[Coral-List] scientific papers are getting harder to read; faith in technology

Douglas Fenner douglasfennertassi at gmail.com
Thu Sep 17 20:42:10 UTC 2020

Papers are increasingly impenetrable

>From obscure acronyms to unnecessary jargon, research papers are getting
harder to read – even for scientists. Statisticians analysed the use of
acronyms in more than 24 million paper titles and 18 million abstracts and
found that the use of acronyms is commonplace and on the rise
Of the roughly 1.1 million acronyms identified, the vast majority (79%)
were used fewer than 10 times in the scientific literature. “Scientists
love to write these acronyms,” says statistician Adrian Barnett, “but other
scientists don’t necessarily pick them up, and they end up hanging around
and causing a lot of confusion.”

Science is getting harder to read


I think most of it is deliberate.  This article seems to think that getting
more people to read the paper and more people outside your specialty to
read it is a good goal.  I think many scientists see impressing their
colleagues and especially reviewers as an important goal.  And jargon
impresses them and increases the chances your paper will be accepted.  Gene
Shinn related on coral-list long ago that he submitted his first geology
paper to a journal and it was rejected.  He showed his paper to his
advisor, who said 'you didn't use any technical terms.  Put in technical
terms and submit it to a different journal.'  He did and it was accepted.
Of course the different reviewers may have been part or all of the reason
for the difference, but technical terms may have made the difference.
     So tell me why we use acronyms at all?  In online journals it saves
zero print costs, because there are no print costs.  They rarely make
anything more intelligible.  Scientists make new ones up all the time.
People often include acronyms in their posts on coral-list, and sometimes
don't say what they mean.  I then write them offline and point out that
most people are unlikely to know what it means.  Often they don't reply,
sometimes they say "sorry" but they never post a message to say what it
means.  I think I will start calling people out publicly on coral-list for
not defining their acronyms.  Good reviewers of papers do not allow
acronyms that aren't defined.  Coral-list has as much obligation to make
messages understandable.  Isn't that the purpose?  Please show
consideration for your readers and define your acronyms.

Technology has essentially made the modern world.  It has built whole
industries, it has made a few people incredibly wealthy, it employs huge
numbers of people.  Interesting comment in an article entitled "America is
Trapped an a Pandemic Spiral", and I quote:
"It’s more compelling to hope that drug-resistant bacteria can be beaten
with viruses
<https://www.nature.com/news/phage-therapy-gets-revitalized-1.15348> than
to stem the overuse of antibiotics
to hack the climate
to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, or to invest in a doomed oceanic
to reduce the production of waste. Throughout its entire history, and more
than any other nation, the U.S. has espoused “an almost blind faith in the
power of technology as panacea,” writes the historian Howard Segal
of solving social problems, the U.S. uses techno-fixes to bypass them,
plastering the wounds instead of removing the source of injury—and that’s
if people even accept the solution on offer."

      And that reminded me that sometimes technology goes wrong.  Boeing,
one of what are in effect only two manufacturers of large commercial
airliners in the world, and one of the US's largest manufacturing
corporations, nearly destroyed itself with it's mistake in the 737 Max
computer system, killing over 400 people in the process.  News had lots of
stories about self-driving cars until a Google self-driving car drove over
and killed a woman, and suddenly those articles disappeared.  Then there's
the old joke about Microsoft:  Bill Gates says to the head of GM 'if you
made cars like we make computers, you would be selling them for $200.'  The
head of GM replies 'if we made cars like you make computers, they would
crash every 5 minutes.'  Anybody ever have a computer problem?  Isn't that
technology, and does it inspire blind faith?

Cheers,  Doug

Douglas Fenner
Lynker Technologies, LLC, Contractor
NOAA Fisheries Service
Pacific Islands Regional Office
PO Box 7390
Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA

The toxic effects of air pollution are so bad that moving from fossil fuels
to clean energy would pay for itself in health-care savings and
productivity gains
even if climate change didn’t exist.  In the US alone, decarbonization
would save 1.4 MILLION lives in the US alone.  And save $700 Billion a year.

"mitigating climate change is the critical wedge to set coral reefs on a
recovery trajectory"  Duarte et al 2020 Rebuilding marine life Nature

"Already, more people die  <http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hazstats.shtml>from
heat-related causes in the U.S. than from all other extreme weather events."


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