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The men who stare at science

Goetze, Jens P.; Rehfeld, Jens F.

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Cardiovascular Endocrinology & Metabolism: December 2015 - Volume 4 - Issue 4 - p 117-118
doi: 10.1097/XCE.0000000000000055
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The men who stare at goats cannot kill goats just by thinking about it. History (the book and the movie) has taught us so. Ultimately, the finishing job has to be performed physically by people, preferably skilled in the act.

In science, success is largely defined by publishing scientific results in relevant journals. To evaluate the quality and significance of the reported research, journals are ranked by so-called impact factors, which are surrogate measures of quality. Writing science is, however, much more than just reporting numbers and statistics, and a personal measure of career. In this regard, authorship in science has become a muddy matter, as most scientific papers in medicine and natural sciences now often have many authors. Indeed, coauthorship constitutes a large part of scientific life, and this sometimes leads to difficulties in giving the rightful people intellectual credit. In the context of modern scientific endeavors, the word ‘author’ is in danger of becoming a misnomer, as it still refers to the person writing the paper (and is distinct from an editor who shapes someone else’s original work). With scientific papers having multiple authors, it is almost impossible to accept the word ‘author’ for each individual. To use the analogy, many scientific authors, therefore, may be seen as men who stare at science rather than proper authors who do the writing.

Writing science is a fundamental part of scientific projects for young scientists, typically in the form of a thesis, which is based on published papers. Often, a senior author provides mentorship to the scholar and, through scientific writing, gradually teaches the pupil how to communicate science to fellow scientists. In fact, last authorship is today synonymous with seniority and is thus valuable in terms of getting academic credit. More experienced scientists can, consciously or unconsciously, thereby distance themselves from the writing process and rather become assistants, providing academic guidance and input. This distance is not always in keeping with the core activity, for example, the creative aspect of science. In humanities, law, and philosophy, where the writing process in itself is an integral tool for the question at hand, this practice seems unthinkable. The symptoms of bad writing are eminent in today’s medical science: an example is the discussion section of research papers, in which the authors really should present their intellectual understanding of the results, rather than a mere ‘pro and con’ argumentation and feeble limitations. In the following, we will argue that senior scientists should grab the pen (keyboard) more often. Writing science is not only a pleasurable activity, it is also often where cognition kicks in and new ideas emerge.

Argument one: writing science brings structure to scientific thinking. One must humbly consider the results and choose their main messages, and why they are important. This prephase of writing is often not included in University courses on scientific writing, in which the teaching focuses rather on format: the really bad courses focus only on format usually presented by a no-longer-writing academic. However, if thinking is to be communicated well, it needs to be linearized and made intelligible to others. By doing so, the writer often gains a clearer concept of the results, which harbors positive feedback to the linear story telling. The end result earns greatly from that process. Scientific papers are not just graphs and presentations of data, they are also stories that should be told.

Argument two: a feature of writing science is the cognitive reward during the writing phase. We note that writing a good paper often is the source of the next good paper. Some researchers still puzzle themselves over where the good ideas come from. However, this source of new ideas has been known for centuries by philosophers and artists. When Jean-Paul Sartre became blind and could not write, his friends equipped him with a dictaphone and a secretary to save his thoughts, but it did not work. Sartre realized that clarification and articulation of his mind required the very writing process, the interaction between him and the paper. The painter Picasso even dared to put it in words, when he concluded that after the strenuous efforts of painting a masterpiece, he could only relax by beginning the creation of another painting. Without having been inside Picasso’s head, we speculate that in the making of one item, the next one had already started. New ideas simply get their impetus from the creative process of processing present results, and the long-term trick is to gently put them aside while finishing the first item and to save them for the next.

Argument three: scientific writing also comes with the grace of not respecting age. A vast number of great scientists kept themselves scientifically active long into old age. Often, this activity is reflected in the way that they kept themselves active in the writing phase, in which physical handicaps of advanced age are of little importance. As a bonus, there is ample evidence that an active brain lasts longer in terms of cognition and wisdom. However, it requires keeping active in communicating science and staying at the painful frontier by means of publishing and receiving feedback and criticism to stay alert.

Future medical writing should embrace the pleasures of the writing phase. New trends have found their way into ‘producing’ scientific papers, namely ‘ghost writing’, which means that a contracted person writes the paper without expertise in the field (and will not be listed as an author in the end). However, ghost writing will not make true science move forward, as science remains a highly personal and intellectual activity. If one is short of words and/or does not know how to write, then one should not outsource the activity but rather try to learn how to write, simply because the writing process is essential to ones results and to harbor new ideas. Only then can we remain men who do not just stare at science (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
Fig. 1:
Image courtesy of Dr C. Kjær at the Metropolitan University College, Copenhagen, Denmark.

The abridged version of this article is published in The Scientist and can be viewed by going to This article is reproduced with permission.


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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