Paradigm Shifts in academic publishing: Is how we write a problem?

Recently I have been exploring the topic of science writing and communication, through a class on science comm, this blog, and through reading tons of papers (because you know, grad student). Throughout my adventures I have discovered something very interesting. Often I will read a paper inside of my own field, tangentially related to my own work, or even a paper about science communication, and have absolutely no idea what the authors are talking about for a large part of the paper. Often this makes me feel like the guy on the left…

But… is it my fault? Some of the time the answer is obviously yes. I can re-read or focus on something new to understand a paper better, but that doesn’t always work. Shouldn’t a paper about science communication be communicated in a way that makes it easy for scientists to understand? We are the target audience, especially those of us interested in becoming better communicators (we don’t have this blog for nothing). My impostor syndrome is not the only thing that makes it tough to  read papers. It is in part the way we write and here is why:

1.) We spend so much time wrapped up in the minutia of a project that we forget what it is like to not know all of that stuff.

It is important to take a step back when you are writing. Not everyone knows the specifics of coral lipid isotope ratios (to use an example from my own life). Make sure you keep the big picture in mind. Why are you doing your research? What are the broader impacts?

2.) We usually focus on writing to a small subset of scientists within our own discipline.

Most of the time science is published in a technical journal aimed at those who do similar work. However, articles often appear in Nature or Science laden with technical jargon. These articles also often assume that the reader has some background knowledge of the topic. I’ve read a multitude of geochemical papers from recent issues of Nature that have done just this. Certainly as someone with a biology, geology, and geochemical background I should be able to interpret and understand at least the main points of such an article. Usually I can figure out the basics, but what about the other readers? Nature is widely read by the scientific community and the educated population in general. Authors who have published in Nature are probably screaming “PAGE LIMITS” right now. I know you are limited to a few pages and a few figures, but make it count. This is a big publication for you. So, tell us all what the big result is and why it matters. Don’t fill your pages full of jargon and tons of specifics without giving us a proper background. The page limit is intended to make the research more accessible. Re-asses what is actually important and work from there. In my mind the focus should be on the major findings. What are they and why do they matter to science, to your sub-field, and to the public. Tell me that and you win in my book. Everyone lives winning!
Everyone lives winning!

3.) Some of us like to write like the “smartest person in the room.”

Science usually occurs in an academic environment. We spend a lot of time in our insulated “ivory tower.” There are a lot of other really smart people in here with us. Sometimes there is infighting, sometimes there is jealously, all the time there is competition (for jobs, grant money, publications, projects, you name it, we compete for it). Getting a publication out should not be an exercise in “my dad can beat up your dad.” People shouldn’t write in a way that makes them sound insanely smart. They should write in a way that is understandable for the audience. If that is a small audience of peers, then you can be technical, but there is no need to make it difficult to understand. Be straightforward. If the audience is the public, well…

4.) Writing to the public is totally different!

It totally is! We all know it. Some of us don’t do it because it is different and many of us struggle to do it for those same reasons. The public don’t really care much for your methods. They also probably don’t care about the background. They want the headline. Why should they care? Why does it matter? How do you hit them with an attention grabber without giving it all away (you do want them to read the paper after all)? Perhaps write a provocative title. Next, go ahead and write that introduction, but make it brief. You can fill in the blanks later, get to the results. Once they have heard the punchline they will tune out (if they aren’t interested), or they will keep reading to find out the big picture, and maybe even some details about the project. The public take a different approach than scientists and it is important to understand the differences. The best way to do this is to interact with them more. Don’t shy away from the reporters or anyone else who might try to expose the public to your science. Can what you do benefit people? If not, is it cool? There are people who probably want to hear about what you do (other than your family. Hi Mom!). We shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for our science. Isn’t that why we are here, to make a difference?

Interested in this topic?

Check out some of my previous posts about the topic here and here


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