Friday, October 26, 2012

Science and the Official Style: An Unusual Match

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In his book Revising Prose, Richard Lanham lays out the elements of what he calls the “Official Style”. He says this style of writing is characterized by verbose, complex sentences, technical jargon, use of the passive voice, and extensive use of prepositional phrases. The Official Style is used in a variety of disciplines, from law and government, to business and marketing, and even in the sciences. Lanham argues that the Official Style obstructs clarity in exchange for a tone of authority, giving the writer an air of credibility, but what if some elements of the Official Style are a necessary evil? Or what if some elements are just… necessary? 

            But how can this be?  Isn’t the Official Style supposed to be the language that hinders clarity and helps put readers to sleep?  In some instances, this is definitely the case.  The legalese of bureaucrats and lawyers is the prime example.  Their use of euphemistic phrases and overly complex sentences causes the average reader to forget what they are reading halfway through the sentence.  However, writing in the physical and life sciences is meant to relay information found during research to the rest of the scientific community.  The community expects a paper to be written in a manner that uses the proper terminology and gives a clear description of experimental procedure.  In this sense, where Lanham sees euphemism or jargon, professionals in the field see specific terms, and where Lanham sees the impersonal passive voice, those in the field see a description free of unnecessary details or distractions.  So what does that mean?  Parts of the Official Style are actually needed in good scientific writing.

            As an example, I analyzed this research article from the Journal of Biological Chemistry, which was written about a series of experiments conducted to learn more about the parasite that causes sleeping sickness. This article is written for those who have a college background in Biology, specifically with genetics and cellular biology. This paper can be used by students and professional researchers alike, but I will be focusing on how researchers use texts such as this. Let’s take a look at an excerpt from the section of this paper that outlines the experimental procedure:

“Two vectors for RNAi were constructed by modifying pLew100 (a generous gift from Drs. Elizabeth Wirtz and George Cross, Rockefeller University (21)). The first vector is similar to that recently published by Shi et al. (16) (see Fig.1A) and produces dsRNA as a stem-loop structure. The vector was constructed as follows. First, a ∼ 500-bp fragment of the gene of interest (target gene) was amplified by PCR from T. brucei 427 DNA using primers containing XbaI andHindIII linkers. This product was ligated into theNheI/HindIII sites of pJM326 (a gift from Dr. Stephen Gould, Johns Hopkins University (22)). This plasmid carried the gene for an irrelevant Myc-tagged human protein (Pex 11 β), part of which will form the loop of the stem-loop transcript. This construct was then digested with HindIII and XbaI, liberating a ∼1050-bp fragment containing the target gene fused to the 3′ terminus of the Pex 11 β/Myc tag construct.”
Taking a closer look at this style of writing, we can clearly see the influence of the Official Style.  There is no mention of who is carrying out these actions.  The only information given is the aim of the procedure and how the experiment was carried out.  If this was written as a long procedural narrative naming everyone who carried out an aspect of the experiment, it would be a confusing mess.  The excerpt above shows a boiled down, barebones explanation of what the researchers did, making it easier for another researcher in the field to understand what happened.

            If the Official Style obstructs clarity through the use of euphemism, how could scientific jargon enhance clarity?  Non-Biologists may become suspicious when they hear words like “kinetoplast”, “multinucleate”, or “trypanosome”. They might just assume that if scientists aren’t using plain language, those egg heads must either be making it up or just trying to sound smart.  So why is it that jargon is necessary in scientific writing, but a hindrance in other uses of the Official Style?  Let’s examine this excerpt from the same article as above:

"Table I summarizes the effects of dsRNA expression on cell growth and mRNA levels for the genes examined. RNA interference of p34/p37 (mRNA reduced ∼95%), SSE1 (mRNA reduced ∼35%), ODC (mRNA reduced ∼98%), and Pex 11 (mRNA reduced ∼93%) led to aberrant cell growth after 5–10 days (Fig. 4). Following induction of p34/p37 dsRNA, 20% of the parasites became multinucleate, whereas uninduced cells did not show this effect. In the case of SSE1, there appeared to be an enlargement of the kinetoplast after expression of dsRNA. On the other hand, RNA interference of other genes, including GPI10 (mRNA reduced ∼50%), CDC47 (mRNA reduced ∼80%), and pol β (mRNA reduced ∼55%), had little or no effect on trypanosome growth. pZJM(RNase H1)-transfected cells expressed dsRNA (not shown) which, in contrast to all the other genes studied, did not lead to a reduction of the targeted mRNA (Fig. 4).”
 Here we can see the Official Style at work again.  Potentially confusing vocabulary can be found throughout the excerpt.  The passage is full of these terms because experts in the field communicate using the terminology agreed upon by the rest of the scientific community.  In reality, if specific scientific words weren’t used, it would make it harder for scientists to know what each other is talking about, as well as doubling the length of any paper.  Take the word “kinetoplast” for instance.  A kinetoplast is a collection of loops of DNA found inside of the mitochondria of a certain group of single celled organisms.  Imagine trying to read a variety of articles about kinetoplasts, when every author uses a different definition of the word.  To sum it up, it would be almost impossible to keep a clear definition of the word, if the community didn’t agree on a single definition of a word.  The use of scientific jargon, despite being a barrier to a non-expert, is helpful in maintaining clarity in the scientific community.

            So, in the vein of scientific writing, the Official Style can actually be beneficial.  Even though Lanham would say that the Official Style is a problematic way to clearly convey information, this particular style is employed by scientists for a reason. The exclusion of people and the use of concise terminology function to enhance clarity in the realm of science, enabling researchers to follow a certain formula for writing articles and dispense findings out to the scientific community.  Despite the many problems with the Official Style, it can’t be written off as purely detrimental to clear and concise writing.
-----John E. Yeakel

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