Earlier this week, ScienceOmega.com
reported that scientists tend to avoid referencing articles laden with mathematical formulae
. A study, conducted by Drs Tim Fawcett and Andrew Higginson from the University of Bristol’s Department of Biological Sciences, found that maths-heavy articles are referenced 50 per cent less frequently than those containing little to no maths.
There exists, therefore, the real possibility that scientifically significant papers might be overlooked purely by dint of making a negative first impression. Dr Fawcett told me that scientists could overcome this problem by better explaining their reasoning, and by including the bulk of their mathematics in separate appendices.
Maths isn’t beautiful; it’s sublime. It is not comparable to a delicate flower, or to the abstract concept of love. Maths is a dirty great mountain. Some people look at a mountain and say, ‘Wow, that’s big.’ Others announce, ‘I’m going to climb that.’
For some reason, this suggestion didn’t sit well with my sense of moral indignation. How dare the burden of responsibility be placed on the authors! Surely it should be up to the readers to make the required effort. Then I realised that I was being a hypocrite.*
Many’s the time I have started to read a press release before realising that it is pitched closer to an orbiting satellite than the top of my head. Admittedly, I’m no scientist, but then neither am I the complete halfwit that my actions, words and parents might imply. Even so, I have oft been gripped by the fear of getting the wrong end of the scientific stick, and proceeding to make bold claims the likes of which the author had never dreamed.
Regardless of what certain folks would have us believe,** mathematics is a complicated subject. Mathematicians are wired up in a way that is, for all intents and purposes, different from the rest of us. I have even heard some academics describe mathematical equations as things of great beauty. This, of course, is nonsense.
Maths isn’t beautiful; it’s sublime. It is not comparable to a delicate flower, or to the abstract concept of love. Maths is a dirty great mountain. Some people*** look at a mountain and say, ‘Wow, that’s big.’ Others**** announce, ‘I’m going to climb that.’ Herein lies the main difference between poets and mathematicians. Whilst poets are content to revel in the incomprehensibility of life, mathematicians want to conquer it.
For this reason, I am confident that the problem of the underappreciated research paper will persist. Dr Fawcett discovered that if an author moves their mathematics to a separate appendix, other scientists will once again be willing to reference their work. Call me a cynic but I don’t think this phenomenon is caused entirely by improved presentation. I think that some of these newly enthusiastic scientists just might
be ignoring the appendices.
This is not a criticism. To become hypocritical twice within a single blog is hyper-hypocritical. I, like many others, am guilty of too often settling for an easy life. Indeed, I have spent my quarter of a century on this planet desperately trying to secure the maximum amount of benefit from the minimum expenditure of effort. This, I would argue, has become an art form in itself. I have put more effort into avoiding work than I have saved by avoiding work. If I’d have just spent my meta-effort as effort, I’m confident that I could have cracked perpetual motion by now.
So there you have it. The responsibility has
to rest with the authors because most of us are just too lazy to meet them half way. If you want your work to be recognised for the tour de force that it is, you’re going to have to hold our hands and explain it in simple terms. We can’t all be mental mountaineers. We have an interest in what’s at the summit, but we’re mostly just shirkers in search of Sherpas.
* Which as I grow older, is becoming my default position
** You don’t fool me Professor du Sautoy, you clever sausage
*** Like me
**** Like Professor du Sautoy