Scientific writing: What a difference 30 years makes

I’ve been teaching myself better scientific writing in the last few weeks, using ebooks, websites and papers. Despite studying to masters level, I’ve never had any specific training on it and I wanted to feel a bit more confident in my style.

Anyway, I was perusing a well known second hand book stall by the Manchester universities the other day and happened across a guide to scientific writing that was published the year I was born, “How to Write & Publish a Scientific Paper (3rd Edition)” by Robert Day. It really brought home to me how different academic science is now from even just 25 years ago. It’s easy to forget how lucky we are now, with our thumb sized memory sticks that can hold the data from whole projects, millions of papers at our fingertips through the internet and machinery so sophisticated no human is needed once you press start.

I can’t imagine having to go to the library and trawl through hundreds of physical journals looking for relevant papers, then keeping control of all those references and citations with pen and paper! I had enough trouble wrangling citations during rewrites for my undergrad degree and that was with a computer (before I started using EndNote of course)!

The idea of phototypesetting and keyboarding during printing, and people having to hand draw their graphs is just so far removed from what we know today. I’ve spent my fair share of time wrestling with a graphing function in R, and occasionally thought to myself it would be simpler to just draw the damn thing! But in reality it’s amazing that with a few lines of code in R, or a few clicks in other programs, we can create practically any visual representation of data we can imagine.

There was no carrying all your many years work around with you on a 2 kg all singing all dancing tablet or laptop back then. Instead you had to keep boxes of lab/field note books and scraps of paper with raw data on them (until they took over your office), and typed away at electronic typewriters or electronic terminals (still not 100% sure exactly what that is).

All of this added to the extra time taken to send off transcripts and go through the review process using snail mail makes it a wonder anything got published at all! I have massive respect for the scientists who doggedly pushed forward and helped almost all scientific disciplines come on leaps and bounds in a relatively short time.


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