“What do you do?”
When I first started my business, I would answer this question by saying I work in “science communication”. This didn’t really work, though, because scientists took it to mean “communication with the public” (for example, media relations, going into classrooms for outreach, speaking to “normal people”). It hasn’t occurred to most scientists that other scientists have trouble understanding their work too. Poor communication isn’t just a problem for the public. It’s a problem for journal editors, reviewers, potential collaborators, colleagues, newcomers to the field, and everyone else who has to suffer through convoluted and confusing papers.
If results aren’t effectively communicated, the science isn’t done. Having a publication to list on your CV is not the goal of science— it’s to contribute to our collective knowledge. That’s why governments and charities pay for our salaries and our labs. If a paper doesn’t contribute or is under-appreciated because even experts struggle to understand it, what’s the point?
Effective communication is overlooked in the training of many, many scientists. It shows in the number of unreadable papers published and incomprehensible seminars and talks given every year. Great science obscured by poor communication is such a wasted opportunity. If papers were more clearly written, instead of trying to understand what the authors did, reviewers could spend more time critiquing the science, journal clubs could spend more time talking about ideas, and we all could understand and appreciate great results more easily.
I feel strongly about this, which is why I left a nicely-funded postdoctoral fellowship to help scientists improve their writing and communication.
Learning how to communicate clearly forces us to clarify our thinking. Clear writing not only facilitates understanding, but scientific advancement. It’s easy to hide fuzzy thinking and vague ideas in overly complex writing. Writing well forces you to think hard about what you’ve really done, the links between ideas, and how everything contributes (or not) to your most important points, at the level of the sentence, paragraph, and whole paper.
Writing and presenting well are skills. We are happy to learn technical skills during graduate school and postdoctoral training, but for some reason, we tend to think that writing is not a skill to be learned, but a talent conferred on certain lucky people by the gods. It’s not. Some people are naturally and effortlessly good writers, but this is not an excuse to accept poorly-written papers from everybody else. There are a number of pretty simple principles for writing complex texts well— researchers just have to be open to learning them, and not use the excuse that it is too much work or doesn’t matter.
A major barrier to improving is that we take our writing much more personally than other scientific outputs. No one is offended if they receive the comment, “You’re missing control X.” But we feel insulted if someone says, “This sentence doesn’t make any sense.” Why? The point is to communicate an idea to the reader. If a text doesn’t do that, it needs to be improved. We need to be open to honest, constructive criticism of our writing.
So this is what I do: I work with scientists who believe that clear communication is important and want to improve. Researchers hire me to work on their manuscripts directly, to consult and discuss problems and solutions during the writing process, and to teach the principles of clear scientific writing at their universities and research institutes. Working with one scientist at a time, I hope to increase the level of clarity, concision, and understanding in scientific communication.
Submitting a well-written manuscript has the bonus of making editors’ and reviewers’ lives easier and facilitating publication, but clear communication is much more than a way to try and get a paper accepted. It’s what science should be all about.