Dr. Jeffrey Robens, who conducts the Nature Research Academies training workshops, shares three important cognitive learning principles that can help researchers improve the quality of their writing. Discover more about the second principle below and look out for the final installment in this series next week.
Written by Dr. Jeffrey Robens
In the first installment of this three-part blog series, I asked you to consider the notion that ‘Writing is teaching.' When you write a paper, you are trying to share your knowledge with others. Furthermore, the goals of a teacher and an academic author are very similar. Both hope that their students/readers (1) understand the information presented, (2) remember the information presented, and (3) use the information presented.Therefore, to be an effective writer, it helps to think about effective teaching strategies — namely the cognitive learning principles.
There are three cognitive learning principles that can improve the quality of your writing: (1) cognitive load theory, (2) cognitive bias, and (3) reader expectations. My first blog explored cognitive load theory. Now let’s turn our attention to the second principle: cognitive bias.
Cognitive bias (more specifically, the Curse of Knowledge) is when you assume your readers have the same information or knowledge as you do. They do not. They have different backgrounds, have different educations, are reading different papers, and are researching different topics.
Although the ideas in your head are very clear, they can be ambiguous to your readers. When that happens, they will get confused and stop reading your article. And you have lost impact.
So be sure to avoid ambiguous pronouns such as ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘these’, etc. If you have more than one noun in the preceding sentence, readers will have to guess what ‘this’ refers to. You should never make your readers work harder than necessary to understand your ideas.
“EGFR phosphorylation resulted in the recruitment and phosphorylation of c-Src. This phosphorylation was dependent on…” What does ‘This phosphorylation’ refer to? EGFR or c-Src? The author knows because it is their result, but readers will now have to guess. In this case, it would be clearer to write “The phosphorylation of c-SRC was dependent on…” instead. Authors overuse pronouns because they worry too much about repetition. Repetition should be avoided if possible, but never at the expense of clarity. In this example, repetition is necessary.
You should also avoid qualitative words such as ‘some’, ‘few’, or ‘many.' What is ‘few’ to the author may seem like ‘many’ to the reader. Never assume the readers have the same ideas as you. Academic writing should be quantitative when possible.
“Few samples experience fractures when exposed to increased pressures…” should be changed to the number of samples for clarity, “Six samples (5.3%) experienced fractures…”
Lastly, avoid subjective words, such as ‘interestingly’, ‘surprisingly’, or ‘strikingly’. “Interestingly, we noticed that…”. What is interesting to you may not be interesting to your readers. Academic writing is meant to be objective, not subjective. Let your readers make up their own minds what is interesting about your findings.
That concludes my summary of cognitive bias — if you’re not already applying the principle to your writing, give it a go! And look out for my third and final blog on the cognitive learning principles, where we’ll be discussing reader expectations.
The cognitive learning principles are taught as part of the Nature Research Academies workshops in ‘Getting Published’. If your institution is interested in hosting a ‘Getting Published’ workshop, or if you are a researcher interested in recommending the workshops to your institution, please click here for details.