Cancer Communication Research Center

The Science of Scientific Writing - how can you communicate about your work effectively by considering reader expectations?


George Gopen doesn't only dance, sing, and do stand up comedy in one act on stage. Using his amazing charisma, humor, examples from a wide variety of topics, and in depth knowledge of his content area, writing, he engages hundreds of busy health services, clinical, and public health researchers for a full day on the topic of commas, colons, and semi-colons. A professor from Duke, Dr. Gopen has been a professional writing consultant for 26 years. He is the author of several books and leads workshops and individual writer trainigns throughout the country. His article in American Scientist on "The Science of Scientific Writing," is among the top, most read aticles of this journal.  

As an appetizer, here are some thoughts of his work that you can access for free here:

"Science is often hard to read. Most people assume that its difficulties are born out of necessity, out of the extreme complexity of scientific concepts, data and analysis. We argue here that complexity of thought need not lead to impenetrability of expression; we demonstrate a number of rhetorical principles that can produce clarity in communication without oversimplifying scientific issues. The results are substantive, not merely cosmetic: Improving the quality of writing actually improves the quality of thought."

"The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought, but rather its actual communication. It does not matter how pleased an author might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and paragraphs; it matters only whether a large majority of the reading audience accurately perceives what the author had in mind. Therefore, in order to understand how best to improve writing, we would do well to understand better how readers go about reading." 

"A research article, for example, is generally divided into recognizable sections, sometimes labeled Introduction, Experimental Methods, Results and Discussion. When the sections are confused-when too much experimental detail is found in the Results section, or when discussion and results intermingle-readers are often equally confused. In smaller units of discourse the functional divisions are not so explicitly labeled, but readers have definite expectations all the same, and they search for certain information in particular places. If these structural expectations are continually violated, readers are forced to divert energy from understanding the content of a passage to unraveling its structure. As the complexity of the context increases moderately, the possibility of misinterpretation or noninterpretation increases dramatically."

(Excerpts from The Science of Scientific Writing  If the reader is to grasp what the writer means, the writer must understand what the reader needs by George Gopen and Judith Swan published in 1990 in American Scientist)

Borsika Rabin
Staff Researcher/Research Coordinator

Written by CCRC at 14:02




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