How should we communicate science?
Hats off to the coursera guys and hat tip to wanderlust, I recently took up writing in the sciences by Prof Kristin Sainani. (I would highly recommend the website aka check it to know how good it is). This was partly for of non-availability of non-computer courses and partly for my labmate(s) and professor asking for constant report rewrites.
Prof. Sainani talks about how we make scientific literature difficult to read. About cutting down long phrases, substituting simpler words, using verbs for nouns, reducing jargon, basically get to the point already? My question is, can you really get a short story out of every research paper?
I have maintained for self-defense’s sake that creative writing and exam/report writing are not the same. In creative writing, you try to communicate an idea. You weave the story to let the other person fill in the details. Like a normal conversation, it is okay if the other person gets about 50% of what you have to say. The goal here is keep the reader engaged. Science on the other hand is exact. Research papers, more so. If one sentence is misinterpreted, if a protocol is not clearly etched out, the outcome might be completely different. We do not get synonyms to make jargon sound beautiful. AND we have space/time/attention constraints to explain every word to a noob in the field.
How do you explain your work to your liberal arts roommate or your next-door labmate? Can we excuse a veteran professor for the fresher dozing off in his class? Is the Road Romeo allowed to be a nerd?
Most people say that science is boring – that it is too dry and too much mental effort. It is ridiculous, they say, the effort you put into these things which don’t register the senses. Does this have anything to with the way we talk about what we do in the lab? After all, desk-clerk’s job to file client information is equally specific. Where did we begin to err? Are scientists inherently bad communicators?
We could begin by rambling less and sticking to generalities. We could include humor and use day-to-day references instead of science jokes. And how about counting jargon in conversation.
Can we somehow combine creative writing and research paper writing? Can we have a normal research conversation? The true test is probably a creative writer easily writing a research paper.