it should be published. Being an editor is not a part-time job.
Editors have the last say in what is published. A strong editor can stop the abuse of the system and of the language. Of course, there are many obstacles for editors: Friends want their papers published, the industry wants papers published, the editor does not want to offend certain academic circles by rejecting their papers – and the publisher wants to make money. Again, being an editor is like being a politician, but from an ethical point of view, editors should be better.