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Review of  Communicating Science

Reviewer: Scott J. Baxter
Book Title: Communicating Science
Book Author: Alan G. Gross Joseph E. Harmon Michael Reidy
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Writing Systems
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 15.2455

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Date: Fri, 3 Sep 2004 15:49:23 -0500
From: Scott J Baxter
Subject: Communicating Science

AUTHOR: Gross, Alan G.; Harmon, Joseph E.; Reidy, Michael
TITLE: Communicating Science
SUBTITLE: The scientific article from the 17th century to the present
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2002

Scott J Baxter, Department of English, Purdue University,
West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

This book is a study of the scientific article in English, French, and
German from 1665 to the present. It focuses on the disciplines of
biology, chemistry, and physics and how the style and presentation as
well as argumentation has changed from articles written by and for a
very small group of people who were members of scientific societies in
England and France to the incredibly specialized prose written for a
highly specialized international audience today.

Chapter 1 and the appendices outline the purpose and methodology used
in the study. The authors selected 200 articles from the 17th century,
500 from both the 18th and 19th centuries, and 600 from the 20th
century. The articles came from the most elite journals covering the
major branches of the sciences and were, roughly, evenly divided
between English German and French. Within this sample, 10 line
passages from 1800 articles were analyzed for style and 430 complete
articles were examined for presentation and argument. One interesting
problem the authors described was the fact that it was considerably
harder for them to find a representative sample of research articles
in French and German written in the twentieth century than it was to
find English articles written during the same period.

Chapter 2 focuses on style and presentation, and chapter 3 on argument
in 17th Century England and France (much of the writing in Germany was
still done in Latin at this time). During this period tables and
graphs as well as citations began to be used, although the latter are
rare and are not consistent. During this period, French and English
both showed began to show a movement toward a more impersonal style,
with the objects of investigation given more prominence in the text
than the person observing and recording them. Arguments were primarily
made by observation, rather than experiment; and fewer than half the
articles offered any theoretical discussion to give weight to the
facts asserted.

In chapter 4, the authors say that, in the 18th Century, the style of
writing becomes increasingly less personal; complex noun phrases as
subjects begin to be used, and a number of reader-friendly features
become more standard, such as headings, captions for visuals, and
introductions and conclusions that place the study in a context. In
chapter, 5 the authors point out that the style of argument in this
century was very similar to that of the previous one; however, the
last 25 years of the century brought about dramatic changes including
a rise in standards for reporting and arguing for experimental

Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the 19th century. During this period the
style of writing becomes less personal and more formal with headings,
equations separated from the text, and citations becoming more
formalized. The arguments become more complex, with observations and
experiments being used to build theory and texts and visuals
increasingly integrated into arguments.

In chapters 8 and 9, the authors demonstrate how scientific
communication evolved in the 20th century into a highly specialized
register designed to succinctly communicate technical messages to small
groups of highly trained readers. Argumentation, the authors argue, is
largely similar to the way it appeared in the 19th century, but the
last 25 years have brought about a rise in standards for reporting on
and arguing for experimental results. The greatest change in style is
the use of highly complex nominals; in addition, the length of
sentences and number of clauses per sentence decreased. Arguments are
now made through the use of numerous citations, rigorous descriptions
of methodology and results, and visuals such as graphs and photographs.

Chapter 10 concludes the book by arguing that scientific prose now
appears to be objective largely because of its move from descriptions
of people to descriptions of objects. Finally, the authors propose an
evolutionary model, based on a version of selection theory, to account
for the changes in scientific prose over the last three centuries.

The authors take great pains to point out that their book is a
rhetorical analysis of the development of scientific prose during the
last 350 years. However, they define rhetoric quite narrowly by
concentrating exclusively on style, presentation and argument. One
certainly could have a broader definition of rhetoric that included
such things as material conditions and social determinants of writing.
If the authors had done this, then they would have been able to
discuss the ways that printing, paper, and other technologies, in the
former case, and peer review, in the latter case, have had come to
play such an important part in scientific writing.

In addition, the focus of this study is on the internal history of
scientific discourse. I believe that the book could have been made
more interesting by focusing on the external history of the three
languages in question (English, French, and German) and how this
external history affected the production of scientific prose in each
of them.

I personally would have liked to have seen a more explicit description
of the methodology the authors used in their analysis of style. For
instance, one of the elements that they decided to count were hedges,
but they give only one example and do not even define what they mean
by the term. If the authors had given more details of exactly which
items they chose to analyze for style I would have been more impressed
by their study.

The authors themselves admit (p. 11) that their use of statistics is
quite unsophisticated when compared to work done by Atkinson (1999)
and Hyland (1998, 2000). However one needs to keep in mind the
populations that the authors were trying to make generalizations about
before making any criticisms. Gross, et al. were working with three
languages over a 350 year time period in an attempt to describe how
style, presentation, and argument were different in each of the
centuries within their sample. At least in my opinion, the authors did
an admirable job doing this.

As far as audiences, this book should appeal to those interested in
the historical development of scientific discourse, especially those
interested in style, presentation, and argument. Because of its
emphasis on these rhetorical, rather than linguistic elements, the
book will probably appeal more to rhetoricians than it will to

Atkinson, Dwight (1999) Scientific Discourse in Sociohistorical
Context: The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of
London, 1675-1975. Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum.

Hyland, Ken (1998) Hedging in Scientific Research Articles. Amsterdam:
John Benjamins.

Hyland, Ken (2000) Disciplinary Discourses: Social interactions in
academic writing. London: Longman.
Scott J. Baxter's research interests include second language writing,
theses and dissertations, as well as discourses of computer science.
He is currently finishing his PhD in English language and linguistics
and writing studies at Purdue University. Prior to coming to Purdue,
he worked as a librarian in the eleventh largest pretrial detention
facility in the United States for six years and, after that, taught
linguistics and EFL at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland for three
years. These experiences encouraged him to pursue a research
career that focuses on multicultural and second language literacy
practices. More information can be found about Mr. Baxter at his