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Editor's Blog

Too Many Equations for Biologists

Numerous sources claim that Stephen Hawking once said that someone had told him that every equation he put in one of his books would reduce sales by half. Apparently, that’s true of biology papers as well.

According to a study by Tim W. Fawcett and Andrew D. Higginson, scheduled to come out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), including lots of equations in a biology paper reduces its influence, with the most math-heavy papers receiving 50% fewer citations, on average, than other papers.

Strangely, while the article is about biologists–the article is titled “Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists”–the EurekAlert press release makes it sound as if this phenomenon applies to science articles in general. But one presumes that you would not find the same bias in, say, a theoretical physics journal.

So what should biology researchers do? Avoiding equations in science–even biology–probably isn’t a good idea. Assuming the authors have drawn the correct conclusion–that is, that math-heavy biology papers aren’t inherently less important than math-light ones–it probably makes sense to put your equations in an appendix, where, the article’s authors say, they did not affect citation rates.

Once the article is live it will appear here