More equations = fewer citations

Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists. PNAS published ahead of print June 25, 2012.  Tim Fawcett and Andrew Higginson, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.

Just published, an interesting article showing in a pretty quantitative way (naturally!) that the more equations there are in a paper, the less likely it is to be cited in a non-theoretical journal. As the authors point out there are two possible solutions, one is to improve the mathematical training of biologists and the other is for authors to think very carefully about how they communicate the mathematics. The latter is likely to be more do-able.

The authors analysed papers published in 1998 in the top three journals specializing in ecology and evolution: Evolution, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, and The American Naturalist. They suggesting moving many of the equations to an appendix (where they don’t affect the citation rate) and including a narrative in the text to explain the assumptions and workings of the modelling.

You could take a “deficit” model to this and assume that biologists are at fault because they don’t like maths. However I would turn it on its head and say that communicating maths in words and pictures is really difficult for everyone no matter how good they are at maths. We need to pay much more attention to this and be more creative with it.

I would ask journals to encourage the use of animations and video, now much more amenable to publication even if only as supplementary information. Simulations can really help everyone, including non-mathematicians, to visualise what is going on. Many people, even trainee mathematicians, find lots of equations difficult to read (see for example Peter Kahn, Studying Mathematics and its Applications, Palgrave, 2001).

About JennyAKoenig

I am Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, Therapeutics and Toxicology at the University of Nottingham. My interests are: maths education for bioscientists, study skills for scientists with specific learning difficulties and pharmacology: bringing the science behind how medicines work (or don't!) to a wider audience. I have a PhD in Pharmacology from the University of Cambridge and a BSc (Hons 1) from the University of Sydney. I have taught maths and pharmacology to science, medical and veterinary students at University and biology, chemistry, physics and maths at a large comprehensive secondary school.
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