Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists by Tim W. Fawcett and Andrew D. Higginson. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 25, 2012 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1205259109)
Most research in biology is empirical, yet empirical studies rely fundamentally on theoretical work for generating testable predictions and interpreting observations. Despite this interdependence, many empirical studies build largely on other empirical studies with little direct reference to relevant theory, suggesting a failure of communication that may hinder scientific progress. To investigate the extent of this problem, we analyzed how the use of mathematical equations affects the scientific impact of studies in ecology and evolution. The density of equations in an article has a significant negative impact on citation rates, with papers receiving 28% fewer citations overall for each additional equation per page in the main text. Long, equation-dense papers tend to be more frequently cited by other theoretical papers, but this increase is outweighed by a sharp drop in citations from nontheoretical papers (35% fewer citations for each additional equation per page in the main text). In contrast, equations presented in an accompanying appendix do not lessen a paper’s impact. Our analysis suggests possible strategies for enhancing the presentation of mathematical models to facilitate progress in disciplines that rely on the tight integration of theoretical and empirical work.
I first saw this in Scientists Struggle With Mathematical Details, Study by Biologists Finds, where Higginson remarks on one intermediate solution:
Scientists need to think more carefully about how they present the mathematical details of their work. The ideal solution is not to hide the maths away, but to add more explanatory text to take the reader carefully through the assumptions and implications of the theory.
An excellent suggestion, considering that scientists don’t speak to each other in notation but in less precise natural language.