On writing

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

I went to a seminar by Dr. Gordon Uno from the University of Oklahoma the other day where he spoke about The Tipping Point of Science Education. He listed some science literacy statistics in America that still have me staggering. He cited a study from 2012 that discovered two-thirds of Americans admit they read, watch, or listen to science news only a few times a year—and usually by chance—because they are too busy (46%) or their “news” sources do not cover science (43%). 25% of Americans think the sun orbits the Earth. 20% of Americans confuse astrology with astronomy. 45% of Americans think that antibiotics are effective in treating cold and flu viruses (AIBS Survey of Science Society Leaders, BioScience, 2012). This same study alleges the following are the greatest challenges to Biology—and I’d go as far as to say to science in general—(1) decision-makers are not informed about biological research or issues (2) lack of funding for research (3) the public’s lack of appreciation for biology (4) decreasing science coverage in popular media. To just name a few points that Dr. Uno spoke about, it’s clear that this is a major problem. (Disclaimer: I perused the internet for more recent studies and found similar statistics, a 2015 Pew Research study found 27% of Americans couldn’t distinguish Astronomy from Astrology). 

As scientists we can’t just present facts and data to decision makers to ensure our science is used properly. We must communicate better and that doesn’t mean just talking louder when we aren’t understood. Peruse the headlines and it’s unquestionable that we aren’t getting our point across. I still find headlines where climate change is questioned! Even worse, in the last few months I have observed several disaster instances where non-science trained professionals try to write popular articles about science. In all instances, there were major erroneous claims because the scientist the article was about wasn’t sent a proof of the article before it went to print! I’m over here scratching my head wondering if there’s literally no confidence that as scientists we can write about science to audiences outside of our specialty. How do scientists even gauge their writing? As a PhD candidate I can tell you that we are not properly trained in how to write well and diversely.

While contemplating and trying to get motivated with my own writing, I’ve also been doing a lot of reading about how to write. Writing Science by Joshua Schimel is among a stack of things on my desk. He claims that scientists are bad storytellers that we need to stop thinking that our science can’t tell a story, or worse—that our data is our story. There’s a stigma that story-telling science isn’t professional, but if we consider our characters as our study systems, ecosystems, organisms, and even concepts then we sure are telling stories! As scientists, we aren’t necessarily trained in writing, but it’s important to consider our story structure, how we’ll open—will we keep our results in suspense or use them right off the bat to capture attention? A lot of this, obviously, depends on the journal and the style required, and lets not forget that science writing also encompasses proposals and popular writing as well.  

No bestseller lists exist for academic science writing; instead science writing is measured in impact factors (IF) and by an h-index. When a researcher submits their paper to a journal they usually first consider the journal’s IF, a measure that takes into account the yearly average number of times articles published in that journal have been cited in other papers. When applying for jobs, individual researchers are evaluated via an h-index, which attempts to measure the productivity and citation impact of the researcher’s publications. Therefore, getting a paper published in a high IF journal is only going to help a researcher’s h-index. So, how do we get published? We submit our papers and hope to get an acceptance, or else hope that the reviewers give us enough feedback so that we can improve it and submit it again. Even more, how can we aspire to be published in one of these esteemed journals (think Science and Nature, both with IF above 40)? I think the answer lies in writing a lot, mostly re-writing, peer reviewing, getting feedback from colleagues who aren’t afraid to give us constructive criticism.

Nichole Tiernan