April 19, 2012
Both Jo Brodie and Alice Bell have questioned the wider implications of the “Academic Spring” of open access research papers. Providing easy access to research papers is all well and good, but what about helping people make sense of them?
Jo raises an issue that is particularly important, patients and informal carers researching their own condition on the internet. How are they going to cope with medical journal articles, which are written to tight word counts using rigid structures and highly technical vocabulary? Even doctors need training in those skills!
Alice and Jo suggest that journal papers themselves should be written in a more accessible style. While that would be ideal, there is a fundamental problem with this from a communication theoretic perspective. Text structures, conventions of language use, and technical vocabulary emerge because they allow people who share similar background knowledge to communicate efficiently. Sometimes, the most efficient code is graphical; sometimes, it is mathematical.
To be clear, I am not defending badly written papers. Good, clear, engaging writing is still very important, as anybody who has reviewed a badly written paper at 10pm in a desperate bid to make a review deadline will be able to attest. Good writers use technical terms to make their point succinctly, to indicate their theoretical or methodological background, and to link into a wider body of work on that area.
While it is often possible to explain relevant concepts to lay people, this requires changes to the structure of the text, to ensure concepts are properly defined and anchored before they are used. Another problem is making a judgement call about the level of detail that needs to be explained. Let’s take significance testing. How do we communicate what a p-value of 0.05 actually means in practice? And are p-values the right thing to report? What other background should be given?
Fortunately, there is a way out of this conundrum which should be familiar to most researchers who have written or reported on a research grant – the lay summary. Lay summaries are not an easy way out. In order to write a good summary, you need to boil down your research to its essential goal and its main results. This requires a deep understanding of one’s own results. What have we done? What does it actually mean? What more do we need to know?
Traditionally, abstracts and keywords were deemed to be enough to help readers situate the research reported in a paper. Many journals go even further than this. Elsevier journals encourage graphical abstracts and one-sentence research highlights. Many medical journals require a box that summarises the main contribution of the paper to the state-of-the-art; some even use prompts to help authors structure such a text. Some journals have (or had) English abstracts translated into Spanish, French, or German, to help researchers for whom English is not their native language.
From these traditions and innovations, it is but a small step to short summaries written specifically for a non-specialist audience. Funders have shown the way in developing a standard structure, issuing writing guidelines, and providing examples. Unfortunately, what is still missing is a culture of good editing, which costs time and money, but is crucial, especially for lay summaries. The SPARC initiative led the way here, with professionally crafted texts (here’s an example of a project on auditory reminders that I led), but so far, none of the funders I have written summaries for have followed that shining example.
But who then helps non-specialist readers to critically assess what they are reading? Here is where science blogging comes into its own and where science communicators like Ben Goldacre, Petra Boynton, Ed Yong and Kate Clancy shine, to name but a tiny handful. Bewildered by the sheer variety of science blogs? Try Science Seeker or Research Blogging, from there, go to the big and small networks. By now, there is a critical mass of science bloggers who have been honing their craft for years. Add to that well-crafted lay summaries, and we might be onto a science communication winner.
Edited to add (April 20): Stuart Cantrill alerted me to the fact that graphical abstracts have a long history in chemistry. Here is a link to an editorial on graphical abstracts that he has written for Nature Chemistry (requires registration).