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Curiosity and clarity

Despite a respectable (I think) C grade in A-Level Biology, no one would ever mistake me for a scientist. But in my career I’ve had to get to grips with helping to communicate some aspects of this complex realm of discovery. I’ve been lucky enough to work with scientists and science advocates who are amazingly good at explaining what they do and why it matters. However, like most non-science geeks, the average scientific paper leaves me in a cold sweat of confusion and bewilderment: the consequence of attempting to make sense of the jargon that the white coats just love to use when presenting their findings to each other.

When even scientists struggle to make sense of published papers outside their own particular discipline, what chance do us mere mortals have? And yet, making sense out of science is important to those outside the cabals of academic institutions and industry R&D departments. Society needs to understand what science is doing, especially medical science, which so strongly impacts on the lives and health of patients and the public, and on the choices open to clinicians and politicians.

I was fortunate enough to be at the prize-giving for Europe PubMed Central and the British Library’s Science Writing Competition earlier this month. The competition was open to PhD students and early post-docs – in other words, scientists – and Emma Pewsey rightfully scooped first prize for her accessible and interesting lay summary of a complex scientific paper about X-rays and osteoporosis. What struck me, as I listened to the judges talk through their criteria and advice to young scientists, was this: once you get beyond the complexity of science (and some of it is head-boilingly hard stuff), the principles of communicating well about science are the same as for communicating about anything.

Peter Rodgers, features editor of eLife and competition judge, put this at its simplest when he advised: ‘At the front of your mind must be the reader.’ Entrants were asked to consider a ‘lay, motivated reader’ and it was clear that some at least had been writing for a patient who may one day benefit from the research being reported. Tone of voice was also pulled out as important, and in particular the need to sustain this throughout. Tracey Brown of Sense about Science, another judge, used the example of an entry that in the first paragraph explained what a test tube was, but a couple of paragraphs later threw in a reference to a highly complex biochemical process (don’t ask me to say what it was…). Finally, I loved head judge Sharmila Nebhrajani of AMRC’s call for would-be science communicators to be fearless in tackling complex ideas and in bringing clarity and readability, as well as an unremitting curiosity, to their writing. Again, great advice for anyone who wants to use language to make an impact. Not just the scientists…