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Scientists struggle with mathematical details

Press release issued: 25 June 2012

Many people remember struggling with maths at school, but few of us would expect that professional scientists suffer from a similar problem in their daily work. A new study by biologists at the University of Bristol shows that scientists tend to overlook their colleagues’ research if it is packed full of mathematical equations.

Scientists would like to believe that the popularity of new theories depends entirely on their scientific value, in terms of novelty, importance and technical correctness.  But the Bristol study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, shows that scientists pay less attention to theories that are crammed with mathematical details.

Dr Tim Fawcett and Dr Andrew Higginson, researchers in Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, found that scientific articles presenting many equations on each page are seldom referred to by other scientists.  The most maths-heavy articles are referenced 50 per cent less often than those with little or no maths.

Many scientists, including the celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, have worried about how mathematics will affect the impact of their work, but the Bristol study is the first to measure the extent of the problem.

Dr Fawcett said: “This is an important issue because nearly all areas of science rely on close links between mathematical theory and experimental work.  If new theories are presented in a way that is off-putting to other scientists, then no one will perform the crucial experiments needed to test those theories.  This presents a barrier to scientific progress.”

So is there any way to overcome the communication barrier between theory and experiments?  One long-term remedy would be to improve the mathematical training of science graduates.

But there could be more immediate solutions, as Dr Higginson explained: “Scientists need to think more carefully about how they present the mathematical details of their work.  The ideal solution is not to hide the maths away, but to add more explanatory text to take the reader carefully through the assumptions and implications of the theory.”

But the authors of the study fear that this approach will be resisted by some scientific journals, for which page space is at a premium.

“The top journals want articles to be extremely concise, with many of the technical details going in an online appendix,” said Dr Fawcett.  “Fortunately, our study suggests that equations in an appendix have no effect on citation rates.  So moving some of the equations to an appendix may be the most pragmatic solution.”


‘Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists’ by Tim W. Fawcett and Andrew D. Higginson in PNAS

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