I am at present conducting a systematic review and meta analysis that involves a detailed appraisal of the quality of studies. It has made me realise all over again how impoverished the narrative of the classical scientific paper really is. Indeed, as Francis Crick wrote in his 1994 book The Astonishing Hypothesis:
“There is no form of prose more difficult to understand and more tedious to read than the average scientific paper. “
The average scientific paper is a work of fiction: often seemingly perfect, compact, well cut, crisp and concise, and perhaps deceptive and unreal in its seductive perfection, just like a movie or novel.In an example that illustrates the disjunction of scientific papers from the reality of the scientific process, Richard Dawkins, former Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, tells the story of his experience in 1974 (when he was appointed UK editor of Animal Behaviour) in his contribution to Leaders of Animal Behaviour: The Second Generation (2009), a volume of invited autobiographical chapters by ethologists:
“My particular bugbear was the formulaic scientific paper with its standard headings: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion. The rubric’s limitations were especially glaring when – as was common – the author had done a series of experiments, each one prompting the next. I tried to persuade authors that that the proper sequence of the paper was: Question 1; Methods 1; Results 1; Discussion 1; leading to Question 2; Methods 2; Results 2; Discussion 2 leading to Question 3…and so on. You’d be amazed about how many people arranged their paper in the following way: Introduction; Methods 1, Methods 2, Methods 3, methods4…Results 1, Results 2, Results 3, Results 4…; Discussion. Could anything be obviously calculated to confuse and bore?”
Need I point out that this is true, and taken for granted as normal for many papers in the general scientific literature, including medicine? It also shows how difficult it is to change a status quo.
However, I have a proposal: For any movie I particularly enjoy or find intriguing for any particular reason, I want to see a second screening, just like reading a novel the second time. I also want to see the making or listen to an audio commentary by directors and possibly the actors. I want to observe, even if partly, the creative process.
Seeing the process of making the movie or listening to the directors and actors almost demystifies the process, but doesn’t quite undo it; rather, for me, it deepens and enriches understanding and appreciation of the work.
Just like the movie commentary, I imagine fellow researchers and the lay public would benefit from having a “behind the curtain” exposure to the workings of the mind of the scientist in action, the process of arriving at the research question, what each author did, how each person became an author, the moments of revelation, the debates, choice between this analysis or that, this mode of presentation of results or the other: an exposure of science without much of its makeup.
For every publication, every analysis, there should be some sort of author commentary, chatty maybe, contemplative or argumentative, published separately, or recorded as an audio or video podcast, not necessarily for the public, but understandable by an intelligent non-scientific audience without compromising the scientific message.
The internet has revolutionised the amount of space available for publication and so we can’t make the same excuse again about limited space. The limits imposed by space might have been the reason for the present state and structure of the scientific paper, but we can begin to undo its sterile style and language.
It may even be an opportunity for journals that publish these commentaries online to make some revenue from them, and also a very good avenue through which scientists can begin to engage with the public in a more direct way, without the influence of the non-scientific media. I reckon it would also further enhance the standing of scientists, and a more honest engagement with peers and the public.
I imagine something like this:
“We couldn’t have done it otherwise. It wouldn’t have made much sense if we did. Most other groups have used a Cox proportional hazards model to assess predictors of time to remission but we decided on deeper reflection and after much argument, mostly between SJG and RD – the two clinicians in the group – that what really matters to patients is not how long it takes for them to achieve seizure remission but how long they spend in remission.
“So we divided the patients into those who had spent the more than 1 year in continuous remission and those with less than one year in continuous remission and decided to look at the factors that may predict each outcome in a logistic model. The result, apart from being less equivocal than in previous studies is apparently also more useful although we doubt that we have contributed much to what was already known.”
Seye Abimbola is presently a 2009-10 Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar at The George Institute for International Health within the University of Sydney, Australia. He was the BMJ Clegg Scholar in 2007.