Category Archives: scicomm

Our impenetrable literature: partly a feature, partly a bug

Our scientific literature (and academic literature more broadly) has a reputation for being impenetrable. That reputation is entirely deserved. That’s why things like the Sokal Hoax sometimes work, and that’s why scientists are sometimes mocked, or scorned, for operating like a priesthood, holding truth away from the layperson. It’s easy and fun to find a complex sentence, dense with unfamiliar jargon and turgid acronym-laden phrases, and hold it up for all to see (I’ll plead guilty: I do it myself in my scientific writing course). But it’s also naïve, unless you’re willing to think carefully about it – because there are two very different reasons why our literature is impenetrable. One is a bug, yes; but the other is very much a feature. Continue reading

“Do your own research” and open-access publication

There’s a fascinating shift going on in scientific publishing, as our fundamental model for who pays for the necessary apparatus of journals shifts from subscribers to authors. The shift is slow (because the way science is funded isn’t set up very well to facilitate such a shift), and bits of it spark outrage (just last week, Nature Neuroscience announced that publishing open-access there will cost €9500, and the combination of ridicule and outrage was exactly what it should have been). But I think it’s fair to say that if we can get there, an open-access literature offers major advantages for the communication of science.

But not for science communication – the distinction being that by “science communication”, we generally mean communication of what we do to non-scientists. You see, the pandemic has demonstrated in spades why the last thing we need is to make it easier for the general public to access scientific papers.  I know, that’s a bit of a hot take, but hear me out. Continue reading

We’re (nearly) all untrained at SciComm. So, some resources.

If there’s one thing the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced for scientists, it’s that we desperately need the general public to understand, or at least accept and respect, what science has to tell us about the way the world works. There are a number of ways that can happen. It can happen through skilled and passionate teachers in K-12 education. It can happen through the work of science journalists (Ed Yong, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Carl Zimmer being three superb examples). Or, it can happen through scientists taking on the job themselves, speaking or writing directly to the general public. This last one is science outreach, or as it’s more often called these days, science communication or SciComm. What’s interesting about SciComm is that we (scientists) all seem to think it’s important, and many of us do it – but almost none of us have any training for the job. Continue reading

Is science communication unteachable?

Have you ever read a scientific paper that simultaneously left you in deep admiration, but also crushed?  I have – just now. It’s Rubega et al. 2021, “Assessment by audiences shows little effect of science communication training”. In a nutshell, several of the authors teach what sounds like an absolutely terrific graduate course in science communication; they used elegantly designed methods to test whether taking the course helps students do better at science communication; and much to their (and my) disappointment, they found that the answer was a pretty convincing “no”.  To which I can really only say “argh”. Continue reading

Help! What term should we be using for a “lay audience”?

Stephen Jay Gould quote from izquotes.com

Over the years, I’ve frequently needed to refer to that set of people who are not trained as scientists.  It comes up in “broader impacts” sections of grants, in proposals to support science communication activities, in discussions of how to motivate societal and political support for science, and lots of other places besides.  It’s come up for me most recently as I work on a new book proposal.  My first book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, was written for scientists, but this one* will be written for – well, describing that audience of people who are something other than scientists is what this post is about.

My go-to term has been “lay audience”, but I’ve always felt a slight but nagging discomfort with it. Continue reading