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In defense of telling a “science story”

Your science should tell a story. I’m here to defend this oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood piece of advice.

Ready to write up your scientific results into a manuscript? Congratulations! Before you launch into writing up the results of your project, do make sure you have a clear scientific story in mind.

Why?

Narrative techniques effectively communicate information [1–3]. And scientific information is no exception.

Not everyone is a fan of narrative structure, however. Especially not when it comes to scientific manuscripts. Many scientists bristle and push back against the advice to “tell a science story” because they are legitimately concerned. They worry and argue that story-telling is at odds with objective truth-telling.

If we project the features of great storytellers onto a scientist, the result is a portrait of a scientist far from ideal. Great storytellers embellish and conceal information to evoke a response in their audience. Inconvenient truths are swept away, and marginalities are spun to make a point more spectacular. A storyteller would plot the data in the way most persuasive rather than most informative or representative. Nat Methods 10, 1045 (2013).

Stated differently, the position statement is this: no scientist should be encouraged to use narrative structure to communicate their work because it is fundamentally at odds with the goal of scientific objectivity.

I disagree.

The advice is not “tell a science story of your choosing” or “tell a science story at the expense of the actual truth.” The advice is to “tell a clear science story” and is meant to encourage writers to write clearly and effectively. If you don’t tell a clear story, you risk leaving your reader adrift in a sea of disconnected thoughts. Narrative structure provides readers with a framework.

Your job as the academic writer is to give your reader a sense of how you’ll be traversing the knowledge gap. You need to clearly orient your reader to what was known about X before you conducted your study to what we now know about X as result of your study.

If reporting the facts themselves were enough, scientists would simply upload all raw data to a central repository with a handful of graphs and statistical analyses and call it good. It takes more.

The data will not speak for itself.

While clear data visualization is critical to effective science communication — it’s not enough. The data will not speak for itself. The figures themselves need to be explained and contextualized, both within your current study and within the field at large.

When you are writing an academic manuscript, you are (should be) taking your reader on an intellectual journey of scientific discovery (even if the results are negative, null or unexpected!). Journeys, by definition, have a beginning, middle and an end — the very stuff of storytelling.

Furthermore, simply listing the results of your project without placing the current findings within the larger picture of scientific knowledge, is not doing your work or the science any justice. Rather than ensuring scientific integrity, it is potentially sacrificing clarity and effective transmission of your project’s findings.

“Finally, a scientific paper is not a glorified laboratory notebook, that is, simply a record of what was done. Rather, it must place the research into a larger scientific context in addition to communicating the results and explaining its author’s conclusions to other researchers so that they can assess and build on the findings.” Nat Methods 10, 1037 (2013).

Scientific integrity depends on the scientist, not on the choice of writing style

The critique that storytelling could potentially obfuscate or embellish scientific data is a serious one. However, I do not agree that encouraging scientists to write in a narrative structure means the inevitable sacrifice of scientific integrity. Integrity depends on the scientist, not upon the form in which she chooses to write.

Storytelling encourages the unrealistic view that scientific projects fit a singular narrative. Biological systems are difficult to measure and control, so nearly all experiments afford multiple interpretations — but storytelling actively denies this fact of science. Nat Methods 10, 1045 (2013).

I strongly disagree. Again, the advice is not: “Force your science into a singular narrative” the advice is “make sure your scientific manuscript tells a clear story.” The two are often confused.

Here’s the thing: telling a clear story does mean you have to make decisions about what portions of your study should be included in your main text and what portions should be put into the supplementary section of your paper. Vigilant scientists may say that by not including every single fact in the main text, you are putting yourself on a slippery slope. Next thing you know, you may be omitting and cherry-picking data. Again, this is something we absolutely should guard against.

I will be the first to quote Richard Feynman’s declarative:

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.

However, there is an important difference between choosing what information to present in the main text for clarity’s sake (after all, science is messy and rarely straight-forward!) and choosing only to include data points that fulfill your self-interested narrative. In the former scenario, the scientist chooses integrity and clarity over including every minutiae and potentially confusing the reader. In the latter, the scientist chooses convenience and self-interest over integrity. Either way: the scientist chooses.

I absolutely do think that some scientists misuse narrative structure to their own end. But this is not the fault of the narrative form itself; it is the fault of the scientist. As always, the hope is that scientific peer review will ultimately prevail over any attempts at falsifying or simplifying scientific data.

So, go ahead: tell your science story. Identify your beginning, your middle and your end. Surprises, plot-twists, and mysteries are welcome. Don’t write an overly simplified story — and definitely don’t tell us a false story. Do, however, tell us a clear story.

References:

  1. Norris SP, Guilbert SM, Smith ML, Hakimelahi S, Phillips LM (2005). A theoretical framework for narrative explanation in science. Sci Educ 89(4):535–563
  2. Fisher WR (1985) The narrative paradigm: In the beginning. J Commun 35(4):74–89.
  3. Zabrucky KM, Moore D. (1999) Influence of text genre on adults’ monitoring of understanding and recall. Educ Gerontol 25(8):691–710

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Anahita Vieira, PhD

Anahita Vieira, PhD

Neuroscientist. Senior Science Writer by day. Creative writer by night. Twin/NICU Mom 24/7. But first, coffee.

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