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Better writing CAN boost your impact – now with data!

This is according to a new opinion piece published in PNAS, at least, but we already agree with them or we wouldn’t be here!

The article I am referring to:

Benjamin Freeling, Zoë A. Doubleday, and Sean D. Connell. Opinion: How can we boost the impact of publications? Try better writing. PNAS January 8, 2019 116 (2) 341-343

Click here for the article

A (very) brief recap

The authors gauged writing level by studying 11 metrics representative of overall writing style (listed below and found here in detail) found to best represent whether a paper is written with the reader’s experience in mind. They studied 130 papers across 3 disciplines for diversity and looked at the abstracts, which are representative of the style of the paper.

They then recorded the number of citations and impact factor of the journal to compare to their measured metrics, which were converted into one score for ease of comparison.

The 11 categories:

  1. Word count
  2. Setting (places research into context)
  3. Narrator (uses “I” or “we”)
  4. Conjunctions to link ideas
  5. Signposts (adverbs that denote order)
  6. Punctuation marks to link ideas
  7. Consistent terminology
  8. Parallel phrasing (consistent sentence structure)
  9. Hedging, i.e., the use of qualifiers to deflect (“may”, “likely,” etc.)
  10. Acronyms
  11. Noun chunks (3+ nouns in a row are difficult to read/parse)

What they found:

  • Influential articles (100-1000 citations) had overall more components of good writing and less of bad writing…this indicated they were written with the reader in mind.
  • Less influential articles spanned the entire range of writing styles.
  • In the influential writing, there was no one dominant component – good scientific writing therefore is not defined by any one style and includes a breadth of “good habits” while minimizing bad ones.
  • The increase in citations was also related to the journal impact, with the greatest increase coming from the highest-impact, broader-reaching journals, where improved clarity and likely plays a significant role (See Figure below)

The increase in the number of citations stemming from good writing practices that keep the reader in mind is related to the impact factor of the journal, with the highest-impact, broadest-reaching journals seeing the biggest improvement from increased clarity.
Figure taken from PNAS January 8, 2019 116 (2) 341-343.

So, what does this tell us?

First of all, it should not be surprising that more readers are drawn to articles written with their overall experience in mind. You don’t have the time decode a confusingly written article, so why assume your readers will?

Second, the impact of writing well, no matter what stage of career/level of journal you are publishing in is worth the effort, as seen by the increases in citations.

Even at the lowest tier journal, could you imagine what a 26% boost in citations could mean to your overall career? What about a 74% boost?

What does this mean for us?

Over the next months, we are going to intersperse some posts on improving writing styles along with traditional posts on writing tips and tricks to help boost our overall paper citations.

Is there something you are struggling with? A topic that has you curious? Let us know in the comments or send a message!

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