For many, myself included, science is a passion we’re knee deep in.
For many, many more however, science is a mysterious land left in highschool with bubbling beakers and dissections of strange species. For those authors trying to tell amazing stories from the world of science, here are three rules.
Kill of Jargon
Science is it’s own (incredible) world where we speak our own languages. Science languages, plural as each discipline needs its own, are complex and nuanced to express very percise ideas. While it serves fellow scientists well to speak the same language, it is a disservice to the general public to write for them in our languages. Indeed, it’s even a disservice to science to use our languages in communicating our work to the outside world; needlessly throwing around jargon only creates a barrier between scientists and the public. Where language is intended to unite people using ideas, misuse can throw up barriers to communication.
When communicating science to the public, throw jargon out the window. Instead, know your audience and explain complex ideas in ways that will put them at ease and help them feel smart. For example: in the context of cellular biology, ‘pathway’ can be rephrased as ‘a set of chemical reactions within a cell’.
Set the Stage
Science research is carried out to answer very specific questions. Alone these questions, and the experiments that probe them, may seem esoteric. It is essential that we explain our hypotheses and the logic behind our experiments.
The goal of science writing is to boost scientific literacy. To that end, it is far better to explain why an experiment was carried out than to go into the details of the experiment; we want the reader to understand how scientists look for clues to a puzzle, not to be able to recite the specifics of an experimental design. For example: again in the context of cellular biology, ‘we assayed transcript level by qPCR’ becomes ‘we looked at an indicator of how active a gene is in the cell to determine whether it is a good drug target’, thereby telling the reader what the question was and why, rather than how it was addressed.
We already discussed how science may appear merely academic. To combat this, scientist must explain the ‘so what’ of their work. This goes hand in hand with setting the stage. It’s tempting to articulate an existing body of knowledge and state the results of our experiments, expecting the implications to be obvious to the reader. Science education typically teaches this; in scientific training programs, scientists are expected not to ‘frame’ their work. While this leaves the academic reader free to weigh the merits of the findings in light of the existing corpus of data, it is an unreasonable ask of the general reader.
With the goal of scientific writing being too boost scientific literacy, modeling how to interpret new data in the context of existing facts and what conclusions can be drawn is essential. Put another way, a popular review of a scientific study or studies goes beyond the individual experiments at hand, it is about explaining how to understand and interpret observations in general.
Abandon the idea that the general reader will identify the salient points in new observations based on command of existing work because they cannot be expected to have that familiarity, even if prior research is described in the piece. For example: instead of writing ‘in light of prior findings, our results are remarkable’ write ‘because this gene is not active in healthy tissue, but is very active in this type of cancer, and our research shows that this drug can target the gene specifically, it is a promising candidate treatment because it appears to kill cancer cells only’. This style tells the reader what facts to consider together to draw an inference, rather than telling the reader that the researchers did so.
When writing a piece for the general reader, do so in a way that invites them to participate in the intellectual process actively.
- Use plain language, avoiding obscure scientific terms as these may be unclear to the reader, and may even push the reader away.
- Tell readers the what and why of your research questions. Just writing about how you designed your experiment is usually of little use to the general reader.
- Explain why your findings matter. Instead of assuming the reader is an expert on your area of research or is well versed in interpreting experimental data, seize the opportunity to explain scientific reasoning in the context of your research.
- Bonus: Let your passion for your study area shine through. Think of the most exciting part of your research and tell the reader about it! Remember that for the general reader, glimpsing there goings on of the lab is a chance to peer into a marvelous world, so be sure to let this come through in your writing.