Slightly OTT

I’ve been trying to carry out some extra reading of scientific papers to help with my imminent exams. It’s brought to my attention that most scientists are very good at explaining their work and the work of others; the fact that I understand what they’re saying is testament to their ability.

I’ve particularly discovered that scientists love abbreviations. This is understandable as a lot of scientific phrases and terminology are very long and having to type it out multiple times would probably become soul destroying. Even in the instruction sheet that came with my lab book I was encouraged to use them to save me time. There is, however, a limit to the amount of abbreviations that are acceptable. For example, the reader can get used to the use of a few key abbreviations that are part of the core subject matter and whenever you read it you can remember what it means.

This concept obviously wasn’t recognised by the writer of one paper on the plant’s response to attack by a virus. Every paragraph introduced about 5 new abbreviations for me to remember and it got to the point when I stared in dismay at a paragraph which consisted solely of abbreviations, the names of pathogens, their genes and connecting words such as ‘and’. I did try to persevere but every few seconds I was confronted with a group of letters of which I could no longer remember the meaning, resulting in a frantic search for the full phrase before I forgot the gist of the sentence.

I eventually gave up on the paper as the writer began introducing abbreviations whose meaning wasn’t explained until a paragraph on the next page. It was almost as if they had forgotten whether they had already explained it or not, realised they hadn’t and introduced the meaning later instead of slotting it in the text on the first encounter. As a reader I was both flustered and frustrated.

The diagrams were also full of the things with no explanation as to what it all meant in the accompanying text underneath the picture. This meant that the diagrams, which were supposed to help me understand what was being said, confused me even more!

What this paper needed was a good old glossary where I could quickly identify what all these letters meant instead of losing my place to find where the meaning was hidden in the text. I’m sure it was a very interesting paper but I just couldn’t latch on what they were trying to say. It was like they were speaking in code and only a close- knit circle of scholars could understand it.

To be brutally honest, I don’t really understand how it got published in the first place. There is the fact that when you are writing about something that you’ve been immersed in for a long time, you become used to the language of the subject. You forget that most people have not spent the last year and a half up to their eye balls in information on how a virus ignites the defence response in a tomato plant. You may know your ETI from your ETS but unless you tell the reader what they actually mean (Effector Triggered Immunity and Effector Triggered Susceptibility for the record) no one will be able to understand your passion for the subject.

I found this paper to be a mental exercise; I felt it was testing whether I could remember or decipher a code rather than telling me about the zig zag model of plant resistance. At one point I felt that I should construct my own glossary in order to ease my confusion but instead I just decoded the diagrams and left it there. This is perhaps a disappointing outcome, especially as the paper had taken so much work to construct and now it feels like I’ve not fully appreciated the subject or the writer.

I understand that most scientific papers are aimed at people in the same or similar fields of research and not at a dumb student such as myself, but surely you want the importance of your work to reach out as far as possible? Inspiring students to take up a career in the same field should be a co-product of a scientific paper, not a bi-product or something that happens by chance. To be fair, the majority of the papers that I’ve managed to read are very well put together and I’m able to gain at least a surface understanding of the subject. It was just this one paper (so far) that annoyed me enough to have a rant about how much it muddled me.

Moral of the story: when writing a paper make sure your readers are immersed in what you are saying a not drowning in an ocean of abbreviations. At the very least provide them with a raft in the form of an alphabetised glossary!

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