It is a commonplace that arts and science scholarly writing is different. It’s only when looking regularly at arts and science writing that you begin to see just how different. Some of the differences appear to have little justification; others are simple to understand when the context of arts and science publishing is taken into account. One of the most noticeable is the different attitudes to citations and references in arts and science publications.
Scientists don’t write books – at least, that’s what they often claim. Scientists write articles. I was shown around the library of the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford a few years ago. The head of the Institute told me proudly that the library contained not a single book; “we are so far ahead of books”, he stated, “they would be out of date as soon as they are published!”. By contrast the unit of research in much of the arts, especially history and literary criticism is the monograph.
But even in scholarly articles and shorter works, there are fundamental differences between arts and science publishing. To give some examples, I looked at an exhibition catalogue Feast and Fast, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in November 2019. I noticed the following differences from science writing. As a rule, academic science writing is far more predictable, and as a result, I would argue, it’s often a lot easier to read a science article. Not because of the argument, but because as a reader you don’t have to keep trying to second-guess the author.
Footnotes in the exhibition catalogue, for example, are a mixture of references to titles and the authors discussing further what is in the text. As a reader, I don’t know if a footnote has authorial content or not – so it means I have to look up every footnote. Curators, I don’t have time. Put your argument in the body of the text and leave the footnotes just for references. This problem occurs with text by the exhibition curators, but not with the other contributors. I wish more authors could be like Michael Screech, who in the Foreword to his Montaigne & Melancholy (2000), states “This book has been so written that the footnotes can be entirely ignored by those who do not want to go into technicalities”. It’s a lovely idea, but unfortunately even Mr Screech cannot restrain himself from reviewing his text in the footnotes. Some of the footnotes are fascinating – but they shouldn’t be there.
Citations in multiple lists
When you look up a reference in the exhibition catalogue, there are three separate sets: primary literature, secondary literature, and other exhibition catalogues. Why not have just one list of references? It doesn’t seem to happen in science publications.
In contrast, a recent science journal article referring to William Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, has references to Harvey’s writings and references to articles published a few months ago in a single list:
Choice of typeface
Even the typefaces used vary between arts and science publications. In the exhibition catalogue I am examining, individual numbers have different heights, resulting in a less legible presentation of numbers. If you use the following typeface, the numbers are not so easy to read.
Captioning of images
All images should be captioned at the point where they appear. You might think this an absolute necessity, but this exhibition catalogue fails to caption many of the largest pictures: those that appear on the facing page to new chapters. Granted, these pictures will also appear somewhere else in the text, but how does the reader find where else? You look through 300 pictures until you find the one that matches. A waste of time.