My first draft of this post was written in my Gmail account, so that I could try out a much talked-about new browser plug-in that aims to make me “Just Not Sorry“. The app monitors my writing, alerts me when my tone is apologetic, and provides snippety guidance on why my choice of language might be undermining what I am saying. The backstory posits that women use apologetic language more than men and that the app will help them to rectify this.
By positioning this as a gender issue, the app’s developer has generated substantial controversy. Many have concluded that the app itself is sexist in its assumptions (a) that women use softer language than men (it’s not clear whether there is any evidence to support this assertion — my own brief searches haven’t found anything conclusive) and (b) that the answer is for women to toughen up their language, rather than for men to soften theirs (and, indeed, the assumption that men don’t already use soft language just as readily as women, it often being contextually useful or diplomatic to do so).
Putting the gender issue to one side, what interests me about Just Not Sorry is the potential role of code like this in editorial streamlining — an automated way not necessarily to strip apologetic language out, but at least to encourage people to weigh each word and delete those that are likely superfluous for the context. Sometimes, as I intimate above, we can use “apologetic” or “indirect” language to soften a tough message (the Steven Pinker video that David posted before Christmas touches on this). But quite a lot of the time, we don’t need so many “I thinks”, “maybes” and “justs”, and the app might usefully be developed to flag up other such padding words (perhaps “with all due respect” or “for me personally” or the many other tautologies, eggcorns, malapropisms, mondegreens and so on that obfuscate our communications). The app developers take requests; future iterations could play a wider role in helping authors self-edit their prose.
Thinking about the extent to which authors self-edit, and their goals and skills in doing so, reminded me of an SEO workshop I participated in last month at the British Ecological Society’s annual conference (slides and write-up). The workshop aimed to help authors understand the importance of optimizing their work for search engines — which boils down to two things: language and links. The language piece is essentially a process of self-editing, and working to make your communications clear not only to your range of human readers, but also to your robot readers. Of course, the algorithms of search engines are ever shifting, but we talked through some of the accepted “knowns” — the Goldilocks approach to keywords (not too broad, not too narrow), the need to consistently use these keywords in your abstract without “stuffing” it full of them — and the need to keep your titles short and descriptive.
This was perhaps the most thought-provoking part of the workshop, as so many authors (I include myself) have tended to structure titles with an initial “interesting” clause followed by a second, more descriptive clause. (Witold Kieńć gives a nice example of this in his OpenScience blog posting: “‘Therapy X decreased mortality in Y disease in a group of forty males’ is a much better title than ‘Victory on an invisible enemy: success in fighting disease Y with therapy X’.”) Yes, the latter might catch the eye when skimming a table of contents but what proportion of our readers are doing that any more? Our most important reader is Google, and it likes its titles short — I don’t think it’s a coincidence that yet another study (published in The Royal Society’s Open Science journal last August) has found that articles with shorter titles attract more citations; as well as being easier to understand, they’re likely to have higher rankings in search engines and therefore more easily found. It’s also likely not a coincidence that not a single one of 2015’s most talked about papers (according to the Altmetric 100) employs the fun:factual title style.
As ever with conference workshops, only a subset of the delegates made it to our workshop. They ranged in career level and all seemed to find the guidance worthy of note-taking, so clearly there are some simple tips that could be more widely conveyed — but how? Sure, publishers and institutions could fold more SEO training into wider writing-up-your-research guidance, but not everyone uses such resources. What everyone does use is writing software. I wonder if we’ll see Authorea, Overleaf or even Microsoft Word taking a leaf out of Just Not Sorry’s book and providing in-context hints about writing style. Scholarly authors may not need to be told to make their language less apologetic, but many of us could do with tightening up how we communicate, for our human as well as our machine readers.