Less is More

By Nicolas Gambardella

In scientific texts, less is often more. Less figures and tables mean more clarity; Less experiments and results mean more impact. This might seem counter-intuitive since more information should always be better, right? Moreover, whether as preliminary data in a grant application or as results in a research paper, we all want to describe all the great experiments we ran, the clever analyses we came with, and the conclusions we derived. However, we also want – and need – to convey excellence.

Except for truly groundbreaking research papers, where a single result matters, overshadowing everything else, the final impact of a paper or a grant application on the reader will reflect the average quality of every independent result. If you performed three or four excellent experiments, and they are sufficient to demonstrate your point, every additional result of less novelty or perfection will decrease the average final impact. Here are five points you should reflect on when writing a scientific text.

1) Put yourself in your reader’s shoes

When producing any kind of material for public consumption, whether text or other types of documents, in science or any other field, we should never forget that the content should be geared toward the audience, not ourselves. As such, when writing an article or a grant application, we should always keep the potential reader in mind.

  • What is interesting for you is not necessarily interesting for them
  • You do not want to bore them stiff
  • You do not want to make important facts or conclusions hard to find
  • You want them to remember the main message
  • You want them to remember the WOW feeling they had when reading
  • You do not want them to think meh at any time, about any result

2) Do not describe the entire journey that led to the final set of results.

Imagine you ordered a wedding cake. The baker experienced three mishaps before getting it well. The first mix was wrong, and was not baked properly; another one was overcooked; the design of the third one failed. Do you expect the baker to deliver all four attempts on the wedding day or only the fourth one?

Each scientific text tells a story and unfolds along a storyline. This is necessary to bring the reader to the conclusions we want to share. However, this storyline is a logical construct, built to make the point clearer and easier to understand. It does not need to be the actual story, as it happened in the lab. There is no need to describe all the false starts, the dead ends, the mishaps, all the iterations with optimization (see below). Just tell the readers what you found, using the final or best experiments you performed.

3) Do not clutter the main body with negative results

Negative results are important, and we should not hide them. However, there is no need to put them in the main body of a text, except if they are revealing new insights. The overall message of a paper or grant application should always be positive, optimistic and forward-looking. If you want to report negative results, or warn others of dead ends, to spare their time, energy, and expenses, why not put these results in supplementary materials, on your website or deposit them in the relevant public database?

4) Do not clutter the text with sup-par, or trivial results

There is no need to explore exhaustively a question in the main text of a research paper. You should choose your main message, and build-up the best case for it, using only what is necessary to demonstrate your point. Yes, I am sure there are many other interesting aspects worth presenting and discussing in your experiments or your datasets. However, by devoted too much space to those secondary questions, you will dilute the primary conclusion, and make it more difficult to identify, and less impactful.

5) Do not load the main text with set-up procedures

You should mention the tests you performed and the validation procedures you put in place. This is important. But is it crucial to show all of them in the main body of your text? You probably ran dozens of experiments to find the right dose for your drug or marker, to optimize your buffers or culture medium. This took lots of effort and time. But is it as important for the reader as the final dose or culture medium? After all, like all professionals, we assume that you performed due diligence. Would you list all the search expressions you used in PubMed to perform the necessary bibliographic search during the project?

Remember, the people you want to impress most are editors and reviewers (for a paper) and members of grant panels (for an application). These people are often senior scientists, which means they have a limited amount of time available for each text. Furthermore, they are not always technical experts on the very question tackled in each of these texts (whether this is a pathological or desirable feature of modern research assessment is beyond the scope of this post). Most of them will only read the main meat, and probably quickly so. If you want to provide background information, provide them in supplementary materials or on a website.

In conclusion, in order to maximize impact, build a story as long as necessary and as short as possible. Remember: The perceived excellence of a piece of work is the average of the excellence of each of its components.