Econnect Communication > Newsletter > October 2015 – Distilling your science without dumbing it down
 

October 2015 – Distilling your science without dumbing it down

Welcome to our October 2015 newsletter: Distilling your science without dumbing it down.

We believe that one of the most important skills for a science communicator is the ability to simply convey scientific concepts and ideas to others who don’t have that expertise.

It’s about stimulating and interesting people with the quality of your scientific ideas and results without challenging them with the technical language of science.

However, being simple does not mean ‘dumbing down’ or oversimplifying the science, and this is what this month’s newsletter is all about.

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Get in touch via Facebook, Twitter or email.

This month we welcome Sharon Connell to our team, and wish Sarah Cole all the best for her maternity leave (back part-time in June next year).

Regards from the @EconnectTeam, Jenni Metcalfe, Mary O’Callaghan, Sarah Cole (this month’s newsletter editor), Jane Ilsley and Sharon Connell.

IN THIS EDITION

Summarise, shorten and stress key messages for your readers

By Sarah Cole

Recently, we worked with a scientist to edit a paper over 13,000 words long. They wanted to cut the paper at least in half, so they could submit it to a journal for peer review.

Although some rewording during a copyedit can help a little with a hefty word count, in this case the paper needed a substantive edit. With shortening and improving the paper in mind, we evaluated its structure, language, style and presentation, then gave the scientist our recommendations.

Implementing three recommendations, in particular, would require synthesising some science:

  1. Create short summaries for each section of the results for readers who are less interested in the detail.
  2. Write key sentences that convey the meaning of the results (instead of just describing them).
  3. Consolidate multiple sections about methods (which the author then decided to write about in more detail in a different paper).

As science communicators, we are usually confident to draft those summaries, key sentences and consolidated sections (for review), so the next step was to work with the author to decide who would do that.

The scientist gave us really positive feedback. They came out of the process with:

  • a much shorter, on-point paper
  • potential (and content) for a second paper about their novel method
  • tips about how to write in ways that really focus on their reader

and

  • a clear idea of what different kinds of editing entail, and the level of help editors and science communicators can give.

Tweet us! How much synthesising do you usually have to do in your editing?

Distil the science, don’t ‘dumb it down’

By Jenni Metcalfe

As a science communicator, I get very annoyed when I hear people urging scientists or communicators to ‘dumb down the science’ so others can understand it.

‘Dumbing’ science down has many dangers, not least that it is very condescending to the people who we are communicating with. Alvin Stone shared his thoughts on this in a recent article about the arrogance of dumbing it down. Alvin concludes his article by saying: “In science communication it’s not about us-and-them it is just about us – all of us”.

Another major danger from ‘dumbing down the science’ is that the science can get oversimplified and distorted. This can convey the wrong message where the science is taken out of context or its benefits are exaggerated.

Instead, I like to distil the essence of the science in a way that extracts the main points and messages without losing the sense and context of the science. It’s like creating a fine perfume.

When I distil the science, I often need to convert a ‘splitter’-style statement from a scientist into something that a journalist or ‘lumper’ might write.

Most scientists are ‘splitters’ in that they want to include as much detail as possible with all the qualifications carefully enunciated.

‘Lumpers’, on the other hand, draw out the main points of relevance to their audience, without exaggerating the possibilities of the research.

Here’s an example:

A splitter describes their research this way:

“A genetic marker that appears to promote the action of disease protection genes in model plants species has been isolated. The precise DNA code has been shown to work in vivo on the action of identified disease-protection genes. The genetic marker has not been tested in glasshouse or field trials to-date.”

A lumper might distil this statement into:

“Scientists have discovered a new gene switch that shows promise in helping plant breeders design disease-resistant plants.”

Chickpea seed varieties, Grains Innovation Park, VIC. Copyright: Econnect Communication

Explaining your research in the time it takes for a sparkler to burn!

By Jane Ilsley

We had the pleasure of being involved in the Fresh Science competition this year. The ten South-East Queensland finalists from a variety of disciplines nervously gathered for our media skills training.

Our challenge was to give them some media skills and confidence and prepare them for their performance at a special BrisScience event.

Their challenge was to be up on stage with just the time it takes for a sparkler to burn to explain their project. Quite an ask! (I timed the sparkler burning and it takes around 1 minute).

So where to start?

The finalists had great projects, such as:

  • the role of dietary fats in treating osteoarthritis
  • effective dressing for childhood burns
  • super quick recharging batteries
  • marsupial brain sizes

But how could they condense their years of research to 1 minute and still get an accurate message out?

We brought in some journalists to help – there are no better people to tease a good story out of complex information.

And often the most interesting, newsworthy facts are not what the researcher thinks they are.

After several interviews and working on their words throughout the day, the finalists honed their stories and had the weekend to practice or relax–and put on a great performance.

Watch the fresh scientists presenting at BrisScience and see how it really is possible to do a great job of explaining your research in a minute or less!

Fresh Scientists at BrisScience. Copyright: Econnect Communication

Synthesising science research for media stories

By Sharon Connell

Recently, we managed the media support for an international conference, the 18th International Riversymposium. We were given the technical abstracts from which to create great media stories.

The challenge we often face in our line of business is that there are tight deadlines – we needed to find interesting stories fast.

Technical abstracts can take a long time to read, interpret and absorb, and we had 200 of them.

To find as many great media opportunities as possible in a short time and get these our to journalists, we followed these 5 steps:

  1. Skim read the abstracts – most of which were already concise summaries.
  2. Look for overarching themes to the talks being presented and categorise each abstract into one of these themes. It helps when pitching to the media to find bigger reasons for them to cover the conference than just a single paper.
  3. Group stories that are relevant or useful to the specific target audiences of the media channels you are trying to interest. For example, we grouped stories that might be of interest to environmental journalists, others that were useful to rural journalists, international media in India and so on.
  4. Convert your story themes further into 1-3 newsworthy themes. For example: managing rivers during a drought, and climate change and its effects on rivers. Cull the rest.
  5. Promote media stories that are likely to be appealing from a current news angle. For example, we promoted the Queensland Minister’s announcement of the latest ‘report card’ on the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

With the research synthesised into several unique and newsworthy themes, the task of pitching story ideas to journalists was then made much easier.

Briefing the media at the 18th International Riversymposium.Copyright: Econnect Communication

Distilling science to little minds

By Jane Ilsley

In my past career I took science into Scottish schools – performing to enthusiastic primary school children and sometimes less enthusiastic teenagers.

The explosions and goo were always a hit, but choosing the parts of the science you wanted them to take home was the challenge.

Writing a script on DNA was hardest as genetics was my field of study and so I knew too much. But with chemistry of the stars, I was a novice and had to start from scratch.

The important message I always aimed to get across was that science is part of our lives every day and relevant to us all. It was always a bonus if the children went home and convinced their parents of that too.

Here’s a poll on the website I worked on back then:

What is your favourite chemical to eat/drink?

  • water
  • vinegar
  • alcohol
  • monosodium glutamate

What’s yours?

Chemical Connections : Photo taken when I worked at University of Edinburgh