Academic writing & publishing is vastly different in STEM vs humanities

We often talk about THE academic writing and publishing rules as if they were homogeneous and monolithic.

However, the reality is different. For example, researchers seeking publication advice in the Facebook group Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped yield wildly different answers to their questions, which is related to the different backgrounds of the group members.

During my PhD I took part in a soft-skill program targeting women in natural sciences. The course on academic writing was led by a historian. I remember how baffled we all were sitting there, listening to what felt like a very different reality than what we knew from our PhD research. Finally we lost our composure when the trainer advised us to use complex sentences to demonstrate our language skills so our work is taken more seriously. We thought: “What?! Isn’t the research supposed to speak for itself, and the language should simply convey the contents as simply and clearly as possible?!”

I kept this experience in mind when deciding to become a trainer for academic writing and publishing, and explicitly specialized in STEM disciplines. My course participants seem to appreciate the targeted and therefore highly relevant advice. Yet I still get numerous requests from universities to conduct courses open for students of all backgrounds. These I politely decline, explaining what is now obvious to me but apparently invisible to these research administrators:
Academic writing and publishing conventions differ substantially between individual disciplines. There is a (rather coarse) pattern with main discrepancies appearing between STEM and humanities, between the quantitative and qualitative research (with social sciences falling somewhere in-between). These differences are so huge that we can safely talk about two separate research cultures, even two different worlds.

Since I clearly belong to the STEM world with my background in computational biology, the world of humanities was always more or less a mystery to me. By following the Reviewer 2 Must be Stopped Facebook group I got fascinating glimpses into the for me exotic way to go about research publications. To build a more complete picture and directly compare the academic publishing conventions in STEM and humanities I crowdsourced the experience of the Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped group members who shared interesting stories:
“Thomas Kuhn once said that at Princeton, when someone in the humanities came up for tenure, the question was always ‘where’s the book,’ while if someone had a book in the sciences they would say ‘how did he think he had time to write a book.’”

Especially intriguing is the experience of researchers with interdisciplinary work that includes both of these research cultures:
“[A]s a humanities-leaning sociologist, it took me some time to get used to the prestige afforded to meta-analyses in harder disciplines. We don’t have the same assumption of objectivity, so comparing lots of articles is useful as a lit. review but isn’t expected to create any kind of authoritative insight.

As a sociologist dipping into harder material the sheer volume of articles in the sciences is also impressive. They often seem more straightforward but there are a lot. Again, the value of published meta-analyses makes sense in this context.”

Yet the responses also pointed out misunderstandings, even conflicts, between these two research worlds:
“[T]he medicine/hard science-oriented university where I work has no understanding of the value of books as the outcome of original research because they only value reports from medical research and “science,” so they just want us to publish a lot of short articles (typically by multiple authors, which I virtually never see in my field [of ethnographic anthropology]) for the sake of producing more titles. They will only acknowledge a “textbook” (not “book”), albeit at no higher value than an article. This feels to me like a violation of the normal concept of a humanities book as an independent contribution to scholarship, not just some kind of overview for students.”

Based on these reports and an interview with Dr Claudia Macho, a writing trainer for humanities, we can construct a broad picture of the differences in academic writing and publishing between STEM and humanities. Necessarily, such a broad picture contains generalizations and therefore can’t reflect the exact situation in every field. Nevertheless, it offers a qualitative overview and a general understanding of the different writing and publishing cultures.

In the humanities, writing is an integral part of research work. New knowledge is generated by reading, thinking and writing.
Due to the predominantly qualitative character of research, research articles tend to be longer (20-30 pages or even more are common) with a flexible structure and a rich and diverse language. In most fields, book publications are highly valued, and a PhD thesis is considered to be the first draft of a book proposal.

Research in humanities is often carried out individually, so single-authored publications are the norm in many fields and supervisors are typically not much involved in the research and publications of their PhD students.

The publication process tends to last long, typically extending to over a year, partly due to the greater length of research articles and lower publishing rate (many journals publish only one volume per year). Journal impact factor does not exist in many if not most fields.

In contrast, research work in STEM is typically distinct from reading and writing, involving practical work (experiments/simulations/calculations) that is the basis for publications. As a result, the writing process is considered secondary, something that can happen rather quickly once the “actual” work is done.

Research articles tend to be short (5-15 pages) with a fixed structure and ideally simple, precise and concise language. Book publications don’t play an important role, and PhD theses are typically divided and published as multiple research articles.

Most of STEM research is collaborative, which is reflected in the predominance of multi-authored publications. Supervisors and even whole teams are involved in the work of PhD students.
The publication process is typically shorter than in the humanities. The time from submission to acceptance can last less than a year and it’s considered appropriate to inquire about the manuscript status as early as 3 months after submission. Journal impact factor and other metrics play an important role in the evaluation of research and researchers.

There are, of course, many more differences between individual fields that don’t fit in the STEM vs. humanities dichotomy (for example, the role of conference papers or single- vs. double-blind peer review). However, this broad picture clearly shows the vast differences in writing and publishing conventions between the two research cultures.

Knowing about these differences is important not only for picking the right advice or writing course; a better understanding of the different research cultures can also lead to less prejudice and more collaboration between the different disciplines. As one researcher put it:
“My in-laws are all hard scientists. I can’t tell you how often my work gets subtly devalued because we are ‘soft science.’ [..] Honestly, I hate that there are not more collaborations between hard and social sciences. We would both have much better results. STEM needs the humanities to work. And humanities, though very complexly ambiguous, need the STEM fields to broaden our scopes.”

Written by: Martina Michalikova