The study, published in the New Journal of Physics, shows that physicists pay less attention to theories that are crammed with mathematical details.
The researchers found using statistical analysis of the number of citations to 2,000 articles in a leading physics journal, that articles are less likely to be referenced by other physicists if they have lots of mathematical equations on each page.
“We have already showed that biologists are put off by equations but we were surprised by these findings, as physicists are generally skilled in mathematics,” said Tim Fawcett, researcher at the University of Exeter, Britain.
According to the researchers, it is an important issue because it shows that there could be a disconnection between mathematical theory and experimental work which presents a potentially enormous barrier to all kinds of scientific progress.
The findings suggested improving the training of science graduates would not help, because physics students already receive extensive maths training before they graduate.
Instead, they think the solution lies in clearer communication of highly technical work, such as taking the time to describe what the equations mean.
“Physicists need to think more carefully about how they present the mathematical details of their work, to explain the theory in a way that their colleagues can quickly understand. Ideally, the impact of scientific work should be determined by its scientific value, rather than by the presentational style,” said Andrew Higginson, researcher at the University of Exeter, Britain.
The study suggests that there are real and widespread barriers to communicating mathematical work and that this is not because of poor training in mathematical skills, or because there is a social stigma about doing well in mathematics.