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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
PURPOSE AND CONTENTS OF THE BOOK 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 results.
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.
CRITICAL EVALUATION 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 linguists.
REFERENCES 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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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