Zombie Nouns and Alzheimer Flowers: Challenges in Reading Academic Science

In 16 years of school, I have cried only once over academics. Say what you will about low blood sugar, flu recovery, or skipping a pre-requisite course, I blame the flowers.

I was a sophomore in college, and I had fallen in love with cognitive science. My first class in cognitive neuroscience was fascinating, and my adoration for brains grew daily. Even the textbook was unusually enjoyable. I went to each class and listened to all the podcasts. Twice.

The professor, Rich Ivry, had an unusual approach for handling discussion outside of lecture. Every Friday, a graduate student led a handful of students in reading and critiquing primary research articles relevant to the week’s material. I was new to  cognitive science (having just abandoned a business administration track), and reading these articles was undeniably challenging.

Subjects in the study were asked to differentiate minty and floral scents. Loss of smell may be an early indicator of Alzheimer's Disease. (Dilys Ong, CC)

Loss of smell may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s Disease.
(Dilys Ong, CC)

Which gets us back to academic heartbreak. Remember the flowers? At semester’s end, we had a final assignment: review two articles addressing a current topic in cognitive neuroscience. It seemed straightforward. I picked a relatively recent theory that olfactory degeneration often indicates early Alzheimer’s disease. Loss of smell could improve early diagnosis of AD? Fascinating. I set to work reading about fMRI scans, autopsies, and the crucial experiments in which subjects either detected odors, or distinguished minty scents from those that were — you guessed it — floral.

From the two articles I had picked, I rapidly discovered not all journal articles are created equally. One was straightforward, intuitive, helpful. The other was as unintelligible as a math page on Wikipedia. I read it thoroughly half a dozen times, made diagrams, charts, summaries. I tried every trick, but there was no conquering this overly-folded, overly-inked monster of bleached wood pulp.

The Jabberwocky of journal articles. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Jabberwocky of journal articles. (Wikimedia Commons)

I was confused by obscure terminology, disheartened by 22 non-bibliography pages, and as I read for the dozenth time about Lewy bodies and lavender oil, I began to cry.

My review could have ended there. Slap my doctor’s note on a page of thoughts more convoluted than the neurofibrillary tangles I was supposed to understand, and hope for the best. But that day I was lucky. Salvation came as the gentle, patient ear of one of my best friends (and the glucose-laden Jamba Juice that came with him). He listened as I tearfully explained the experimental design into a compassionate chalkboard. In this way, I did finish the review. Explanation, I humbly reminded myself, remains the best reinforcement of knowledge.

I had encountered a problem common to novice scientists. Peer-reviewed journal articles include enough detail for experimental repeatability, but often at the expense of readability. I had barely learned that “lesion” was a generic term for brain damage, be it from stroke, tumor, or trauma — not just a cut. My interest was strong, but I was unprepared to properly evaluate methods and dig through statistical jargon.

Authors of science literature often use ‘nominalizations’ or ‘zombie noun’ versions of more dynamic verbs. (Eustace Dauger, CC)

Authors of science literature often use ‘nominalizations’ or ‘zombie noun’ versions of more dynamic verbs. (Eustace Dauger, CC)

If you are struggling with academic science literature, don’t worry. You are not alone, and it is not your fault. The language used in these articles adheres first to standards of science,  and second to those of communication. The literature is full of technical terminology, passive phrasing, and worst of all, zombie nouns.

Why is the writing so bad? Simple. We scientists aren’t trained to write. We spend years learning math, physics, chemistry, and biology in classes that rarely require essays.  I can speak from experience about my campus. As an institution, the University of California emphasizes theory and research, a balance to more vocational schools. The UC Berkeley approach emphasizes curiosity and innovation (perhaps why we produce so many entrepreneurs), but the price is minimal training in how to apply that knowledge.

When your education is knowledge-based, rather than skill-based, things like science writing fall through the cracks. When I emailed the English department this summer asking if they had any science writing classes, they replied, “The English major focuses on British, American, and Anglophone literature. We do not offer courses on technical writing.” The closest matches I could find were the introductory journalism class and a UC Berkeley Extension course (neither of which were offered this semester).

If you are a student in science, chances are the only literature training you receive is how to reconstruct these guys’ arguments. (Creative Commons)

If you are a student in science, chances are the only literature training you received is how to reconstruct these guys’ arguments. (CC)

This puts us in a pickle: The scientists can’t talk and the talkers can’t science. Or can they? Learning science directly from the literature is just one option. Alternate education tools are on the rise, and among them are popular online videos. Some of the successful sites include TED Ed, VSauce and It’s Okay to be Smart.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are also gaining popularity. Last week, I enrolled in a class offered by Stanford University on Writing in the Sciences. The curriculum covers how to be clear, concise, and organized when communicating scientific ideas. Finally! There are over 28,000 students enrolled, so we know there is demand to improve science literature.

Of course, not all journal publications are so problematic. PLoS does a nice job of formatting articles for accessibility, and encourages authors to submit their articles for professional editing before publication (scientists, meet writers). Other review sites, like Science2.0, offer community spaces for scientists and the public to openly discuss the latest discoveries. Hopefully these trends in more accessible science reporting and education will continue, improving the link between science and the scientifically curious.

For those of you still muscling through that first stage of overwhelmed confusion, it does get better. After two years of classes and working in a research lab, I now teach a class at Berkeley on how to read primary literature in cognitive science, and have since made peace with my Alzheimer flowers.


Jahlela is a senior undergraduate student studying cognitive neuroscience and music at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an avid photographer, sings constantly, and loves all things science. Follow her  @jahlela or on tumblr

jahlela AT berkeley.edu

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