Jeremy Côté

Death By A Thousand Cuts

If you’ve ever listened to a scientific presentation or read a piece on some research topic, you know it’s super easy to get lost. Even if you have a vague idea of what’s going on, the sheer density of many presentations or expositions can be intimidating. Couple this with the tendency people have to give too much information or to assume too much of the reader, and it’s no wonder that most scientific work is incomprehensible to the majority of people (even other scientists!).

Let me make a bold claim: There should never be parts of your presentation or piece that are needlessly bad.

I know, that sounds harsh. The reality is that every piece of scientific work could probably use more work. But my point is that each little inaccuracy, sloppy choice of notation, or confusing sentence detracts from your work and makes it difficult to understand. Scientific details are tricky enough to understand, but these other considerations can be avoided as long as the scientist isn’t lazy. This is what I mean by “needlessly”. It comes down to the answer to the following question: How much do you care about the presentation of your work?

My favourite example of needless laziness is one that many students are familiar with. You’re in a lecture, and it’s clear that the professor knows their subject deeply. However, because they are focused on the end result, they don’t make an effort to go through each step. Instead, sloppiness ensues. This might include saying things like, “I might be getting some signs wrong, but the result is correct” or “This is correct up to a few factors.” For them, the intermediate steps are not important since the end result is what matters. For the student though, it’s the opposite. The end result is usually meaningless at first exposure, yet the intermediate steps are where the students follow and understand. By being sloppy on the steps, students get lost.

This is only one example, and my complaints aren’t limited to professors. Similar things happen with presentations, where a figure could be labelled wrong, uses a terrible colour palette, or has atrocious resolution. There are also numerous occasions where bad notation can derail the audience because the person did not spend five minutes thinking about how this choice would be received. And my point is that all of these can be avoided!

None of these are crucial to the scientific work, but they make all the difference when communicating it.

No matter your position within science, each time you communicate is an opportunity. You can put care into your medium of choice and make your work shine, or you can take a nonchalant attitude that leads to needless confusion. There might not be anything wrong with the science, but it can still lead to death by a thousand cuts.

If you’re a student, please take note of these bad practices. Don’t absorb them into your state of being, which I know is difficult as you navigate university. By fighting against sloppiness, you will take an important step in the direction of clear communication. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it is amazing how much better scientific work can be when care is given to the little details.

That extra care really will pay off.