Thursday, August 27, 2020

Hewitt's 10 Commandments for Academic Writing

Richard M. Hewitt worked as an editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association, among other publications. He wrote a pithy essay about some shortcomings he commonly observed in an essay in the medical literature: "Exposition as Applied to Medicine: A Glance at the Ethics of It" (JAMA, October 2, 1954, 156:5, pp. 477-479). Hewitt wrote: 
Physicians are under obligation to teach, and teaching is done largely by means of the printed page. When I chose medical editing as my full-time contribution to that educational effort, I entered an occupation that W.  Albert NoyesJr. recently said is a way to lose old friends and to make no new ones. True enough, an editor is paid to find fault. The faultfinding here, however, will be broadly based. First in work on The Journal of this association, and later in war work supported by my present organization, I read thousands of manuscripts that originated in places situated throughout the United States. I aim, then, at no person, at no group, but at certain writing practices that, springing from innocent motives, finally have beset members of the medical profession.
After some discussion with real-world examples, Hewitt summarize with 10 commandments: 
Therefore, may I submit 10 commandments for the medical expositor, and consider them, please, always with the realization that an exceptional circumstance may make one or another of them inapplicable: 
  1. Thou shalt not, unless circumstances be extraordinary, release for publication a paper that neither contains anything new nor sheds new light on something old.
  2. Thou shalt not allow thy name to appear as a coauthor unless thou hast some authoritative knowledge of the subject concerned, hast participated in the underlying investigation, and hast labored on the report to the extent of weighing every word and quantity therein.
  3. Thou shalt not fail to place within quotation marks the words of another, nor shalt thou fail to verify the accuracy of thy quotations.
  4. Thou shalt not consider that to alter the words of another frees thee from the obligation to credit that other with an idea that thou hast borrowed from him.
  5. Thou shalt not publish a reference in such manner that the reader will think thou hast read a certain article if thou hast read only an abstract or paraphrase thereof.
  6. Thou shalt not write to please thyself but to meet the needs of thy reader.
  7. Thou shalt not publish, as if thou wert sure of it, that of which thou art not sure.
  8. Thou shalt not allow one part of thy paper to disagree with another part thereof.
  9. Thou shalt not mix categories.
  10. Thou shalt not fail to verify, again and yet again, thy arithmetic.
As someone who has worked as the Managing Editor of an academic journal for the last 34 years, albeit in economics rather than in medicine, I will say only that a clear majority of these concerns remain  uncomfortably present.