On the role of stories in science

Way back in August 2017 when we hosted the IAmSciComm account, I said something that struck a nerve and generated some discussion… that the word storytelling and science don’t play well together. Hardly the first time this conversation was had on Twitter! Case in point, it happened again this weekend. And I still have thoughts. So here they are!

On the role of stories in science

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The question of whether researchers need to tell stories in academic papers is one we encounter often on Twitter. For those of you unfamiliar with this discussion, it generally boils down to something like this:

  • YES, humans are storytelling animals—telling stories in academic papers makes them more readable, memorable, and impactful.
  • NO, storytelling is the opposite of what we want to do in science: we should remain objective and avoid misconstruing the facts at all costs. Storytelling gets in the way.
  • WELL, science shouldn’t tell stories, but it should borrow elements of storytelling, like narrative structure.

Number 3 there is the point. The problem with stories arises because “storytelling” in science alludes to hand-waving, speculation, and falsehood. From this perspective, anything which encourages too much speculation or potentially obfuscates results should rightly be avoided. From the other perspective, which (1) and (3) share, “storytelling” means using a narrative structure to make reading papers less dull. Consolidating these three perspectives, we end up with a common goal: scientists should write clearly and accurately without boring readers to death.

Striving for clarity, accuracy, and appeal is a mountain all writers climb, and a skill which is tremendously hard to develop (Hemingway would argue it never fully develops, but for the purposes of science, I suppose it can develop well enough). Borrowing narrative structure alone, though, likely isn’t sufficient to bring papers to life. Adding spark and spunk to science is more a question of style. For this reason, discussing whether storytelling has a role in science is circuitous and distracts from other, more pressing issues: namely, how and why did science papers get so stylistically flat? What does an inability to put results into perspective say about scientists? And what are we doing to tackle this problem at its roots, e.g., how do we teach science students to write?

There is an intriguing historical insight in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (Heard, 2016; an excellent read, by the way). In a time before publication was the norm, early scientists rarely collaborated, and communication with others outside their field was rarer still. In Pythagorus’s time, many followers of Greek philosophers were forbidden from sharing their knowledge, sometimes on pain of death. If anything was written down, it certainly wasn’t intended for a wider audience. The ideas of collaboration and communication in science were radical in the 17th century when Francis Bacon first mused on them in his essay De Sapientia Veterum, and when the Royal Society of London was formed in 1660. Where before scientific inquiry was shrouded in scientists’ private, offhand scribbles, a culture of sharing and openness became the new norm, and with it, a need to communicate clearly. Not all followed suit—Isaac Newton’s nearly unintelligible works (e.g., Principia Mathematica) were written specifically to obstruct others’ understanding. Articles have come a long way since, but have we stripped away too much charisma in pursuit of clarity? The Scientist’s Guide to Writing has a chapter dedicated to making room for tasteful whimsy in science, which could do much for making papers more delightful to read (Heard 2016, see also Heard 2014).

“Publishing with Objective Charisma: Breaking Science’s Paradox” (Doubleday & Connell 2017) gets straight to the core of this discussion (here’s a related article if you can’t access the original publication: Doubleday & Connell 2017a). The authors highlight a few key paradoxes here: scientists write papers they themselves don’t particularly enjoy reading; though publications are meant to be shared and read widely, there is a “cultural stigma [in science] that creative and engaging writing is not objective”, and therefore undesirable; and writing in the so-called “Official Style” undermines other efforts to make science more accessible (e.g. open access initiatives, digests and summaries for non-experts).

The trope that scientists lack the ability to, or are uninterested in, communicating well is propagated by the pervasive (and also offensively dull) Official Style. Personal perspectives on enjoyment of writing aside, that an Official Style exists is a testament to scientists’ ability to adapt and hone their writing towards a certain standard. If only the standard were a more exciting one! Advocating the use of narrative form in research papers is an accessible way to ask scientists to be more mindful of how they write, because it meshes extraordinarily well with the traditional Intro-Methods-Results-and-Discussion (IMRaD) format. In fact, it is the IMRaD format. Narratives, like IMRaD, follow a logical and often chronological thread, with some intrigue and drama in the plot setup, some middle bits describing what happened, and conclusions. One could argue that traditional IMRaD format expects a narrative structure, and what remains is to execute it.

Some more explicit guides on how to model scientific papers after stories (see e.g. Clemens, 2018) push the use of narrative structure without the essence of what makes good writing a pleasure to read. The Official Style is officious because it suppresses the writer’s personality in many interpretations. As a result, we lose the feelings of curiosity, discovery, and enjoyment that are at the heart of science. Even bad stories have narrative structures. Bad stories are bad because they lack feeling, and we can’t relate to them. Similarly, the Official Style isn’t awful in and of itself. Its primary purpose is to convey information simply and clearly, which, when done well, reads well. The Official Style should be fitted to the story, not the other way around.

Ideas about borrowing elements of storytelling could be embedded in a more holistic framework that unites good writing with good science. Contrary to the perception of writing as a tedious chore undertaken once the fun experiments are done, writing should naturally complement the scientific process. The story, narrative thread, or whatever you wish to call it, should be present throughout. Science stories begin with the research idea. Stories inform the hypotheses and experimental design, and organically instigate discussion. Asking for narratives in science only asks researchers to actively connect their work to the bigger picture from conception, through execution, to conclusion. If the story is acknowledged from the beginning, writing can start with experimental design, and make the task significantly less daunting than tackling it all at the end. A change in perspective as such promotes logical thinking, and keeps scientists in touch with the broader context of their work.

Let’s make science as fun to read as it is to do, by making it fun to write, too.

References

Clemens, A. (2018) Writing a page-turner: how to tell a story in your scientific paper. LSE Impact Blog. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2018/05/21/writing-a-page-turner-how-to-tell-a-story-in-your-scientific-paper/

Doubleday, Z.A. & Connell, S.D. (2017) Publishing with Objective Charisma: Breaking Science’s Paradox. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 32(11). doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.06.011. https://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/abstract/S0169-5347(17)30159-3

Doubleday, Z.A. & Connell, S.D. (2017a) Bored reading science? Let’s change how scientists write. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/bored-reading-science-lets-change-how-scientists-write-81688

Heard, S.B. (2014)  On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed? Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 7. doi: 10.4033/iee.2014.7.14.f. https://ojs.library.queensu.ca/index.php/IEE/article/view/5310

Heard, S.B. (2016) The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Further reading

Atkins, J. (2016) The Importance of Storytelling in Science. PLOS Ecology Community blog. http://blogs.plos.org/ecology/2016/12/30/the-importance-of-storytelling-in-science/

Basbøll, T. (2018) A scientific paper shouldn’t tell a good story but present a strong argument. LSE Impact Blog. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2018/06/01/a-scientific-paper-shouldnt-tell-a-good-story-but-present-a-strong-argument/

Katz, Y. (2013) Against storytelling of scientific results. Nature Methods 10(1045). doi:10.1038/nmeth.2699. https://www.nature.com/articles/nmeth.2699

Krzywinski, M. & Cairo, A. (2013) Points of view: Storytelling. Nature Methods 10(687). doi:10.1038/nmeth.2571. https://www.nature.com/articles/nmeth.2571

Mensch, B. & Kording, K. (2017) Ten simple rules for structuring papers. PLoS Computational Biology 13(9). doi:10.1371/journal/pcbi.1005619. http://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005619

Should Scientists tell stories? (2013) Nature Methods 10(1037). doi: 10.1038/nmeth.2726. https://www.nature.com/articles/nmeth.2726

Woolson, C. (2015) A call for beautiful prose in papers. Nature 517 (7536). doi:10.1038/517531f https://www.nature.com/news/a-call-for-beautiful-prose-in-papers-1.16778

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