An homage to the writing style of Dr. Peter Adler -Or- How to write good science well.

This post was originally published on BioDiverse Perspectives – a research blog aimed at fostering communication about biodiversity.

Although I’ve been a graduate student for more than four years, I’ve been a peer-reviewed author for just a few short months. My brief time as a researcher, writer, and published scientist in no way makes me an expert when it comes to developing a successful career in academia. However, during my time in grad school, I have become aware of three critical rules for achieving success in my field.

Rule 1. Do good science. This is a no-brainer, really. If you want to be recognized for your contributions to the scientific world, start with good science.
Rule 2. Be an advocate for your science. This is less obvious, but equally important. One of the most critical ways for your good science to be recognized is for you to advocate for it. This means give talks whenever you can, reach out to broad audiences, and most importantly, publish your research.
Rule 3. Communicate your science well. This is the least obvious of these three rules. However, if people can’t understand your good science, it’s unlikely to be recognized for its contribution to the field.

Graduate school puts a huge emphasis on Rule 1 – and for good reason. Grad school is first and foremost a place for young researchers to learn how to do good science, and without good science Rules Two and Three are irrelevant. In my program, Rule 2 is covered pretty well, too. Students get to practice giving talks and presenting posters during departmental brown-bags and an annual research symposium. My lab also encourages me to attend large and small conferences to share my research, and grad students from my department have been encouraged to start and contribute to a number of research blogs.

But Rule 3. That’s a tough one. I mean, how many research faculty were actually trained in science communication? And can they really be expected to teach that skill to graduate students? So to tackle Rule 3, graduate students are pointed to reference books and resources on the Internet. And the Internet is replete with advice on how to write well. For example, see Brian McGill’s 2012 tome on writing clearly  – a follow up to Jeremy Fox’s question who writes the most stylish scientific papers? – And read Brian’s subsequent post on writing journal articles like a fiction author.

While it is tempting to just have someone do your writing for you. That won't get you very far in academia.
While it is tempting to just have someone do your writing for you. That won’t get you very far in academia.

 

For a recent assignment in a scientific writing seminar, I was encouraged to take a different approach to tackle Rule 3. Find a researcher whose writing you like or admire. Read a few of their scientific papers and identify some characteristics of their writing style and organization (not scientific content) that makes it successful.

For the assignment, I decided to choose an author whose papers I enjoy reading, and who exemplifies the three rules of academic success. And it didn’t take me long to land on Peter Adler. Dr. Adler is widely regarded for his ability to synthesize complex theory with empirical data – He does good science. He gave what I regard as the best talk at ESA 2014, not only because his research findings were interesting and important, but because I left the talk feeling smarter than when it began. – He advocates for his science. Last, Adler’s papers are frequently cited and he is regarded as a clear communicator – He communicates his science well.

And so I set out on a journey to try to figure out how Peter Adler communicates his research. In particular, I wanted to see if I could identify two themes in his papers.

  1. Adler is well regarded for his ability to clearly explain and synthesize complicated theory and modeling approaches with empirical data. Are there any stylistic themes that he uses to accomplish this?
  2. Adler publishes prolifically. Is there any indication for a roadmap that he might use for writing?

To do that, I focused on four papers:

Here I should note that all of these papers have co-authors and it’s a disservice to those coauthors to assume that Adler is the sole contributor to the writing style and ultimate success of the article.

  1. Can I identify stylistic themes that Adler uses to clearly explain and synthesize complex theory / modeling approaches with empirical data.

Adler uses conversational sentence construction with relatively short words. Occasionally rephrases a concept for clarity.

“Stabilizing processes are defined as any mechanism that causes species to limit themselves more than they limit others. Another way of saying this is that niches cause intraspecific effects to be more negative than interspecific effects. As a result, when any one species increases in abundance, its per capita growth rate slows relative to other species, helping to limit competitive exclusion.” (Niche for Neutrality)

Why I think it works: In a perfect world, writing would be maximally concise and clear. However, in the real world, brevity can often come at a cost to clarity. Adler is willing to sacrifice some space for clarity in an instance when it is particularly important that the reader understand a concept. 

He asks questions and then provides an answer

“What precisely are the fitness differences among species that are important from a coexistence perspective? The specific traits depend on the model used to describe coexistence.” (Niche for Neutrality)

“How can functional traits directly affecting only a limited set of physiological processes and demographic rates explain variation in overall life history? One possible explanation is that the affected processes…” (Forecasting plant community impacts) 

Why I think it works: The idea of raising questions and then immediately answering them isn’t new. The literary device even has a name: Hypophora. Why do writers use it? It can help maintain interest and curiosity in a reader, highlight important questions, and guide the reader towards an important area of interest. Why does it work for Adler? Reading Adler’s well-placed questions helps me follow the logic of his argument. He’s both telling me what to ask and the answer to my question.

In a non-research paper, Adler ends each section with a small “take home message”

“Placing the neutral model within classic coexistence theory emphasizes two important lessons…”(Niche for Neutrality)

It then goes on to summarize the two important lessons: (1) that niche and neutral processes combine to generate coexistence, and (2) that relationships between per capita growth rates and relative abundance can allow researchers to test their relative contributions.

Why it works: Non-research papers aren’t required to follow the IMRAD structure that most research papers follow. This can be confusing if early sections of a paper don’t clearly link together until later on. Briefly summarizing each section provides the reader with a reminder of the greater context of each section.

He uses simple language in the introduction and more complex jargon in the methods section.

Intro of Coexsitence of perennial plants, describes stabilizing niche differences as mechanisms that

“cause species to limit themselves more than they limit others, so each species grows faster when it is rare than when it is common.”

In the methods, they are described as,

“all processes that cause species to limit conspecific more than heterospecific individuals, creating an advantage when rare.”

Why it works: This approach allows the reader to understand the concepts early on, but the technical details when they are necessary. In other words, Adler gives the reader just enough information so that they can understand the basic concept in the introduction, but then introduces the technical details of that concept in the methods section, where they are necessary to critically evaluate the research.

Adler makes frequent use of numbered lists to organize ideas.

“Our results provide three important clues to guide future research on specific mechanisms.” (Coexistence of perennial plants)

Why it works: (1) Improves clarity by focusing the reader on key concepts. (2) Increases brevity by eliminating unnecessary transition statements. (3) Provides a framework for following paragraphs

(2) Do Adler’s papers follow a consistent general outline?

The introduction of each paper begins with a broad overview of the theory, the historical approach, the problem, and a new solution.

Why I think it works: The introductory paragraph provides a broad historical context for the rest of the paper. This is essentially an exaggerated version of “The Funnel Introduction technique”.

Each intro ends with a paragraph that outlines the rest of the paper. This paragraph often lists objectives of the paper and summarizes how those objectives were met.

“We begin by fitting… We then perturb the observed climate variables…Next, we estimate the degree of niche differentiation…Finally, we show that this empirical test supports…” (Forecasting plant community impacts)

Why it works: Adler’s research is complicated. At the end of the introduction, he provides the reader with a roadmap. Get lost during the paper? Refer back to the roadmap to find your way.

Each component of the methods section is told as a story:

Why it works: The narrative approach helps the reader understand how each step in data collection and analysis leads to the final result.

The discussion section always begins by restating the objectives.

“Our analysis of the empirical, multispecies population model supported our hypothesis: Species with dynamics strongly stabilized by niche differences experienced the weakest indirect effects of climate, while the species most weakly stabilized by niche differences was most sensitive to indirect effects.” (Forecasting plant community impacts)

Why it works: Like before, restating ideas comes at a cost to brevity. In this case, restating and summarizing the objectives and results increases clarity by highlighting the concepts that the discussion will cover.

Ok, so what’s the take-home message here? It’s not that Peter Adler is the best writer on earth and we should all emulate everything he does. Rather, I think there are two really important messages from this exercise. First, good writing is effortful writing. If your goal is clarity, it is important to think critically about sentence and paragraph construction, not just the logical flow of arguments. I would imagine that it also requires a level of cognitive empathy – or the ability to understand what confuses a reader and make that clear. For example Adler rephrases a difficult concept in Niche for Neutrality to help the reader follow along with the flow of ideas. Second, being a good writer means thinking analytically about writing. What do I mean by that? Grad school trains us to think critically about constructing scientific experiments, statistical tests, logical arguments. Yet thinking critically about constructing sentences and paragraphs is rarely emphasized. Perhaps the trick to accomplishing Rule 3 is to approach it like Rule 1.

9 Replies to “An homage to the writing style of Dr. Peter Adler -Or- How to write good science well.”

    1. Hey Jeremy, that’s a rather male dominated list. Do men write better than women?! Do you read men’s papers more often than women’s?! Just trying to be a bit of a poke here.

      Like

  1. Great post Fletcher! Writing is an art form! I am taking a course in science writing; we’re going through J. Schimel’s book and I highly recommend it. He goes through many of the same points/strategies you discuss.

    Like

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