The Personal Touch

Eric Lis

What does a scientist sound like?

Modern academic writing is a field unto itself, quite unlike any other form of writing. People often joke that scientists and researchers write to deliberately obfuscate their meaning and make it impossible for others to understand them, but that's just a joke... mostly. Modern academic writing has evolved, for better or worse, in a manner which is designed to maximize clarity and direct communication. The good part of this is that two researchers on opposite ends of the world can communicate fairly easily using a shared terminology. The bad part is that this style of writing, being direct and unembellished, is often painfully dry and painful to read. The side effect of the style, which is good to some and bad to others, is that laypeople, who may not be familiar with a field's specific terminology, tend to find academic writing incomprehensible; your typical article in a scientific journal assumes that you have four to eight years of education in its area, after all. This isn't solely due to the writers, but also to the system itself, which in some ways encourages dry writing without an author's unique voice colouring things. I vividly recall, many years ago, the first time that I published in a professional journal; the editors, in their wisdom, made dozens of tiny changes to ensure that my, shall we say, "unique writing style" was minimized in the published version of my paper.

Original Text Published Text
BPD is associated with high rates of suicide, such that nearly all sufferers of BPD have experienced suicidal ideation and almost ten percent commit suicide by adulthood. BPD is associated with high rates of suicide — nearly all BPD patients have experienced suicidal ideation and almost 10% commit suicide by adulthood.
While psychosocial causes of BPD have been explored in many studies, relatively little data exists regarding biological causes. Although psychosocial causes of BPD have been explored in many studies, relatively little data exist regarding biological causes.
Whether because of the difficulty in finding BPD sufferers to participate or the relative youth of the technologies used, the neurologic and genetic factors of BPD have not yet been fully explored. The neurological and genetic factors of BPD have not yet been fully explored, perhaps because it is difficult to find BPD subjects to participate or because the technologies used are relatively young.

As you see, none of the changes that the editors made were earth-shatteringly huge, or even bad, but they changed the style and flow of the sentences. The editors' versions in each case subtly changed what I felt to be the emphasis of the sentence and the idea it was meant to express. The editors' versions were arguably better, from an academic standpoint, but they didn't sound like me anymore.

Not all academic writing is like this, however, and importantly, it wasn't always like this. The dry, academic style of writing is largely an invention of the last fifty or so years; prior to that, many of the great researchers published their groundbreaking papers in a form that reads like a letter to a friend, or sometimes even prose. This was especially true in a number of fascinating historical examples where people published things that affected them personally. Let me give you a couple of examples.

In 1841, physician William James West sent a letter to one of the world's foremost medical journals, the Lancet. This was a letter to the editor, mind you, not a scholarly report, so right away we would expect it to read somewhat differently. West described a previously undescribed form of childhood-onset seizure disorder, and for this, the syndrome was named after him some years later. What makes this a truly incredible story is that he described it in his own son, and his letter to the editor was a plea for help from anyone who had seen a similar disorder. West wrote,

"I beg, through your valuable and extensively circulating Journal, to call the attention of the medical profession to a very rare and singular species of convulsion peculiar to young children. As the only case I have witnessed is in my own child, I shall be very grateful to any member of the profession who can give me any information on the subject, either privately or through your excellent Publication."

The full letter to the editor has been reprinted in many textbooks and articles, and a free version of it can be read here. It reads quite unlike anything you would read in most scientific journals today, not least because of the use of the word "I." The style itself, of course, is quite typical of 1800's British and American writing, and in fact, if you copy this text into a writing style analyzer such as I Write Like, it gets mistaken for something by H.P. Lovecraft.

Here's a more modern example. Olivier Ameisen was a cardiologist who tragically passed away earlier just this year. Ameisen earned a measure of fame when he published a paper on the use of a medication called baclofen to treat alcohol addiction. Here's the part that made his article so shocking when it came out.

"I am a physician diagnosed with alcohol dependence and comorbid anxiety disorder... I had been hospitalized for acute withdrawal seizures. Anxiety disorder had long preceded addiction... I had tried recommended dosages of medications proposed for promotion of abstinence and reduction of craving (see Patient and Methods). I had achieved prolonged abstinence with and without medications. But I had always experienced cravings and preoccupation with alcohol, and achieving abstinence in such conditions required daily planning as well as constant and full attention."

The article goes on to explain how he used himself as a test subject to see how well baclofen worked, and describes his experiment and results. I need hardly say that few and far between are the scholarly publications that say anything like that. Ameisen's article is available for free here and is quite a read.

A big part of gaming, both as a storyteller and as a player, comes down to how we write and how we're able to put our voices and the voices of our characters into words. It's always useful to consider how different characters speak and express themselves. Capturing the modern academic style can be challenging unless you're immersed in it, but "academic" doesn't have to mean "devoid of humanity."

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on October 7, 2013. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system