Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Voices in My Head Discuss Science Communication

Science communication seems like a pretty hot topic these days, but I've been hesitant to write about it. I just wasn't sure if my thoughts on the subject would merit their own post. Despite my reservations, I decided that it couldn't hurt to throw in my two cents. I'll lean toward objective assessment based on personal experience, but that's usually where opinions come from. I try to avoid having those since I know I'll be some degree of wrong no matter what.

For the sake of discussion, I've boiled SciComm down to three relevant types of involvement: scientist, science writer, and science reader. These are clearly not definitive roles, but most people fit pretty neatly into one of them. (I've omitted those that fit into a fourth category I like to call unscientists.) Where things get murky and people seem to take sides is when these roles get called into question. What better way to address this questioning than by answering hypothetical questions about it?

Why do we even need science writers? Don't scientists know how to write?

This may be a simplification of a common discussion, but cutting off the fat leaves only the meat to chew on. From what I've seen, scientists have to be capable technical writers. This format, however, is very specific and painfully redundant. As someone who has written and read his fair share of technical reports, I feel confident in saying a casual reader would rather watch Dancing with the Stars

While some scientists are able to write for a broad audience, it is unfair to expect it from all of them. If a researcher doesn't have a knack or desire for writing this way, I don't think they should have to try. I'd rather they concentrate on the science thing and leave the wordsmithing to people that enjoy it.

This isn't really applicable, but I needed something to break up the text. Everybody loves cats, right?

Wouldn't it be more efficient to have the scientists do all of the writing?

In terms of cost, having any researcher do the promoting of their work seems to be the obvious option. They tend to work on a salary, so added hours won't cost their employer. This argument lacks any real merit though. A lot of science writing is funded and published by third parties, so the employing agency has already maximized their cost. Besides, any scientist that wants two jobs for the price of one may be insane.

As far as time goes, this is probably a push. The scientist's advantage lies in writing the initial report and having a full grasp of its contents. On the other hand, the science writers sometimes receive the reports in advance of publication and are adept at learning on the fly. Once a science writer knows what they're reading, they know what they want to write.

Aren't scientists the most capable people for communicating their ideas to the general public?

While they certainly have the strongest understanding of the subject matter, I've found that scientists have difficulty relating with the target audience. This can be tough when their knowledge of a topic is notably beyond that of the reader. People like to feel smart, and reading an article written by a post-doctoral researcher seems to have an opposite effect.

Since a science writer is learning as they review the subject material, they are in a wonderful position to teach the concepts to their readers. The writers can identify key points, stumbling blocks, and complex jargon and use them as learning objectives. This may sound like a lot of work for a review of a report, but this is the type of writing most science enthusiasts read. We may see a shift as open access gains prevalence, but magazines and blogs will probably still serve the audience best.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Though I have projected a general idea that scientists should take a secondary role in science communication, I do know first hand that some of them are pretty good at it. I certainly don't read their blogs for my health. I just think that maintaining a loose hierarchy between scientist, science writer, and science reader helps control the flow of information. This ensures that the casual learner doesn't get inundated with knowledge and lose interest. 

In my mind, a scientist's best work in the SciComm area is doing blog updates while their research is in progress. It gives the interested populace a better idea of the process and allows for a bit of a distraction when the science isn't being cooperative. Blogging the research also serves as a way to look back on a day's work, look forward to the next step, and chronicle discoveries as they happen.

I also believe a scientist appreciates the new perspective they gain when a science writer publishes a review of their work. I know that when I write something, I won't let myself think that I did a good job until I'm told so repeatedly. Even then, I'm skeptical. I also know that feedback is a writer's best friend, whether their work is technical, creative, or journalistic. Getting formally reviewed by another published writer is the most in-depth form of feedback I can imagine.

This concludes my interview with myself. I hope it was enjoyable even if it wasn't really informative. I'm thinking I may do a round-table discussion some time in the future. You can never have too many perspectives on a topic, even if they're all coming from the same person.

Notes: After nearly a week without posting, I'm thinking that something on back-to-back days is in order. Next up will be my thoughts on science, religion, paradigms, and cake. Soon after will be my eagerly anticipated review of Written in Stone. (I know I've been looking forward to it. I'm always surprised at what I end up writing.) Feedback!

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