Scientists struggle with dense equations, study finds

Scientists struggle with dense equations, study finds


A new study from the University of Bristol shows that scientists gloss over research with pages of dense equations.

Dr. Tim Fawcett and Dr. Andrew Higginson, both research Biologists at Bristol, found that a high density of mathematical equations could significantly impact citation rates.

By studying the impact of mathematical equations upon scientific studies in ecology and evolutionary work they found that while theoretical scientists still tend to cite mathematically dense papers, non-theoretical scientists notably do not.

Their study showed that papers with an abundance of quantitative data were cited 28 percent less than those without, tacking on an additional 35 percent fewer citations for each subsequent page of equations. Studies where the most math appears can even be cited a full 50 percent less.

Drs. Fawcett and Higginson designed the experiment to see whether or not scientists were succeeding in communicating between theoretical work and the necessary empirical data that investigates it.

Dr. Fawcett sums up the problem by saying “…nearly all areas of science rely on close links between mathematical theory and experimental work. If new theories are presented in a way that is off-putting to other scientists, then no one will perform the crucial experiments needed to test those theories. This presents a barrier to scientific progress.”

Rather than adding more mathematics to the required college curriculum in scientific fields, the authors suggest more pragmatic approaches. Certainly a detailed explanation in addition to large portions of mathematical equations would increase understanding between scientists; however, with page space at a premium in most scientific journals, this solution is not always possible.

Dr. Higginson explains, “Scientists need to think more carefully about how they present the mathematical details of their work.” Thankfully, if the equations are presented in an accompanying appendix, the citation rates go unaffected. Dr Fawcett explains how this compromise is possible, “The top journals want articles to be extremely concise, with many of the technical details going in an online appendix.”

This solution allows for the verbal explication of findings and the purpose of dense mathematical equations within the article while still maintaining the integrity of the mathematical theory behind the work in an appendix. Dr. Higginson continues by saying, “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.”

Although scientists may still worry about the citations their papers will receive if they include heavy mathematical equations, exploring alternative means of communication—whether through an online appendix or detailed in-text explications—will now become a priority alongside technically correct and innovative work. Perhaps future studies will further explore the communication of dense mathematical equations and continue to develop strategies to resolve this issue.