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IN MY OPINION

Popularize or perish

Science's demand to scientists to cut the jargon was a shot heard around the world, and long overdue. Now let's talk about story telling

By JACOB BERKOWITZ | DEC 03 2007

Science’s Tower of Babel is showing major surface cracks, and rather than plaster them over, one of the world’s leading science journals is demanding language translation. It’s a good first step, but the edifice of science needs more than plainer language, it needs the power of story to keep it strong.

In November, Science – the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and one of the world’s top all-inclusive, high-impact journals – stated what many have long acknowledged over a beer at science conferences: almost no one understands what anyone else is saying. What to outsiders is the singular world of “science” is to those who use micro-arrays and particle accelerators a dizzying polyglot universe.

In recent years, while legalese, bureaucratese and other profession-specific lingoes have met with glazed eyes and calls for plainer language, “scientese” has been a sacred cow. I mean, it is rocket science; it’s supposed to be hard. If you don’t understand the barrage of TLAs (three-letter acronyms, if you must ask) and nano-discipline specific terminology, that’s your problem.

Well, not anymore, says Science‘s editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy. For a five-issue “experiment,” the authors of research papers published by Science had to explain their findings in a plain-language, single-page, summary. This vernacular version was reviewed by an editor from a different discipline, so, for example, a life-sciences paper was read by a physical-sciences editor and vice versa. It was a necessary public experiment because, as Science‘s editor Dr. Kennedy put it, “It’s clear that accessibility is a problem … we’re all laypeople these days.”

This is radical stuff coming from one of the great gatekeepers of professional success in science. It breaks the enduring conceit of “us” (scientists) and “the public.” Now, asserts Dr. Kennedy, the public is us. It’s a long overdue acknowledgement from the highest levels that it actually matters whether the audience understands what’s said or written.

Science‘s move is refreshing because it adds a new twist to what, for decades, has been a tedious drone about why it’s important to popularize research: so that the scientific enterprise is accountable to the public by showing the results and benefits of publicly funded research. Yes, this is important, but it’s hardly inspiring to an already overworked researcher.

What Dr. Kennedy is saying, in unison with a more cloistered chorus, is damn the accountability – you need to popularize your research so it’s useful to the scientific enterprise! So that it’s fodder for fertile interdisciplinary research. And another reason: so you get published in a high-impact journal.

This is where the rubber meets the road in plain-language science communication, and why Science‘s experiment was a shot heard around the world. It marks a new apex of a trend in which popularizing is part of academic success. Several years ago, for the first time, I saw “media hits” listed in the CVs of nominees for Canada’s highest science awards. The University of Toronto, among others, now includes media success as part of tenure assessment. And to top it off Science is saying, it’s popularize or perish.

This is a good step for all of science, but after reading the plain-language summaries in Science, I would say it’s an experiment whose results demand more research. What Science’s authors did was follow Albert Einstein’s oft-quoted dictum: Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. This is the smart way of saying “dumb it down.” The popular summaries are for the most part direct translations – plainer-language versions of the standard journal article.

But when it comes to communicating with a much broader public, “plain” language alone won’t cut it. Just as Dr. Kennedy turned responsibility for clearer communication on its head (it’s not up to the reader to “get” arcane jargon), so we need to replace the notion of “dumb it down” with the more ambitious, and truer, axiom of “story it up.”

For it’s by putting research results into the context of a story – one with the scientists as the protagonists on an epic quest – that facts become meaningful to more people. Comprehending research results isn’t only about understanding the meaning of the words. It is also about putting new insights into context. This is where the story form – humanity’s oldest medium of communication – excels. We’re wired for narrative intelligence.

It’s time for Science’s editor to launch a bold follow-up experiment and tell authors: Want the prestige of publishing your results with us? First, tell us a good story.

This month Jacob Berkowitz (www.jacobberkowitz.com) received a 2007 American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award for his book Jurassic Poop: What Dinosaurs (and Others) Left Behind.

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