Researchers from the University of Bristol, in the UK, had the suspicion that biologists didn’t like math, but they couldn’t expect how much this actually affects their work. According to their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the more a study presents mathematical equations, the less it will be cited in biology papers.
They analyzed around 650 papers on ecology and evolution, and discovered that those with many equations were a 50% less cited than those with little to none math in them.
‘Nearly all areas of science rely on close links between mathematical theory and experimental work,’ says Tim W. Fawcett, co-author of the study. ‘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.’
The researchers found that any additional mathematical equation in a paper reduces its chances of being cited. On the other hand, if these equations were presented in an appendix, there was no negative impact on the paper’s citation rate.
‘Scientists need to think more carefully about how they present the mathematical details of their work,’ says co-author Andrew Higginson. ‘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.’
Fawcett TW, & Higginson AD (2012). Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 22733777