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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Do we really need to know how to write?

Do Professionals in the Sciences Truly Need to Know How to Write?
Alan Holyoak, PhD
Dept of Biology, BYU-Idaho
May 2009


You may be thinking, “I plan on becoming a dentist, a doctor, a conservation officer, etc., do I also need to be a good writer?”  That is what this paper is about.

The current state of writing skill among professional scientists

The ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and effectively is strong evidence of an educated, well-trained mind, and is therefore one hallmark of a true professional.  For this reason the ability to communicate, including writing, is one of the most prized technical skills for a professional in our society.  Yet the ability of scientists and engineers to communicate effectively falls consistently below their employers’ needs and expectations.  This disturbing observation is supported by the findings of Davis, et al. (1989) that showed that second only to hands-on experience, biotechnology companies view the ability to communicate as the most important qualification they seek in job applicants – that means that communication skills are viewed by these companies as being more important than the school someone attended, the grades they earned, or the letters of recommendation they can provide.  The National Research Council (1997) found similar results when it surveyed employers of PhD-level scientists and engineers, and asked those employers to identify weaknesses in their employees’ training.  These employers indicated that the largest deficiency in their PhD-level employees’ training was their lack of communication skills (NRC, 1997). 

About now you may be thinking that those employers have expectations that are just too high, but perhaps we should ask ourselves if there is any evidence that suggests that there is a growing trend of poor writing among professional scientists.  Consider this.  The editor of the journal Evolution provided a shocking vision of the widespread deficiency of writing skills among professional biologists when he wrote, “Much to my surprise, poor writing is almost as frequent a reason for rejection [of a paper] as flawed experimental design or analysis.  Nearly 50% of all rejected papers are so badly written that reviewers, Associate Editors, and the Editor cannot understand the experimental design, the analysis, the interpretation, or all of these components.  In many of these manuscripts even the purpose of the paper is obscure!” (Endler, 1992).  The editor of the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology reached similar conclusions to those of Endler (1992) about the general decline in writing ability among practicing scientists when he stated, “The standard for writing in current scientific journals has reached an all-time low, in terms of both poor grammar and imprecise communication.  This situation has been fueled on the one hand by escalating costs of publication and an attempt to shorten papers, and on the other hand by inadequate training in the structure of the English language…I examined the titles of the articles in the issues [of his journal] from the past five years.  Most contained grammatical errors. Many of the articles, although deserving an “A” for scientific content, scarcely merited a “C–“ were the articles to be submitted as a composition for a high school class in English” (Heatwole, 2008).  So, yes, I’m afraid that there is evidence of a widespread deficiency in the ability of scientists to write effectively. 

The reported inability to write is part of a larger problem

Is this the lack of ability to communicate limited to writing, or is this declining ability to write well a symptom of a much larger problem?  As you ponder that question, consider this account of one professor’s meeting with a student, “He entered my office for advice as a freshman advisee sporting nearly perfect SAT scores and an impeccable academic record—by all accounts a young man of considerable promise. During a 20-minute conversation about his academic future, however, he displayed a vocabulary that consisted mostly of two words: "cool" and "really." Almost 800 SAT points hitched to each word. To be fair, he could use them interchangeably as "really cool" or "cool . . . really!" He could also use them singly. When he was a student in a subsequent class, I later confirmed that my first impression of the young scholar was largely accurate and that his vocabulary, and presumably his mind, consisted predominantly of words and images derived from overexposure to television and the new jargon of computer-speak” (Orr, 1999).  This student, like many other students across the country, was able to accumulate an extremely impressive academic record in high school, but while doing so had not developed the ability to communicate effectively. 

There is disturbing evidence suggesting that our civilization is suffering from a general decline in vocabulary, and, consequently, a diminishing ability to communicate as effectively as we once did.  This assertion is supported by the fact that the average 14-year old living 60 years ago had a vocabulary of around 25,000 words, while the average 14-year old of today has a vocabulary of about 10,000 words (Spretnak, 1997).  Why is this happening? There are almost certainly a number of possible factors contributing to this decline in language. 

Our language is constantly under assault by people that benefit when your abilities to think critically and to communicate effectively are limited (Orr, 1999).  Advertisers are among the most egregious culprits of this attack.  The success of advertisers in their endeavor to influence and limit your thinking is underscored by the fact that the average person can readily identify over 1000 corporate logos, but they cannot identify more than a dozen or so kinds of local plants and animals (Orr, 1999).  If you think seriously about it, virtually every commercial that comes on television insults your intelligence and is an assault on your ability to think critically.  After all, the last thing advertisers want you to do is to think critically about decisions related to the way you spend money – they want to do that thinking for you.  Here’s one common example of an outright assault on critical thinking: follow this link, watch the commercial, and think critically about what these advertisers are trying to sell you (  Advertisers do not, alas, have your best interests at heart.  Their primary goal is to make money by getting you to buy as much as they can get you to buy, as fast as they can and as often as they can, whether you truly need the thing or afford the thing they are trying to sell! 

Other constituencies that benefit when you stop thinking and communicating include the television, communication, computer game, internet, and, well, almost the entire media community.  Here’s a sobering fact: total media usage per person in the USA in 2006 was 3530 hours per year or 9.7 hours per day (VSS, 2007).  Those numbers include all forms of media, including print, television, internet, and even computer games.  Of that total media interface time Americans watched an average of 4.35 hours of television per day (VSS, 2003), and the average male college played video games for 2.4 hours per day (Sherry, et al., in press).  It’s little wonder that our collective language is slipping!  We don’t seem to have time for anything other than media.  And most media cannot be considered mind-expanding.  We are, alas, simply drifting along, letting various forms of media think for us, or we do not think at all!  It’s therefore no surprise that we’ve been counseled to “…read more and watch television less” (Hinckley, 1995). 

In short, we habitually waste too much time with mindless media and entertainment.  Then, because there is so little time in our days when we are not diverted by media we do allocate the time to develop the habits and skills of reading, pondering, critical thinking that are needed to write effectively.  When we finally do unplug from our collective media umbilicus, and we realize that we have to think seriously about something or write seriously about something, we may find it difficult to do so.  So we have, unfortunately, developed a tendency to sit down, dash something off, and hand it in.  After all, writing that way has always been “good enough” in the past.  It does not, alas, tend to be good enough anymore, at least not for a professional. 

I hope that we are now starting to think if not sweat a little about how we use our time, as well as about our ability to communicate effectively, particularly in writing.  Perhaps it is time to start thinking seriously about our skills as writers.  After all, as the data presented earlier in this paper suggest, the ability to write can have a significant impact on our prospects for advanced education and employment.  And, being able to acquire meaningful employment matters, because that is how we take care of our families. 

You need to be able to write well in order to succeed as a professional

Do you truly need to be able to communicate well to succeed in your target profession?  Apparently the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges, the American Dental Association, administrators of graduate schools across the country, and managers of government agencies think so.  If you want to be a physician you must go to medical school, and in order to get into medical school you must do well on the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test).  The MCAT is made up of four sections: Physical Science, Verbal Reasoning, Writing, and Biological Science (AAMC, 2008).  That’s right; nearly half of the MCAT is devoted to assessing your ability to read and communicate effectively. If you want to go to dental school you must do well on the DAT (Dental Admissions Test).  The DAT includes sections on biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, perceptual ability, and reading comprehension (ADA, 2008).  The DAT does not have a written section, but your ability to communicate through writing is tested via a required personal statement you must produce to accompany your application packet.  Your ability to write clearly and effectively is also important when you apply to professional school.  If you hope to go to graduate school you need to do well on the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) General Test. The GRE has three main sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing (ETS, 2009).  Again, communication skills are vital not only to gaining admission to graduate school, but to success once you get there.  That is why nearly two thirds of the GRE is devoted to writing and critical analysis of written material.  What if you want to pursue a career in some area of natural resource management?  Do you need to write well?  Yes!  The first thing that employers and supervisors of interns in the field of natural resource management ask about any applicant is whether s/he can write (Stricklan, pers. comm.).  It should be painfully obvious that you need to be able to communicate well, including writing, in order to succeed as a professional in any field of biology.

What you can do to become a more effective writer

The problem of effective writing sometimes seems to be completely overwhelming.  That is particularly true when some professors may tell you one thing, and others tell you something different, and then no matter what you try to do you cannot seem to meet their expectations.  As we start looking at things that we can do to improve our ability to communicate with each other, I hope we will take the attitude of Helen Keller who said, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” 

Literature Cited

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