The role of storytelling in scientific writing

I wrote this privately 2 years ago, reflecting on my first publication. Later I saw that others had already been having a similar discussion (see this piece by Yarden Katz), so I thought this would be good to share here.

My first first-author paper was recently accepted to a journal, a paper I’ve worked on, in some form, for almost 3 years. Writing this paper was my first experience writing a full-length scientific manuscript, and I knew it would be hard work from start to finish. However, what I thought would be challenging were the scientific or logical aspects of writing: framing the argument, explaining it clearly, and conveying the significance of the findings to the readers. These things were indeed challenging, but I was surprised to encounter another difficulty, the problem of “storytelling” during writing. This is a problem I wish I didn’t have to deal with, and I think one of the most stressful parts of doing science. I think the reason it is stressful, which I’m not sure many people could even articulate explicitly, is that it is in essence an ethical problem.

I don’t mean that I was considering falsifying data or anything “obviously” bad, the type of thing that gets reported in the news or told as cautionary tales during Conduct of Science didactic sessions. The dilemma I encountered was a more subtle, everyday question, which I think most scientists might not even consider to be an ethical problem. Basically, it boils down to the question, “How can I tell the most exciting/satisfying story possible given this data?” I have a feeling that this is actually a bad question to be asking in most cases, and moreover, that pursuit of this goal leads to a situation where, in effect, many papers are actually lying to their readers. In the end I felt happy with most of the paper that I wrote, but I also feel that I would have written some sections differently if I had had more time (we were about to be scooped) and if I were writing it myself (my PI felt that it needed to seem as exciting as possible). In particular, I felt that we gave the impression that we understood our phenomena better than we actually did. Ironically, my slight discomfort with the first manuscript is actually now motivating me to work extra hard on the follow-up paper, so I can resolve the questions we addressed to my own satisfaction.

What do I mean by telling a “good story”? Something that has a beginning (a question or mystery is presented), a middle (evidence accumulates), and an end (evidence is combined to explain the question). Furthermore, the story contains an idea or hypothesis that seems to explain every single piece of evidence and every experiment done, and is unfolded in a particular order that maximizes the mystery, suspense, and excitement of the reader. The story has a feeling of “everything falling into place at the end.” Most scientists probably could easily name 1 or 2 papers (probably in Science and Nature) that they encountered early in their career that fit this description. What I’m not sure about is if those scientists still find those papers just as exciting and solid many years later, after they’ve done research and have written papers themselves. For me I think the answer is no. I haven’t lost my faith in science, but I have partially lost my faith in scientists—in particular, my trust that they resist the temptation to mislead readers, even in the tiniest ways, so that their story is more exciting.

Until recently I actually did think that the goal of science is to tell cool stories. There were also other, maybe more important reasons I became a scientist, like curiosity for the truth, or wanting to benefit society. However, I think it is clear that the first thing that inspired me about science, before I even knew what “benefit society” means, was the fun of hearing stories of discovery. I read so many books about how famous scientists were able to understand some unusual new phenomenon, or reinterpret old phenomena in a radically new way, that fundamentally changes the way humans think about the natural world. I wanted to do this too.

In retrospect, it really isn’t obvious that the job of a scientist is to tell stories. Explaining the data accurately, especially if you don’t understand it, seems to be much more important. In some sense, this is actually the best way to tell the most exciting stories of all, the true stories that emerge after many years of confusion in a field. I still want to change the way we think about the world, but I now think this happens when my data tells me it happens, not by selectively presenting data and relying on reader confusion to inflate the significance of my findings. Given what I’ve seen of many papers in the field, I really worry that I might be handicapping my publication record (and therefore career) by insisting on this, but I also think there’s no point doing research if we are constantly presenting results in a way that is intended to serve our vanity rather than the pursuit of truth.

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