Writing Scientific Papers: Is There More To This Story?

science & storytelling

The tactic of “telling a good story” is nothing new within the business of selling, marketing and even educating about science. The word itself, “storytelling,” achieved buzzword status a few years ago in the corporate world, so it’s no surprise that it now touches industry scientists.  But the importance of telling a good story within the realm of peer-reviewed scientific papers?  That is something new, and it may impact how scientists write up their results from this point forward.

In a provocative scientific study published in PLOS ONE in December 2016, researchers from the University of Washington showed that “Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science.” Perhaps the results they report are unique to climate change science—an area of science especially susceptible to public perception. But then again, perhaps not. This paper may be worth considering no matter what field of science you call your own.

The authors—Ann Hillier, Ryan Kelly, and Terrie Klinger—used metrics to test their hypothesis that a more narrative style of writing in climate change research papers is more likely to be influential, and they used citation frequency as their measure of influence. A sample of 732 abstracts culled from the climate change literature and published between 2009 and 2010 was analyzed for specific writing parameters. The authors concluded that writing in a more narrative style increases the uptake and influence of articles in this field of science and perhaps in scientific literature across the board.

But first, what does narrative style mean? As the authors explain in their study, “narrative writing tells a story through related events, whereas expository writing relates facts without much social context.” There’s no arguing that professional science writing intended for peer-reviewed publication tends to be more expository, whereas narrative writing is commonly used in popular science writing.

The authors’ experimental method included an evaluation of six elements of narrativity they identified from well-established studies on narrative comprehension and theory, as well as psychology literature. The six elements were: setting, narrative perspective, sensory language, conjunctions, connectivity and appeal. To assess the narrativity of each abstract and collect their data, they turned to crowdsourcing, an increasingly popular means of conducting science. Online contributors evaluated abstracts by reading instructions and answering a series of six questions regarding the six selected indicators of narrativity. In addition to the crowdsourced assessments of narrative elements, the authors collected information on factors known to influence citation rate such as journal identity, journal impact factor, abstract length and number of authors.

Their conclusions? Those abstracts featuring a more narrative writing style were more influential than those told in a drier, more expository style. And, this effect was found to be independent of factors such as year of publication, number of authors or abstract length. Of the particular narrative elements they assessed, the use of sensory language, conjugations, and connectivity between sentences all positively and significantly influenced citation frequency.

The authors explain their results by pointing out that their findings are consistent with the prevailing understanding that audiences tend to grasp and recall narratives, or stories, far better than information received in other ways. Yet their results are surprising with respect to peer-reviewed research papers which are traditionally written in an expository style. And maybe even more unexpected was their discovery that the highest-rated climate science journals tend to feature articles that have more narrative content.

The authors conclude their discussion with this thoughtful statement:

“Peer reviewed scientific discourse is often viewed as a special form of communication, exempt from the qualities of narratives that humans inherently relate to. However, our findings support an alternative interpretation: scientists can engage readers and increase uptake by incorporating narrative attributes to their writing styles… By incorporating such attributes into their writing, scientists can more closely mirror the way we as humans experience and understand the world.”

While this work represents just one study, and the study examined abstracts within just one area of science, it’s good food for thought. We’ll have to wait to see if related studies are conducted and if those results support what these authors reported regarding scientific papers. In the meantime, research scientists might consider tweaking their writing style for scientific papers to appeal to our inner appetite for more narrative explanations.

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Nicole Sandler

Nicole enjoys being a member of the Promega Connections blog team. A former molecular biologist, she earned her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania but realized that writing about science was a more fulfilling way to apply her knowledge and passion for the field. She's excited that her longtime writing career has now landed her at Promega, a company she once relied on for restriction enzymes and buffers as a research scientist.

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