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To Make Climate Science More Compelling, Try Telling a Story

Narrative writing is more common in widely read journals, a new study finds.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Stories help us make sense of the world and are a valuable tool for remembering details. There’s just something (actually, manythings) about narrative that makes it more compelling and memorable than, say, raw statistics.

That fact seems to extend to climate science too: According to a new study, research papers that favor narrative writing over more conventional exposition are more likely to appear in widely read journals and get cited by others.

“Evidence from psychology and literary theory suggests that audiences better understand and remember narrative writing in comparison with expository writing,” University of Washington scientists Ann Hillier, Ryan P. Kelly, and Terrie Klinger write in PLoS One. That statement extends to climate research: Narratives can, at least some of the time, engage the public and spur action. Despite that fact, storytelling is usually frowned upon in science, to the extent that some disciplines even discourage writing in the first person.

All of which makes Hillier, Kelly, and Klinger’s conclusion a little bit odd: Regardless of whatever scientists think are their norms, climate science papers written in a narrative style are more likely to appear in high-impact journals and get more citations.

To reach that conclusion, the team first collected 732 abstracts—the research summaries that appear at the start of most academic papers—from 19 journals that published a substantial number of climate science studies. They then had 155 users on the crowdsourcing website CrowdFlower review each abstract with an eye toward a variety of narrative elements, including the presence of sensory or emotional language, the use of conjunctions, words or phrases that create explicit connections between two sentences, and appeals (for example, a specific policy recommendation).

Combining those factors into a “narrativity index” revealed that, the more a study’s abstract read like a story, the more other researchers cited it: Studies with the most narrative abstracts received nearly four times as many citations on average as those with the least narrative ones, the team found. Some of that is due to the journals themselves—papers published in high-visibility journals such as Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tend to earn more citations—but the effect remains even after taking account of a journal’s impact factor.

The researchers can’t say exactly why they found these patterns; in particular, the data does not allow to them to say whether writing in a narrative style actually leads to more citations or publication in widely read journals. But scientists may still have something to learn from their results.

“Peer-reviewed scientific discourse is often viewed as a special form of communication, exempt from the qualities of narratives that humans inherently relate to,” the team writes. “However, our findings support an alternative interpretation: scientists can engage readers and increase uptake by incorporating narrative attributes into their writing styles.”

Sometimes it really does pay to be eloquent.