Observations Out of Hours

How not to make an impression

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d4392 (Published 13 July 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4392
  1. Christopher Martyn, associate editor, BMJ
  1. cmartyn{at}bmj.com

Why do scientists write the sort of tosh that they do?

The opening line of George Orwell’s 1984 reads: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” It’s a clever sentence that softens readers up with a commonplace remark about the weather before springing an ambush with the last word. Not many novelists match Orwell’s genius, but even so they all take a lot of trouble to start their stories in a way that’s unusual, moving, arresting, or poetic—for the obvious reason that they need to persuade the reader that it’s worth moving on to the next sentence.

Let’s look at some research papers for comparison. A haphazard sampling of recent BMJ articles finds opening sentences telling us that osteoporotic fractures occur frequently in elderly people, that the purpose of cervical screening is to decrease the burden of cervical cancer, and that low back pain is common. Are the authors imitating Orwell by deliberately lulling us to sleep so as to intensify a surprise that’s in store? I’m afraid not. They’re just boring us by telling us …

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