Saturday, April 28, 2012

English usage convention for scientific publications: "Related work" vs. "Related works"

Yesterday, we got back reviews for a journal article where a reviewer suggests that we change the title of our Section 2 from "Related Work" to "Related Works". In the review, the comment was included in a list headed "Typos (I think)" so the reviewer is not sure exactly what is going on. The reviewer's self doubt is well founded:

In the context of a review of previous research on a topic in a scientific publication, "related work" is the correct expression and not "related works".

There are several places on the internet that provide clarity on this point. Typing a query "related work" vs. "related works" into your favorite search engine will give you nice set of pages asking you to please use "related work" and not "related works" when writing a scientific publication. Examples are:

I'm not trying to add another link to that list with this blog post. Rather, I want to add a couple of comments about why the distinction is important.

"Work" can be used as either a count noun or a mass noun. Mass nouns refer to undifferentiated substances, which can not be conceptualized as individual entities and, for this reason, it does not make sense to use such nouns in the plural. "Fuel" is a mass noun. Count nouns refer to entities that are discrete and differentiable and are, for this reason, countable---such such nouns can be used in the plural. "Airplane" is a count noun.

So, I suppose, as an author of a scientific paper, you are free to choose whether you consider research work to be an undifferentiated substance or set of discrete entities and choose "related work" or "related works" accordingly. Why then, is it so disturbing to read "related works"?

I thought about this point a bit and I realized that it is disturbing because the difference has some pretty profound implications for how we conceptualize scientific research. Is our scientific output making a contribution to a mass of knowledge, joining the efforts of scientists that went before us and available to those who go after? Is it meant to be tapped by others, reproduced and extended? For me the answers are "yes" and "yes'. The results of scientific effort flow together to become an undifferentiated resource pool whose value lies in how it advances the collective knowledge of the species and how it can be put to productive use. Under this conceptualization of scientific work, it is only possible to use the mass noun, which does not ever occur in the plural.

The expression "Related works" evokes a conceptualization of scientific work as a set of discrete entities, individual units of output created by the efforts of individuals with the idea that they will remain untouched in their individuality. Under such a view, each paper published would be a work of art, embodying the creative force of an individual researcher or an individual team and intended to be admired, rather than built upon, reproduced, validated or improved. Indeed, when the art world makes the plural of "work" they say "works" as in "works of art". These are clearly individual entities, finished works, ready to hang on the wall of the gallery.

We do sometimes feel this way about our work as researchers: our biggest and best conferences have the exciting, invigorating atmosphere of an art show opening, where you get to meet the great creative spirits and enjoy wonder and admiration at what they have produced. However, after the conference, we go home and take these amazing new papers apart and work with them in a way they makes clear that we see them as substance to be extended and not as finished works meant for framing and hanging on the wall.

So, please, yes, it's "related work". You probably already know that deep in your own scientist soul. You really wouldn't ever write "related researches" would you? "Research" is of course also a mass noun, also denoting our scientific effort and underlining its part of a larger flow.

At a more general level, I do sincerely believe that we should all adopt World English: drop some of the finer points about word choice and grammar conventions and just write papers in clear simple sentences that can be easily understood by anyone with a working grasp of the language. However, for a "work" vs. "works" distinction remains, in my opinion, an important one: it gives us a chance to reflect on how we conceptualized our contributions to our scientific field. Maintaining the distinction allows us to continue to express a subtlety important to our underlying scientific culture and mission.