Watson & Crick, sure. What about Gorter & Grendel?
They just don’t write ‘em like they used to. Of course, I’m referring to scholarly journal articles. One of my favorite examples is the seminal paper by Evert Gorter and François Grendel entitled “On Bimolecular Layers of Lipoids On The Chromocytes of The Blood,” which was published in the Journal of Expermental Medicine in 1925. This paper is noteworthy because it proved that the structure of cell membrane is a bilayer.
The Abstract opens: “We propose to demonstrate in this paper that the chromocytes [red blood cells] of different animals are covered by a layer of lipoids [lipids] just two molecules thick.” You don’t encounter an understated turn of phrase like “propose to demonstrate” in contemporary biology papers, because so much published today is a bold proof-of-concept, which, ironically, often doesn’t survive the test of time or replication.
The difference between modern and classical papers glares in the Methods section. Obviously, one has to control for the fact that experiments of yore were technically less challenging. It’s the loss of narrative flow and any sense of first-person action in explanations of today’s experimental protocols that is so distressing, and I would argue it contributes to the lack of reproducibility lamented by many biologists. By contrast, consider this passage from Gorter and Grendel’s paper: “After several extractions, the acetone was filtered into a glass beaker and the liquid evaporated on a water bath. This procedure was the most difficult part of the operation because loss was very liable to occur at this time.” Such a line in a paper today would be tantamount to an admission of guilt rather than an honest account of manual experimentation.
Finally, what you see is what you get in terms of data presentation. No supplementary files. No byzantine 12-panel figures. Just an easy-to-interpret table:
Granted, there are few moving parts to the experiments performed by Gorter and Grendel and so the paper is a brisk 5 pages. But my larger point is that older papers are entirely self-contained. Perhaps we should resurrect the tradition of writing shorter, intellectually crisper papers – more communications, fewer tomes.