Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Disconnect in Science

Article Title: Residential Tap Water Contamination Following the Freedom Industries Chemical Spill: Perceptions, Water Quality, and Health Impacts

This article is an American Chemical Society publication from their Environmental Science and Technology branch and is one of the most read articles from this branch.  It describes a study done immediately after the Freedom Industries chemical spill in January 2014. Over 10,000 gallons of an industrial solvent, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, was spilled into the Elk River and contaminated over 300,000 resident’s tap water supply.  It has 4 parts, all characteristic of a scientific publication, being introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion, and limitations and implications.  For my critique, I will be analyzing two sub-sections, one taken from the materials and methods section, and the other from the results and discussion section. It seems as though while they are both in the official style, they are written by two different authors in two completely different tones. While there are some reasons this could not be avoided, it can also be said that there are only a select few people who would be able to gain as much out of the article as the authors would intend. In other words, not many people would be able to read each section with consistent comprehension.  In my opinion, this is detrimental, but unfortunately, this way of writing is characteristic of many peer reviewed articles, but perhaps it is more recognizable in this example.

Text excerpts:

Taken from Results and Discussion section:
Resident Behaviors and Perceptions.
Nearly all households surveyed (14 of 16) reported detecting an unusual tap water odor during the first 2 weeks of the incident, two reported an unusual taste, and six reported an unusual tap water color. The most commonly reported odor descriptors were licorice and sweet. These descriptors agreed with those found by other researchers who characterized odor threshold and recognition concentrations of the contaminated water with sensory panels. Most households (10 of 16) reported detecting an unusual tap water odor on January 9, 2014. Two households indicated that they detected a licorice odor before January 9. This is an interesting finding because the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board investigation found that at least one other chemical storage tank was leaking before January 9. Other tap water odor descriptors mentioned by the respondents included the terms acetone, chemical, metallic, organic chemistry lab, and rotten. Households reported noticing odors with different intensities between January 9 and the date this survey was conducted. The greatest odor intensity ratings occurred during January 9 to 13, and odor intensity levels generally decreased with time. These observations agree with findings by the WVTAP investigators who also found residents noticed that tap water odor intensity decreased with time.

Textual analysis:
  • Repetition: the green and red highlighted words are words that were used repetitively
  • Verbose: the yellow phrases use more words than what are needed
  • Past tense and complex sentences (every single sentence) are used exclusively throughout this passage.
  • Complex sentence examples:

  • Passive voice is not used very much, but I found it in one examples shown above in purple. This is a weak example because we do not know who reported the odors just based on this sentences, but we do know based on the previous sentences.

  • It is obvious that this passage is written in the official style.  One element of the official style that does not need to be included as much, however, is the use of jargon.

Contextual analysis:
  • The public utilities have to be transparent and accountable to the public. The public pays them to provide service directly. They have to address public concerns.  This could be why this excerpt is easier to understand, and is written in a more direct tone, rather than passive. They want to make sure the public can get some peace of mind from reading this. Or at least get a sense of understanding.

Taken from Materials and Methods section:
Physiochemical Properties and Statistical Analysis.
Contaminant physiochemical characteristics were estimated using SPARC11 chemical modeling software (Danielsville, GA U.S.A.), and water solubility was also estimated using COSMOSRS12 (Amsterdam, The Netherlands). These programs allowed for the authors to estimate the fate and transport of contaminants at different temperatures. Water temperatures chosen were representative of the Elk River (5 °C) and within plumbing systems (21 °C, 60 °C). Minitab 14 Student (Minitab, Inc. State College, PA) was used to perform two-tailed student t-tests and linear regression statistical analysis was also carried-out. Any water quality result less than the method MDL was assigned a value of zero. An alpha value of 0.05 was selected as the significance level for all data interpretation. Logistic regression modeling was applied to syndromic surveillance data. Response variables were binary (i.e., patients answered whether they had a symptom of nausea or not) and were coded as 1 and 0, respectively. In a logistic setting, the odds of an event happening were modeled where Y was a binary random variable. Then, the odds of Y being 1 was given by the ratio of probabilities of Y being 1 and Y being 0. The equation was: Odds (Y=1) = P(Y=1)/P(Y=0). Note that the odds could be any number more than 0; an odd of 1 implied a fair chance. The following model was applied: LogeOdds[Y=1] = β0 + ∑i = 1 K βi Xi + ε. In the above model, ε implied the unexplained model error; X1, X2, ..., XK were covariates (factors) and β0, β1,...,βK were unknown coefficients estimated using Minitab. The above model provides an effective interpretation for coefficients involved with each factor in terms of the odds. If the factor was also binary, then e β was interpreted as the ratio of the odds for X=1 and X=0.

Textual analysis:
  • Passive voice is used a lot in this passage.
  • Jargon is used a lot in this passage.
  • Many sentence structures are very similar:
Example of this:
  1. An alpha value of 0.05 was selected as the significance level for all data interpretation.
  2. Logistic regression modeling was applied to syndromic surveillance data.

  • Not as verbose as previous section.
  • Past tense is used exclusively in this passage.
  • This excerpt is very technical in terms of scientific methodologies being discussed. Background knowledge is definitely needed in order to understand what is going here.

Contextual analysis:
  • Science is less transparent because not everyone has background knowledge to understand jargon. Scientists are also trained to write officially, so this could explain the use of the official style. An effective way to show this would be for me to translate a part of this text into plain language:
Original language: “Contaminant physiochemical characteristics”
Plain language: “Physical and chemical properties of the contaminant interaction with living things.”
  • Without the use of the official style, it would be exhausting to have to explain every idea in detail, such as I did with physiochemical in the above examples. I used 11 words to describe the same thing that could be described with only three.


The resident perceptions section and the physiochemical properties section both used elements of the official style. The physiochemical properties section, however, used a lot more passive and a lot more jargon which makes it seem much more scientific. The sections appear to be written by different authors because of this extreme change in tone. The biggest difference as to why there is such a difference, is the knowledge background required to understand each section. While this is an article written for an American Chemical Society publication, it is intended for an audience who is interested, and probably knowledgeable, in chemistry. But, as one of the most read articles in the Environmental Science and Technology branch, we can probably assume that more than just chemists have taken a look at this article. Overall, this topic is so interesting and attracts lots of readers, so the authors seem to have taken that into account for the resident perceptions section, but not for the physiochemical properties section.  I think it would have been beneficial, even if it is harder, for the author(s) of the physiochemical properties section would have made their language a little easier by not including so much jargon. While there is a need for the official style in the sciences, with the audience in mind for this particular article, it was not as effectively used as it could have been.

It would be interesting to find out about the review process of this article in particular, to know if anything surrounding this idea was considered before it was published. For me, as a chemistry major, this experience has raised some questions. For example, is this idea of making science more accessible in journal articles a good idea? And, what would be gained or lost by doing so? I doubt we will ever see much change in this area, but by acknowledging it, we can learn from it.

Anne T.

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