Writing a scientific paper is as complex as it is gratifying.
To take one on, researchers have to complete literature reviews and orchestrate tests — which they have to design, conduct, and debug. After that, they write pages upon pages of dense text, respond to peer feedback, and more before they can get their foot in a journal’s door.
That’s enough screen time to make one wish for blue light-blocking glasses and a few days staring out at Walden Pond.
According to Miaomiao Zhang, a postdoc at the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub and in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, something that often gets lost in the shuffle of writing a paper is a concern for the figures and tables inside it.
“When researchers take on a paper, I find that we focus a lot on the writing process. This is to be expected, of course, but I find that we can obsess over the language of our papers to the detriment of the big picture,” observes Zhang, whose research at the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub focuses on the sectoral environmental footprints and avoided emissions associated with paving materials decisions. “I feel that civil engineers are especially likely to fall into this trap.”
If you skim a few civil engineering publications and compare them to top journals in disciplines like biology or chemistry, you might notice that the graphics in the former tend to be less sophisticated.
“You can tell that authors in different disciplines emphasize different things. Civil engineers tend to take less pride in their figures, which they frequently make in Excel rather than a graphics program,” she adds.
To Zhang, this is a stumbling block for civil engineering research, as poor figures can make even incredible work less accessible. She is attempting to change this, one engineer at a time.