Thoughts On Scientific Communication

Paint the following scene, like a fresco, somewhere in your mind where you can easily see it; on the posterior of your frontal bone, perhaps, or maybe on the underbelly of your cranium, so that when you gaze up at it, it evokes the same feeling of wonder and aesthetic awe as, say, the Sistine Chapel: You return home for Thanksgiving break, and you congregate with your family and the rest of the brood over a homecooked meal. You sit at the end of a long dining table, the plates sending up whorls of steam bearing delicious aromas within their droplets, thick slices of turkey set upon a platter like oversized playing cards, sweet potatoes slathered with pats of butter and drizzled with liquid brown sugar; boats of dark gravy passing around mindlessly, as though conjured into animation by the Sorcerer's Apprentice; green beans and cranberry sauce and French bread crowding out the edges of your plate and threatening to spill over onto the tablecloth; decanters of wine and beer and ales passed around amid the steady hum of general conversation, punctuated with laughs, some sharp and piercing, others deep and booming, and in general all is warm and cheerful and is the very soul of mirth.

Just as you are about to dig in, however, one of your uncles asks you what you have been studying and doing for the past few years at graduate school. You begin to rattle off a series of experiments you have carried out, and for the moment you are in the zone; you are on the same wavelength as your audience, and with them you are connecting, really connecting. You are pleasantly surprised to have captured their attention for even this long, and others nearby have dropped their conversations to listen in. Truly, you are fulfilling your duty as a researcher and as a good citizen by shining the light of science upon your benighted brethren.

However, while you continue to spew your academic argot and list all of the good deeds you have carried out as a severely overworked but cheerful drudge, it slowly dawns upon you that nobody really understands what you are saying. The looks on their faces are friendly, but slightly bepuzzled; they have a faint idea that you are talking about something important, but they haven't quite grasped it yet. Your audience includes an anesthesiologist, a veterinarian, two accountants, a minister, a police officer, a civil engineer, a public relations specialist for the Washington Wizards, a smattering of children strung out across all grades of middle and high school, and a cousin who is a bassist for a grunge band called Dark Triad; a diverse group no doubt, but by no means an uneducated one.

And so it is with deepening anxiety that you continue to talk, and talk, and talk. You begin to ease back on the technical language, but you realize that you cannot explain what you do without using technical language, and, to be honest, you have never really tried. As the faces of your listeners begin to project varying shades of bemusement and boredom and as the furrows of concentration and confusion deepen within their brows, you abruptly terminate your speech. After what seems like an eternity, someone finally pipes up: "Wow, that sounds really interesting." And the obligatory phrase from Grandma: "Well, I think that's very nice." But you can tell that they don't understand, not really; and now you have doubts about how much you understand it yourself. It doesn't help that, during your little spiel, the food got cold. Not that cold, but just enough to piss off everyone.

Most academics, I think, has had an experience similar to this; and while there are those who continually harp on the virtues and benefits of communication with the lay person outside of academia, very few provide any coherent rules or advice about how to do it. It's difficult enough to explain to others outside of your field what you do, whether they are in academia or not - heck, it's difficult enough to discuss it with people outside of your own lab.

But why should you have to change? Why can't words like cognitive control and dynamic causal modeling and pruritis ani become common currency, so that any regular Joe on the street can immediately understand what you do (and what you suffer from)? Clearly, our public education system has failed us.

However, the more you think about it, the more you realize that isn't necessarily the case. Whenever you get an email alert about a journal's latest table of contents, your eyes are immediately drawn to your specialty, skimming over all the other ones you either don't know enough about, or simply don't care. This, within a journal tailored to a relatively specialized field. Your friend doing single-cell recordings a few doors down could publish a high-impact paper in this very journal, and you wouldn't have a clue. Possibly it has something to do with the culture and system of rewards within any specialty, and particularly within academia.

I bring all of this up because of a few conversations I've been having lately with one of my labmates. Usually after we're done gossiping about everyone else in the department behind their backs, and complaining about the quality of undergraduate papers we have to grade, the conversation turns to something more profound, such as how to make our research more integrative across disciplines. Far too often one feels stuck within a scientific cul-de-sac: Sure, your research matters among those people whom you interact with and read on a daily basis, but it is an infinitesimally small slice of the general community.

As luck would have it, I recently came across an article in an educational journal discussing this very topic. The issue, in the author's opinion, stems primarily from the writing style that dominates the majority of journal and scientific communication, which rewards a stilted style, abstruse vocabularies, and hinders the understanding of any reader outside of that specialty (Harley, 1983). Although written nearly three decades ago, its point is valid in any time:
The language that people most often use in psychology and sociology...must have something to do with the frequent failure of studies in these fields to earn much credibility with colleagues in other fields or with the general public. It is a language that confines itself almost exclusively to abstract nouns, impersonal or passive constructions, and statements so heavily qualified that they cannot seriously be called assertions (p. 245).
Although there are certain writing standards for a reason, I believe that it is easy for them to be carried to far to the extreme. For example, whenever a manuscript is targeted toward a certain journal, the aim and vocabulary of the study tends to change as well, in order to have the best possible odds for publication in that journal. This is all in the self-interest of the submitter, and therefore the rational thing to do. But it has the potential to obscure the original aims of the study, and to render it less comprehensible to a wider audience, since reviewers must be placated, and this typically means casting the paper in a highly specialized mould. Thus some degree of clarity and comprehensibility is lost, to the benefit of the researcher, perhaps, but to the detriment of the wider scientific community and the lay reader. (I have seen some halfhearted attempts at more highflown rhetoric - e.g., "Here we review the latest dispatches from the forefront of this field, and map out some of the territories where lie monsters" - but they are more cheesy than inspiring.)

A related issue - probably the focus of another blog entry - is the quality of scientific talks, which, addition to scientific writing, forms the other arm of scientific communication. Most public speaking isn't all that great to begin with; but when the topic is something specialized and rather dry, to the non-specialist it can be Chinese water torture. I have observed that subpar talks are rarely critiqued on the basis of anything other than the content, which is a mistake. The nuts and bolts of presentation style - speaking clearly, maintaining eye contact, varying the vocabulary and vocal tone, responding to the nonverbal cues of the audience, among other things - should take precedence over the content. Without the solid foundation of presentation style for your talk, the content is like porridge that is poured, not into a bowl, but onto the floor, where dogs will lap it up. Does it make the dogs happy? Undoubtedly. But everyone else will be nonplussed.*

None of this is to say that the content of scientific communication should be unnecessarily dumbed down, or bowlderized (if you're that kind of researcher). But the next time you want to talk about your research, think hard about your audience. Who knows? It might make you a hit at next year's Thanksgiving dinner. Or not.

*I am a professional blogger. Do not try metaphors like this on your own.