Authors and authorship (and citation and plagiarism) in medical writing

The current issue of The Write Stuff (available as open access here) — the journal of the European Medical Writers Association — is all about the complex writing process for medical journals. A sample from the table of contents:

  • A contribution to the authorship debate: Can we trust definitions and declarations?
  • Authorship ethics in Asian cultures
  • Whose citations are they?

Add that to the summer reading list (below)!

Thanks to Mary Ellen Kearens on the TESOL Second-Language Writing IS listserv for this reference.

Language and Climate Change

Climate change or global warming: which sounds scarier? I heard an interesting interview this evening on NPR with Berkeley Linguistics Prof George Lakoff in which he describes the way that language “frames” the way we understand science. His criticism of scientists for not considering the way their words will be interpreted by the general public is well made.

(There’s an amusing typo on the NPR page right now: Lakoff is described as a “professor of linguists” — presumably, then, he studies the curious behavior of his fellow linguists.)

This is one more reason that all scientists should take a good scientific writing course, and that all university writing programs should get serious about writing in the sciences, not just the humanities. And since more and more science is being written in English by non-native speakers, we ESL specialists need to be part of that conversation.

Any thoughts? Do share! Click leave a comment at the top of this post.

Exaggerations, hedgings, and boosting

I recently read James Watson’s latest memoir, Avoid Boring People (he of Watson & Crick DNA fame), and one of his “remembered lessons” is this:

Exaggerations do not void basic truths

Books, like plays or movies, succeed best when they exaggerate the truth. In communicating scientific fact to the nonspecialist, there is a huge difference between simplifying for effect and misleading. The issues that scientists must explain to society … require far too many years of training for most people to take hold of them in all their nuances. Sciences will necessarily exaggerate but are ethically obliged to society to exaggerate responsibly. In writing my textbooks I realized that emphasizing exceptions to simple truths was counterproductive and that use of qualifying terms such as probably or possibly was not the way to get ideas across initially.

James D. Watson, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Knopf, 2007, p.170

This is curious for many reasons: scientific writing demonstrates a balance between boosting (Watson’s “exaggerations”) and hedging (“qualifying terms” and other linguistic features). In most cases, scientists err on the side of caution and hedge their claims. Boosters are indeed used, but they are seen more in shorter correspondence and, I think, abstracts, including conference abstracts. Perhaps Watson is talking about science writing for general audiences, or at least for teaching purposes, because his most famous writing does not seem to follow his own advice! Continue reading “Exaggerations, hedgings, and boosting”