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Editing Tip: Anthropomorphism in Scientific Writing

The tendency to ascribe our own feelings and behaviors to anything we are discussing can make its way into our manuscripts. Here’s how to manage these accidents.

As humans, we tend to ascribe our own feelings and behaviors to anything we are discussing. This process, called anthropomorphism, is as old as our earliest civilizations, and it allows for more engaging and evocative storytelling. But do anthropomorphic phrases belong in scholarly discourse? Can bacteria "like" one carbon source best?

In some cases, terms that evoke our own experiences simplify discussions. One could say "yeast strain X preferred YPG as a growth medium" or "viruses choose to remain latent when conditions are not optimal," and the meaning would be abundantly clear. However, many other phrases can introduce confusion or give the reader an idea that may not accurately reflect the actual results described. Some even argue that anthropomorphic statements reduce the objectivity of research or narrow our viewpoint and prevent a true understanding of the phenomena we study. Here are a few examples of anthropomorphic statements with alternative versions that more objectively describe the observations:

  • It is unclear why cows in the US choose to face north when they eat.
    Here, the underlying assumption is that cows make a "conscious" decision to turn their bodies so that they can eat, when the true motivation may be reversed. Perhaps when a cow faces north, it chooses to eat. An alternative to this sentence (leaving agency out of the observation) reads, "It is unclear why cows in the US only eat when facing north."
  • Bacteria found in rich soil regularly attack each other.
    This statement also assumes some specific purpose to the bactericidal effects seen in large polymicrobial communities. But what if the bacteria are releasing antibiotic compounds for another purpose, and they just happen to kill nearby bacteria of other species? The very word 'attack' does not easily allow for this possibility. This statement could also be written "Bacteria found in rich soil frequently secrete compounds that kill neighboring bacteria" or even "Many bacteria in rich soil die because of the effects of other bacteria sharing their environment."

We hope that this post helped explain the concept of anthropomorphism and why it is commonly avoided in scholarly writing. As always, write us with any questions. Best wishes from AJE!

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