Jonah Leherer has an interesting post up at The Frontal Cortex in which he discusses the very stereotyped structure of a scientific research article:
The vast, vast majority of science articles follow the same basic pattern: abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion. * * * There are no stories, no narrative, no amusing anecdotes. * * * Rather, there's just line after line of jargon leaden prose in the passive tense.
Jonah is not particularly pleased by this:
Why can't more science papers break the mold, even a little?
* * *
And why is there a prohibition against good science stories in science journals? Why not take a few sentences and describe where the idea for the experiment came from, or some of the experimental failures along the way, or the most surprising results. I'm not asking for a novel: all I want is an anecdote or two, a few honest insights into the messy reality of the scientific process.
I commented on this:
[T]he standard form of a scientific research article is exactly a narrative or story.
We understand this, that and the other thing about blah, blah, blah. Based on this understanding, we pose the following hypothesis. In order to test this hypothesis, we did x, y, and z, and observed a, b, c. On the basis of these observations, we conclude that blah, blah, blah, thus supporting/rejecting this hypothesis. This implies blah, thus suggesting the importance of blah, blah, blah, and leading to the following future studies.
What is this but a narrative or story? And the funny thing is that it is almost always a completed fabricated story. Most of the time, and experiment is performed after saying "let's see what happens if we do x to y". After you see the results, you go back and make up a hypothesis that the experiment tested, and which the results either support or exclude.
All this "in order to test this hypothesis, we did this experiment" is almost always a total lie.
Jonah then responded:
That's a great point about the inherent dishonesty of the scientific paper format. It's funny how science papers still subscribe to a fictional version of the scientific process taught to fifth graders. (First, generate a hypothesis. Then, design an experiment to test the hypothesis...) So yes, I guess you're right: science papers do present a narrative, they just tend to be incredibly dry, tedious and false. Not a great combination.
Maybe this is an issue for non-scientists reading scientific research, but it is a non-issue for the scientists working in a field themselves. The structure is very formal and rigid, so that the maximum amount of information can be accessed by the reader as efficiently and predictably as possible.
Scientific research papers are not meant to be read through like a magazine article. They are meant to provide a highly structured format for presentation of a ton of detailed information, so that a user of that information can home in on exactly what they want as quickly and easily as possible.
And the fact that the narrative is a lie is completely irrelevant. Everyone knows it's a lie. It's just a rhetorical device that allows for the experimental results to be placed in an appropriate conceptual context and related to existing work in a field.
Personally, I would be very annoyed with an author who deviated from this very strict ritualized structure for a scientific paper, because it would make my work more difficult. Don't mess with this!
I do not want to have to sift through "where the idea for the experiment came from, or some of the experimental failures along the way, or the most surprising results" nor "an anecdote or two, a few honest insights into the messy reality of the scientific process". Scientists are aware of the existence of all this crap, and it is fine for discussion over beers, but it would just get in the way in a scientific research paper.
Where the writing of scientific papers could be dramatically improved is not in their top-level rhetorical and literary structure, but in the construction of decent clear English sentences and paragraphs.
UPDATE: Oh, and in relation to the "passive tense", this may have been an issue in the past, but it is pretty much just a red herring at this point. I am aware of no journal that copy edits prose to introduce passive tense to replace "we did this, and then we did that" with "this was done, and then that was done". The vast majority of contemporary scientific articles I read--and all of the ones that emanate from my lab--are written with a bog-standard mix of active and passive voice, just like any other narrative writing.