Scientists can't write?

By Grant Jacobs 30/09/2009 19


Currently I’m reading sections of Investigating science communication in the information age: implications for public engagement and popular media. In chapter 4.1, Making science newsworthy: exploring the conventions of science journalism, Stuart Allan cites journalist W. T. Stead who wrote in 1906 (see page  152):

In editing a newspaper, never employ an expert to write a popular article on his own subject, better employ someone who knows nothing about it to tap the expert’s brains, and write the article, sending the proof to the expert to correct. If the expert writes he will always forget that he is not writing for experts [b]ut for the public, and will assume that they need not be told things which, although familiar to him as ABC, are nevertheless totally unknown to the general reader.

While Allan, perhaps wisely, does not make direct comment on this–in his words–“telling bit of advice”, my impression is that he agrees with it. I’ve heard very similar lines elsewhere, including at a presentation for science writing in New Zealand.

I think it’s wrong and that it misses the real point. There are experts that can write, and write well at that. It’s not that because the person is an expert that they can’t write about their subject. It’s if they are they good at writing for the public or not that matters.

Surely it’d be more accurate if rephrased as:

In editing a newspaper, never employ an expert who cannot write for the public well to write a popular article on his own subject, […]

Inverting the negative we could get the advice:

In editing a newspaper, if possible, always employ an expert who can write for the public well to write a popular article on his own subject, […]

OK, you think I’m just playing around with logic, right? I am pushing it, but not without a cause. To my eyes there are two things to note, one a stereotype and the other a reality.

There is a stereotype that experts inherently can’t write well for the public, just as there is a stereotype that all scientists are ugly, inarticulate geeks that wear mis-matched clothes! Both are bunk.

A reality is that no-one would expect anyone with little practice in writing for the public–”expert” or not–to be good at it in their first attempts.

A key to any craft is practice. I recall an instructor in a joinery course saying that making one shelf doesn’t make you good at it, but making hundreds eventually does. It’s the same for writing.

The key–of course–is that few scientists have the time to practice writing for the public. That’s pretty understandable, most scientists are  already busy being researcher, teacher, mentor, administrator and fund-raiser all-in-one.

There are two main things needed things for science writing. One is enough expertise (or understanding) of the subject matter to write it accurately. The other is to have enough practice to write the subject matter clearly and entertainingly.

The expert who writes well has both.

Yes, they are–or perceived to be–a rare beast. Nevertheless, I prefer an expert to a non-expert. After all the expert will know if the analogy is fair and meaningful, if that data presented on it’s own is out of context or misleading, if that other guy really is a crank.

If you wouldn’t be happy with an inexperienced writer, who is unable to present material to the public well, why be content with an non-expert writer, who is unable to judge the material well? OK, it’s not a perfect world. There are more non-experts than experts. And non-experts are cheaper. I’ll still say that I think the stereotype isn’t helpful, that the use of experts as writers shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand as the stereotype encourages.

What Stead does get right is that articles with science content need two reviews, regardless of who writes the article. One for accuracy, against experts. Another for how the writing would be accepted by the public. Of course, if the writer is an expert, you get both in one. (To journalists: the Science Media Centre provides an avenue for expert comment and review. Use it.)

Am I alone in thinking that writing “experts can’t write” is bunk and the real issue is the time to practice to becoming good at writing? I hope not. A little back-story may help, which I intend to leave for another post. Recent science history research suggests that in Victorian times experts did write for the public and that the stereotype that the “expert can’t write” in part is a consequence of the development of “professional” science, which, it is claimed, repressed this communication role amongst it’s members. Other research suggests that experts still do, it’s just they don’t get the visibility that perhaps they deserve.

Two final thoughts :-

Most scientists are teachers. They teach kids straight out of high school.

All of us are experts at something. Journalists are experts at journalism. Should we say that journalists couldn’t possibly explain journalism because they are experts at it?

© Grant Jacobs

Footnotes

1. I should emphasise (strongly) that Allan’s article is fine once you accept this point. I don’t mean to criticise all of his article, only this particular remark of W.T. Stead’s that he cites.

References

1. Investigating science communication in the information age: implications for public engagement and popular media edited by Holliman, Whitelegg, Scanlon, Schmidt and Thomas (OUP 2009, ISBN: 978-0-19-955266-5).


19 Responses to “Scientists can't write?”

  • I have known scientists that are very good at communication and others that never will be.

    I have some gripes though. A typical science paper may be an excellent record or report but is usually poor for communication. The abstract is often impossible to read for its compressed jargon and very poor layout. If the matter is of real public import a retiree like me cannot get at it except by searching for press releases and comparing them. In matters like climate change that tends to leave the field wide open to the deniers. Sometimes an author takes the trouble to write a public and intelligible account of what is in the paper, its significance. That is vastly appreciated.

    The above post is an example of the best kind of verbal layout, short paragraphs without unnecessarily convoluted statements, One liners for emphasis, blank lines between paragraphs are important on web pages.

    Scientists are usually highly verbal people, but too often think that a long, entirely verbal argument will win their point, assuming good layout. Joe public is wedded to graphic communication. This is no new thing. Use it wherever possible.

    An abstuse matter migh be best explained through a good animation. That requires a sophisticated skill set, plus time and software to exercise it that the scientist may not have. The most powerful type of communication today requires a blend of three professions, not just two: scientist, writer, and graphic artist/animator.

  • When I wrote the previous comment I left lines between paragraphs. Those lines were removed by the software and the post suffered accordingly.

    Helps make the point I suppose.

  • I think this is an important problem that needs more attention in science training and science institutes. I like noelfuller’s idea that a blend of profession is required – scientist, writer and graphic artist. personally, I hope that more scientists incorporate at least some aspects of the other 2 professions in their training and work.

    Many NZ scientists have had some contact with agricultural science where there has been a long tradition of communication with “clients” – farmers and advisers. I think this has had an effect. My experience at overseas conferences is that NZ and Aussie scientists general communicate better and have better graphics.

    Large institutions today often employ journalists and these can be a great help. Even though I have written a lot for the untrained reader I found that help from a journalist often improved my writing significantly. However final checking was always necessary to ensure scientific points weren’t distorted.

    Personally, I found that after writing exclusively for a scientific audience the adjustment required for a lay audience was often quite difficult. But it came easier with practice and I always felt it was fulfilling. Often the lay readers would respond indicating they actually read the stuff.

    Many scientists may not actually get the opportunity to hone their communication skills for the non-technical audience. The wise ones will recognise the need and take advantage of opportunities that come their way. Scientific blogging seems to me a useful way of developing those skills.

  • Hello Noel, thanks for your comment.

    I hear what you’re saying, although I have to say, as you clearly already know, scientific papers are intended for scientists, not for the general public. Nor, perhaps, retirees?! Just to be clear, my article was about scientists writing for the public in newspapers, magazines, whatever.

    As you also know, the jargon in scientific papers is (supposed to be) to ensure the authors’ precise meaning is conveyed. General-purpose phrases of the “stuff sort-of like this” kind wouldn’t work very well in a scientific communication! It does make for something of a catch-22 in that you need to be a bit of an expert and up with the current play to read scientific papers, making it a closed shop, but then they were never intended for a wider readership. With that in mind, I’m not sure that asking for jargon to be removed from scientific papers would be all that useful.

    That said, I wish scientific papers were more readable than they are and I know others say the same. Current scientific papers often go too far down the road of “condensed code” to the point of becoming difficult even for specialists. Space limitations are one issue. On-line journals might reduce that aspect and encourage a more natural writing style.

    I’d be interested to hear if you think that commentary articles (e.g. Nature‘s “News & Views” articles) or review articles are guilty of being too obscure, too. When I am catching up on a field, or entering new one, my first port of call is summary and review papers. These, I think, have little excuse for being obtuse. After all, they’re supposed to introduce a reasonably competent reader to the subject.

    There are specialist scientific artists, as you will know and I admire what they do. For what it’s worth my background is possibly well-suited visual communication of science and it’s one direction I am still considering taking some of my work in addition to my research consultancy. (I operate as an independent scientist, a free-lancer if you will.) At high school, art, not science, was my thing. My father is a professional photographer and I was a pretty dedicated photographer as a kid, in the serious way that some kids latch onto something and learn it. My taught courses at university were in computer science and biology. I was one of those kids that spent a “fortune” to their own computer in the 80s (an Apple ][e clone). Gagh, I’m showing my age…! Quite a bit of my consultancy work has included developing interactive websites; I’ve learnt this technology as it evolved from HTML 1.0 and still prefer to code most of my websites by hand. Questions of design and presentation have some nostalgia for me, I guess, as they are the same ones I remember wrestling over as a kid.

    PS: The “blank lines” between the paragraphs in the article aren’t something I’ve written. They are a paragraph margin set by the style sheet used to present the page. This isn’t a writing issue per se, but a type-setting issue. I guess bloggers get to do it all, whereas in a formal print publication, specialists would carry this separate role. It’s a good point and I might ask if the SMC could make bigger padding/margins for the paragraphs in the comments.

  • Noel,

    When I wrote the previous com ment I left lines between para graphs. Those lines were removed by the soft ware and the post suffered accordingly.

    In HTML all excess white space is removed. To counter this lot of WWW software converts two (or more) consecutive carriage returns into “empty” HTML paragraphs tags for writers. This blog doesn’t seem to do this (as peeking at the source code suggests), but I notice as I’m writing it looks as if the web team has increased the margin/padding on paragraphs in comments without having to ask! :-)

  • Hi all

    As you will notice, line breaks are now included in the comments section. Hope it helps!

  • Aimee: Thanks, it all looks a lot better. I frequently post on this obscure site:
    http://amigaworld.net/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?mode=viewtopic&topic_id=28987&forum=17&start=620&viewmode=flat&order=0
    Were you to log on and look at posting a comment you would see a large array of user tools, more than I use and more than you might want but you will see where I came from.

    Grant Jacobs: Thanks for your words. I think the Nature commentaries are excellent. Their layout is modeled on the BBS sience/nature layout where almost every sentence is a paragraph. I note too that Nasa has taken to posting feature articles that are helpful in making users more literate in whatever is going down. When NOAA or NSIDC publish graphs there are usually good explanations to go with them, as there must be, although this does not prevent certain people from hijacking them and trying to misrepresent them.
    I note your bioinfotools page is a bit of an eye blast! :)

  • I note your bioinfotools page is a bit of an eye blast!

    I set that website up eight years ago. Since then there has been a trend to more muted designs, especially because CSS has enabled finer control over presentation. Updating the website is one of the those jobs that never seems to get done (it’s not that important to me, as I almost all my work from personal contacts). But one of these days I will update it… one day!

  • […] Also, I have to admit to thinking that—again—the best-placed people to avoid these traps in presenting the work to the public are those with some knowledge of the research area, i.e. scientists writing for the media as I’ve previously discussed several times. […]

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