The Scientific Literature: A Guided Tour

Edited by:
  • Joseph E. Harmon &
  • Alan G. Gross
University of Chicago Press: 2007. 312 pp. $29.00 (pbk); $72.50 (hbk) 0226316556 | ISBN: 0-226-31655-6

While the term 'scientific literature' is a commonplace usage, few scientists would acknowledge any connection between how they write and the works of novelists or poets. As long ago as the middle of the seventeenth century, the English originators of the scientific journal vigorously set themselves against all forms of fancy writing. The newly formed Royal Society of London separated “the knowledge of Nature...from the colours of Rhetorick”. The aim of scientific writing was to report, whereas rhetoric worked to distort. Today, few scientists consider themselves to be rhetoricians. How many even know the meaning of anaphora, antimetabole or litotes?

Robert Boyle (1627–1691) sometimes used the first-person singular in his scientific writing. Credit: THE ROYAL SOCIETY

But it's not that simple. The scientific literature reports, but it also aims to persuade readers that what it reports is reliable and significant. And the arts of persuasion are inevitably literary and, specifically, rhetorical. It is an arduously learned skill to write in the way that Nature deems acceptable. Conventions of scientific writing have changed enormously over the past few centuries and even over recent decades. The very big differences between Jane Austen's Persuasion and a scientific paper lie in the different patterns of rhetoric used in the latter, not in their absence from it.

There are now many historical and sociological studies of scientific communication. Joseph Harmon and Alan Gross's book, The Scientific Literature, is something different — neither a research monograph on the history of scientific writing nor a straightforward compilation of excerpts. Originating from an exhibition held at the University of Chicago in 2000, it includes about 125 examples of scientific writing taken from papers, books, reviews and Nobel speeches, and covers material from the seventeenth century up to the announcement of the rough draft of the human genome in 2001.

An excerpt is rarely longer than 500 words and sometimes as brief as 150, or may just be a diagram. These scientific snippets are embedded in strands of editorial commentary describing, highlighting and interpreting them. The tone is genial: this “guided tour” doesn't threaten arduous intellectual adventure. Rhetorical terms are explained, scientific authors are identified, and pertinent scientific contexts introduced.

There is no single argument embodied in this book — more a selection of sensibilities intended to help readers appreciate the remarkable and shifting set of literary forms that scientific writing has assumed. One theme is historical change. The authors point out that, not surprisingly, specialization has been accompanied by increasingly exclusive scientific writing. There never was a golden age when every educated person could read everything in the scientific literature — Newton's Principia defeated all but a small number of natural philosophers and mathematicians. But until the mid-nineteenth century, the general readership of such periodicals as the Edinburgh Review might find serious treatments of what was up in geology, astronomy or mathematics, written by notable scientists.

The accelerating incomprehensibility of scientific writing to the average educated person is not merely the fault of the much-lamented 'public ignorance of science'. Specialists have been so successful in constructing and bounding their own audiences that they rarely feel any need to address the laity or even scientists in other disciplines. Indeed, the plant physiologist is likely to be just as poorly equipped as any non-scientist to read a paper on superconductivity.

Another theme is the impersonality of scientific prose. Scientific writing has always been relatively impersonal, but the literary forms of impersonality have changed over time. In the seventeenth century, Robert Boyle used thickly layered circumstantial reporting to portray himself as a modest witness of his experiments, his judgement uncoloured by theoretical interest. He was nevertheless a witness at the centre of his own narratives, not averse to using the first-person singular — “I did X, I saw Y”. By the nineteenth century — when the French physiologist Claude Bernard coined the aphorism “Art is I; Science is We” — the scientific author became increasingly submerged in either the first-person plural (“We did X, we saw Y”) or in the passive voice now standard in scientific papers (“X was done, Y was seen”).

The rhetorical convention here implies that scientific authors do not matter to what they report in the same way that Jane Austen matters to Persuasion. Although some insist that scientific research is an imaginative exercise and that its findings have an aesthetic character, the convention of impersonality is testimony to the opposite sensibility. Science is considered to discover; art to create.

Harmon and Gross are quite right to draw attention to non-verbal forms of communication and the changes produced by both instrumental and representational technologies on the ability of the scientific literature to show as well as say. Wood or copperplate engravings were important in seventeenth-century science, but such images were expensive to produce and limited in their information content. Now, practically every issue of a scientific journal is a cornucopia of high-bandwidth visual communication sometimes even in online video form. It is becoming easier to envisage present-day science communication without words than without images. It is disappointing then that many of the illustrations in The Scientific Literature are so murkily reproduced. Maybe it is easier for humanists to say that visual communication is important than for them and their publishers to act as if it is.