Storytellers make the most influential scientific researchers

Telling the earth’s tale.
Telling the earth’s tale.
Image: Reuters/Rodrigo Garrido
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s a crowded world and anyone who wants to be heard has to be a storyteller. This is just as true for climate scientists as it is for Kanye West.

The vast majority of climate science research published goes unnoticed and is rarely if ever cited, leaving gaps in our shared knowledge. But researchers who tell a good tale, using narrative elements rather than expository writing, prove an exception to this rule and are more influential as a result, according to a study led by ecologist and lawyer Ryan Kelley of the University of Washington College of the Environment, published on Dec. 15 in Plos One.

The discovery is remarkable, making spinning a good yarn—always essential to romantics, writers, and salespeople—a critical scientific skill.

Scientific research is proliferating, as are the number of peer-reviewed publications. As a result, papers that aren’t cited are rendered essentially irrelevant, and are quickly lost in the deluge of articles released today. So the ecologists wanted to test for a way to improve a paper’s chances of reception and recognition, asking whether writing style affects article influence.

They started by reviewing 730 article abstracts published on climate change science between 2009 and 2010. Using metrics of narrativity from psychology and literary theory—such as conjunctions, sentence connectivity, and an appeal or plea—the team assessed the abstracts for narrative or expositive qualities; narratives use transitions, for example, and appeal to audience emotions, whereas expositive abstracts present objective observations and logical propositions, like ”if X, then Y.”

Then the ecologists measured the influence of the 730 papers, based on the extent to which they were cited by other researchers during the five years following publication.

“We find that articles with more narrative abstracts are cited more often,” the authors write in the resulting study. “This effect is closely associated with journal identity: higher-impact journals tend to feature more narrative articles, and these articles tend to be cited more often. These results suggest that writing in a more narrative style increases the uptake and influence of articles in climate literature, and perhaps in scientific literature more broadly.”

Currently, the researchers note, professional scientific writing tends to be expository, “prioritizing objective observations made by detached researchers…to define the structure of the argument.” But it seems storytelling—whether simple or apocalyptic—has better chances of capturing public attention, spurring action, influencing perceptions, and impacting policy.

The study’s findings support a famous story about Albert Einstein: Legend has it that when confronted by an ambitious mother in search of the secret to scientific success on behalf of her still-very-young son, the famous physicist responded, “Fairy tales and more fairy tales.” Pressed for more details, he added that “creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist.”