Reading, writing, and…not writing

I’m almost certain that the second most prominent meme in academic blogs (behind getting an academic job in the first place) is the idea of writing a lot and how fundamental it is to being an academic.  So, it makes sense for a first post.

Unfortunately, there’s a hell of a lot of academia where writing isn’t some sort of primary activity.  In spite of this blog, I’m actually a pretty decent writer, but it’s one of many skills that rarely gets utilized in my job.

Scientific writing isn’t like “real” writing, so it’s not something that is easy to practice in other contexts.  Most of an ideal scientific paper in my field is words that piece together a coherent story from all of the figures and tables, which themselves might make up half of the total page surface area.  This is actually an advantage of science, because pictures can often tell a story much better than words, and thus hyper-crafting of words isn’t as necessary.  It gives us a broader palette than people who have to rely only upon words.  (Hell, I wish I could include facial expressions, hand gestures, and LOLcats in my papers to make my points.)  But, it also naturally tends toward terse, utilitarian writing.

Remember, too, that in many fields you have to pay to get published in a professional journal.  Of the half-dozen potential venues where I might publish, only one is free, and it’s really not an ideal venue for my work.  (I must emphasize here that the pay-to-publish is not some sort of scam, it’s the financial model that is used by the top field-specific journals in many fields.)  There’s probably some good historical reason why authors have to pay, beyond keeping total nutjobs from submitting too many papers.  Nowadays it basically serves as a gatekeeper to keep riff-raff like me out of picture who usually don’t have grants and thus aren’t “real” scientists.  Basically, if I want to publish something, I need to have gotten a grant to pay for it, which requires me to publish things so I can demonstrate that I could be trusted with a grant.  And, that doesn’t even touch the problem of getting the data to write about in the first place.

Thus, I don’t get to do very much scholarly writing, because I have to have something to write about and I have to have a financial plan in place to pay for it at $100+ per page.  Review articles are written by people who are actually relevant in their field and have access to all of the important journals, and have time to read them, so that more prose-heavy activity is out of my league.

A final point that must be made somewhat delicately.  What little acceptance in the sciences of non-English languages that existed a few decades ago has pretty much disappeared.  At least 99% of the papers in my field that have any relevance are published in English.  Even “country” journals in non-English speaking countries are generally now published in English.  Being a typical dumbass American monoglot, I’m always impressed that people can write papers in their second or even third language.  However, it usually shows that they are writing in their second or even third language.  Plus, I have reviewed such papers and the quality of the English is sometimes bad enough that it needs editing before publication.  It’s not so much that this brings down the quality of the papers, but it illustrates that perfectly fluent langauge skills are not needed when writing scientific papers.

Outside of research, writing does come in handy especially for that odd time when a pool of money comes available, and we need to make a brilliant case for spending some of it on something we needed four years ago.  That happens quite a bit here.

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