Math is tough for scientists, too
Scientists tend to skip over articles that have lots of equations in them, a bad sign for the research community that relies on duplication of test results.
Mon, Jun 25, 2012 at 03:09 PM
TIRED YET?: French astrophysician Andre Brahic writes an equation at the headquarters of the French Atomic energy commission Saclay in 2009. (Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP)
WASHINGTON — Artistic types are not the only ones whose eyes glaze over when confronted with too many numbers, according to research out on June 25 that suggests scientists, too, find lots of equations hard to read.
The study by researchers at the University of Bristol analyzed nearly 650 studies on ecology and evolution published in three leading journals in 1998.
They found that papers with more equations in the text were less likely to be cited in future papers, signaling that scientists may not be paying attention to research that is jammed with mathematical details.
Studies with the most math in them were referenced 50 percent less often than those with little or no math, said the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a US peer-reviewed journal.
"This is an important issue," said Tim Fawcett, lead author of the study titled: "Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists."
"Nearly all areas of science rely on close links between mathematical theory and experimental work," he said.
"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."
Co-author Andrew Higginson suggested that adding a bit of verbal flourish might help experts get their point across.
"Scientists need to think more carefully about how they present the mathematical details of their work," he said.
"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."
Copyright 2012 AFP Global Edition