Access to understanding

Whenever there’s a new article about the health benefits of wine, or the life-altering properties of some exotic (inevitably expensive) berry, if you listen carefully you can hear the collective groan of the scientists reading it. It’s very frustrating to read something in the national press that you know is scientifically flawed and harder still to correct it without sounding like a know-it-all to your nearest and dearest.

benefits of winesuperfoodsI found this wine image on a winesellers website, but it’s not far off what you often see in the national press. The superfoods promo is from a blog extolling the virtues of ‘authentic parenting’. I don’t know how one in-authentically parents a child, but you can guarantee that these guys could tell you. There are similar reports, websites and comments all over the internet and it’s even worse when it’s ‘in the paper’.

It’s easy to criticise though, right?

I have experience in chemistry and chemical biology but I’d struggle to describe the complex biochemistry inside the cell, if I’m honest.

In this post, I’m specifically looking at the difficulties of describing someone else’s research. This is different to describing your own, when you can rely on your favourite analogies. When describing someone else’s work you’re also far more likely to think of fundamental questions that you might overlook when relating your own. I’m sure it’s the same when science and technology journalists encounter a topic that they’re not specifically trained in but it’s landed on their desk as the ‘science person’ at the office. Or may be their interested in a new area and have to learn some key facts before they can get started. Fundamentally, just how easy is it to describe something you didn’t do and keep all the facts straight?

I came across the Access to Understanding competition at Europe PubMed Central and I really liked the challenge. Having never entered a writing competition before, I set about planning my strategy. We were provided with a selection of scientific papers from fairly ‘inaccessible’ journals, i.e. dry, hardcore science, that had to be summarised for a lay audience (the general public) in 800 words. I read through the papers and, I’ll be honest, even as a scientist, I struggled to understand them. As a chemist’s chemical biologist, I thought the arthritis therapy paper was the closest to my strengths so decided to start there.


Word count

I started off by précising the paper in my own words and immediately learnt something: I find it difficult to be concise. I’d used around 1500 words to describe the paper and looking at some other research notes, blogposts and manuscript summaries, I discovered that I tend to write long, detailed descriptions. Not good when you’ve got an 800-word limit. I streamlined my entry and got to around 1000 words. This was a good starting point before getting down to the nitty-gritty redrafting and made me realise how superfluous a lot of what I write can be.

Text-only please!

The second obstacle was that when describing something, I often reach for the nearest pen, eyeliner or fogged up window in order to add a picture to my words. This was not an option here so I really had to be careful how I phrased things. I used a few metaphors but I quickly got caught up in clichés and confusing euphemisms that went nowhere. I wanted to describe a receptor-drug interaction initiating a complex cascade. This would have been really easy if I had been allowed a few shapes and some arrows! In the end I went for the metaphor of a lock and key that ‘turned-on’ the response. I wasn’t completely happy with the analogy and wanted to go towards a car ignition version but it got complicated so I stuck with what I had.

Less is more. Or is it?

In terms of complex language, I don’t think I struggled too much to remove the jargon but I did get bogged down describing every detail of science in the paper. This was particularly testing for describing someone else’s work – figuring out what the key messages are and what can be left out. Although I removed a dry statistical (but relevant) part, I did decide, as a synthetic chemist, to leave in a one-sentence description of nuclear magnetic resonance. This is a complex scientific technique involving orbital spin and magnetic fields so it was quite a job to get it down to one sentence. This also meant that I had to really understand the fundamentals behind the technique to describe it. This was useful for me to brush up on my theory.

If you want an idea of what I mean, try describing a car engine or your mortgage repayment scheme in one accurate short sentence. It’s easy to explain the ‘gist’ but not necessarily get all the facts in.

Asking for a second opinion

When I got to the last draft or two, I asked a few non-scientists to have a look at it – I even asked my mother, who was very helpful! It was eye opening to see what they took away from the summary. Key positives seemed to be the analogies and a reference to peeing, no one liked the stats (which I ditched) and I also ended up removing a lot of needless technical information.

I wouldn’t say that the article was a masterpiece but it was a great insight into how to best go about communicating science to a lay audience. The biggest lesson for me was to see how much of the ‘results’ of the manuscript I’d actually removed. It seems that readers are much more comfortable digesting summaries than lists of outcomes. This sounds obvious but can be hard to do when you are trying to explain everything. It’s worth keeping in mind that when journalists write an article, their word limit might trump accuracy! I’ve always hated writing manuscript abstracts and summaries and now I know why – I don’t naturally write short, punchy sentences. I’m hoping to take my experiences here and use them when I next have to stream-line something complex.

Do you use four sentences when one will do? Have you entered any similar competitions and learnt something about your writing? What did you find the most challenging aspect? I’d love to hear what problems you’ve come across and any top tips to solve them.

I am always interested in learning about your ‘experiments in communication’. Please get in touch if you’d like to write a guest post on an upcoming event or project that you’ve learnt from. I want us all to learn from sharing our experiments and that includes the negative data! You can also follow me on Twitter at @LaurenTedaldi

Fred Humphreys

Scientist at University of Portsmouth
I'm a research scientist based in Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. My passions include biology, gardening and walking.

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