Taking as his starting point my “rant” about the impenetrability of scientific papers in mathematics, Jason Rosenhouse has written a nice essay on what it’s like to be a mathematician who has to try to make sense of the papers of other mathematicians. It turns out that those papers are often as impenetrable to math professors as to us biologists:
Of course, jargon is an affliction common to just about every academic discipline, and not just in the sciences. I would say, though, that math is probably among the worst offenders. The abstract of a typical research paper in mathematics is opaque not just to non-mathematicians, but to all mathematicians who are not specialists in the particular research area being addressed. And when I say opaque, I mean opaque. As in, you won’t make it past the first sentence.
Biology certainly is not as bad. In evolutionary biology I am definitely an amateur, but I find that I can often understand the introduction and discussion sections of a typical paper well enough to explain the gist to someone else. In math, it is usually impossible even to explain the problem to a non-mathematician. . . .
. . . Simply put, it is an awful, almost physically unpleasant experience to read a research paper in mathematics, at least if you want anything more than a superficial understanding of what was done. That is why it takes so damn long to get a paper through peer review. It’s because every time the referee glances over at the paper sitting on top of the filing cabinet, he thinks of something else he’d rather be doing. If you learn the fate of your paper within six months you’ve beaten the odds, but it’s even money that your paper will just disappear into the ether.
Jason goes on to fault math teaching in general, as well as math textbooks, which, by and large, he sees as “simply horrible.” But he also finds hope in the increasing emphasis on expository writing. The piece is worth a read, if for no other reason than to hear the travails of people in another branch of science.