19 December 2005

Fighting for simplicity

On Friday, I received the proofs for my latest article; this one will be going into the journal Crustaceana. Luckily, this one seems to have made an errorless transition from manuscript to proof. I was unable to find a single error. Of course, this probably means that I will find a devastating one when the article is actually in print.

The funny thing about the two articles I currently have in print is that both of them had some editorial changes that are symptomatic of a bigger problem.

In one paper, the editor recommended changing “leg” to “pereiopod.” Of course, if you look up pereipod, you’ll see they’re defined as “legs,” essentially. I made the change because it’s a small thing to fight with an editor about. And “pereiopod” is slightly more accurate. But I have had papers published using the word “legs" instead of “pereiopods.”

In the other paper, a similar event occurred. The editor changed “abdomen” to “pleon.” “Pleon”? Heck, even I had to look that one up. I thought “abdomen” was more than technical enough; it is certainly a more precise anatomical term than "tail," which is essentially what most people would think of if I pointed to the abdomen / pleon of a lobster or crayfish or such. This one was during the editorial changes for typesetting, so I had no idea it was to be done until I actually received the proofs.

In his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell proposed several simple rules, one of which was “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” I try to follow that sort of advice when I write, with a little success (I think). After all, I do want my papers to be read somewhat widely, and as a relative latecomer in biology, I am always conscious of just how much technical terminology is out there.

Is the extra level of precision really worth making the paper just that little bit more obscure, just that extra step more arcane and unreadable without a dictionary by your side? I.m obviously inclined to believe that it’s not, otherwise I wouldn’t have picked the words I did in the first place. But getting a paper published is hard enough as it is, so it is very difficult to justify hardcore battles over this sort of terminology.

When my papers comes out, I’m giving permission to everyone to go in to their library copy and replace “pereiopds” with “legs” in indelible marker. Strike out “pleon” and put in “abdomen” – or maybe even “tail.”

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