Last month, students at Amsterdam University's Academic Medical Center (AMC) voted the scientific writing course taught by SENSE members Ed Hull and Sally Hill to be one of the top three courses given by the AMC graduate school. Knowing how keen we all are to hear about the successes of our fellow SENSE members and knowing that many of us in SENSE regularly edit scientific papers, we caught up with Ed to find out more about his course. Maybe we could learn a thing or two about how to help our own clients!
Congratulations on being shortlisted for an award at AMC, Ed! Your course is clearly very successful; have you always been interested in teaching scientific writing?
Not always. My background is in biomedical engineering, and while working as an engineer at the Department of Experimental Surgery at the University of Groningen's teaching hospital back in 1974, I started correcting the English in my colleagues’ manuscripts. I soon discovered that, although the English was fine, the content was not logically organized and the writing was pompous and full of complex jargon, which made the research difficult to understand. I realized that the main problem was that this archaic yet orthodox style of writing had become standard.
This lack of clear and effective communication is particularly problematic in the health-related fields. Over the years, the ethical issues in scientific writing and publication became more evident to me, and I started developing a strategy to help to solve these problems. The result was a book that described how to write clear, readable scientific articles. In 2003, I was asked to teach scientific writing at AMC, and my book became the course material. The course and the book have been constantly evolving over the years and have been highly rated by the students.
How are your courses structured?
The course consists of lectures and workshop sessions. The students write their own text and get feedback from editor colleagues of mine: Charles Frink and Pauline Marx. This feedback is highly appreciated by all of the students. For many of them, this was the first time they had ever received feedback on their own writing. Hearing success stories from my students is always a kick. At the end of one of my courses in South Africa, the students started dancing. They said, ‘we have become a family.’ They loved working together and brainstorming on their texts.
How will you develop the course in the future?
Despite these excellent evaluations, the course will no longer be on offer to PhD students from January 2021 because the AMC and Vrije Universiteit (VUmc) graduate schools are merging. Sally and I want to continue teaching and are now working toward getting my course online. We want these to be up and running by early next year. We will be offering three levels of courses in scientific writing: for beginning researchers, for researchers writing for publication, and for researchers writing the Introduction and Discussion sections of their theses. I want to continue helping scientists write research papers because I believe they face big problems in this area.
In your experience, what common problems do research scientists face?
‘Publish or perish!’ This conflict of interest plagues all researchers and creates ethical problems because getting published becomes the priority. A common comment I hear from researchers is, ‘I have to make my little study sound big and important. Otherwise, it will not get published.’ This is a deliberate attempt to mislead readers. Although my students agree with my strategy to write a rigorous, credible, and transparent manuscript, their supervisors or the heads of their departments do not agree and put them under pressure to overemphasize the importance of their findings to increase their chances of getting published in a high-impact journal. When I ask, ‘why do your supervisors disagree with writing a credible paper?’ the answer is ‘well that’s just not the way we do it.’
How can language professionals help scientists to overcome these problems?
I think that authors’ editors are in a perfect position to reduce this ethical problem. But correcting the English language is not enough. We also need to ensure that the manuscript is transparent. That means making sure that the manuscript focuses on a specific scope and presents results that can be credibly generalized to a specific study population. Of course, the big challenge here will be to convince our clients that publishing a credible paper is more important than ‘publish or perish’. I am hoping to work with Sally to develop a course that is specially tailored to editors working with scientists. Watch this space!
Keep an eye on Ed’s website for up-to-date information on his upcoming online courses.