Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists

Condensed Matter journal club

Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists

  • Event time: 11:30am
  • Event date: 19th October 2012
  • Speaker: (School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Edinburgh)
  • Location: Room 2511,

Event details


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.
PNAS 109 Pages 117 (2012)9
pdf version of paper


Tim W. Fawcett and Andrew D. Higginson

About Condensed Matter journal club

Given the diversity of research in the CM group, chosen topics vary widely. We tend to stick to high-impact journals - Nature, Science, PNAS and PRL have been popular - but this is not prescriptive..

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