Two years ago, the Technical University of Munich’s language center hosted a conference about university-level writing in a second language. Things didn’t start out well when our keynote speaker, Leslie Sage, an editor at Nature, appeared to undermine some of our work as language instructors. Asked how much scientists should worry about the quality of the English in their journal submissions, he responded, “We really don’t care.” Cue nervous laughter from the audience.
Of course it was more complicated than that. Sage’s caveat was that Nature editors don’t care about the writing “if the science is clear.” And what makes science clear in a journal submission other than the writing? Still, at Nature at least, the staff put a lot of time into fixing mangled and opaque language — upward of 100 hours for one paper, according to Sage.
You probably won’t find editors quite as generous elsewhere. But an even more compelling reason for caring about writing emerged later in the conference. In a panel discussion with working scientists, we heard how early in the scientific process writing plays a role. “The best way to develop good ideas is to sit down, start to write them down, see how they link together,” said Jonathan Finley, a TUM professor of physics. Writing “helps you dump your thoughts, arrange them, see what links to what, see what the context is. ... The research is not just done in the lab, it’s absolutely done on paper and during the writing process as well.”
Klaus Diepold, a computer and electrical engineer who leads the university’s department of data processing, agreed. When you get to the end of a research project, he said, there’s a lot of “blood, sweat, and tears” left over from the work itself, and if you only start writing then, that’s what your reader will get — confusing, boring, or possibly irrelevant blood, sweat, and tears. If you had started writing earlier, when the ideas were first forming, you would have on paper some of the stuff that makes science sparkle: the ideas.
This may seem a jump, but Finley and Diepold articulated the reason (or rather, one of several reasons) I was so sad to learn this month that this blog is coming to an end, the victim of a resources and strategy review at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Its last day is December 21. You’ll be hearing more about this over the next two weeks, as the longer-serving regular bloggers say farewell. In the meantime, I wanted to speak more as a reader than the occasional writer.
For the seven and a half years it has run, Lingua Franca has been a blog about “language and writing in academe,” but you could argue that our topics sometimes strayed. What’s so Ivory Tower about presidential speaking styles, language peeves, or retroflex consonants?
The question focuses too much, I think, on the Leslie Sage/Nature end of the scientific process. What Lingua Franca has offered me as a reader is a look over the shoulders of academics as they do what Jonathan Finley described -- put ideas on paper, arrange them, see what they connect to, explore the context. The posts are not, of course, raw first drafts or jotted-down notes, but they’re also not peer-reviewed publications. The blog has thus been a unique space connecting as broad as possible an audience with scholars ready and willing to share the way they think (and the way they think about language, to boot, which for me is thinking about thinking).
This comes at a time when the way scholars think is often overlooked by a shrinking pool of news outlets, ignored by clashing politicians, or feared by students. The blog Lingua Franca has been a small and entertaining spark of a solution to a wide range of problems facing academics, their institutions, and our society. I hope its spirit, at least, will thrive elsewhere.