It’s Friday, 6:57 p.m. in the newsroom, and no one wants to be there. The atmosphere has shifted from being as casual as happy hour to being as tense as a DMV visit. The weekly meeting is now nearing its two-hour mark. Burnt out reporters and editors are either completely spaced out of the conversation or contribute arguments and nonsensical chit-chat to distract from the tedium of story pitching.
The sports reporter and opinion editor continue tossing a stress ball back and forth, and the lifestyles editor has fallen asleep on the couch.
Fortunately for them, the meeting is almost over. Story pitching is done except for the one section of the paper they all dread – the science section.
For this smaller startup paper that strives to try new things and report with integrity, as best they can, finding that story is often a significant challenge.
Bigger organizations receive regular press releases, publicist emails and other tips for stories. But for this startup, they have to spend a lot of time doing their own research.
The editor-in-chief (EIC) paces in front of a whiteboard, popping open the marker cap and clasping it shut over and over again. “We need something,” She says. “None of us leaves until we have some good story ideas. Real ideas.”
The managing editor, who has already packed up his laptop and cell phone chimes in saying, “let’s just talk about climate change and be done with it.” He takes the last gulp of coffee and slings his laptop bag over his shoulder.
“Um, wow John!” The head copyeditor laughs and throws a wad of paper at him. “Just siddown and suffer with the rest of us.” John walks to the door and stands there, waiting for dismissal.
“We do that all the time. All the time. We can do better,” the EIC insists.
One of the scientific correspondents continues scrolling the usual resource go-tos, sighing and vigorously tapping his foot on the linoleum. “There is literally nothing but dry, incomprehensible jargon.” He reads off paper titles. At their worst, some are as long as 30 or 40 words chock full of a language only discernible to a seasoned PhD in that specific subset of science. “It’s too niche. What does it offer the public? Like this one, for instance,” he reads off the title and a brief description, “What about this makes me care? Relevance? Timeliness? Impact? Maybe. But I can’t see it, not even in the abstract.”
“And you’re one of the science people?” the sports reporter says after tossing the stress ball. He gets up, tucks away his laptop and moves toward the door by John.
This barrier between scientific research papers and the public who also has a stake in science is due to what experts call an opaque writing-style. This fashion of writing tends to be overly complicated not just due to jargon and subject matter, but also due to complex sentence construction.
Researchers have noticed readability (how easy something is to read) and reading accessibility has decreased with every decade since the 1940s. According to Nature’s article “Clear as mud,” research papers published before the 1940s were as easy to read as the average newspaper. Now, it has become something tedious to sift through, even for seasoned researchers. The article even begins with a quote from Francis Crick’s 1994 book “The Astonishing Hypothesis,” where he wrote “There is no form of prose more difficult to understand and more tedious to read than the average scientific paper.”
Many researchers are advocating for change because they believe improved accessibility will advance science. The demand for increased readability is not a new. Articles campaigning for better reading accessibility go back decades. Even George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” gave clear guidance on how to write for understanding, both in academic and general settings.
When it comes to your own manuscripts, improving readability further aids in the discoverability and broad understanding of your research publication.
Here are some of the biggest reasons why researchers should improve the readability of their own work.
1. An easy to understand publication opens the door to collaboration
It was in the middle of an evolutionary and developmental biology lecture that Dr. Jennings told us a story about a collaboration between him and another professor. As he told his story, he mentioned, “You all think we professors know everything, but before I talked to Dr. Lu, I really didn’t have much knowledge about DNA recombination. I still really don’t. Different subsets of science will always come with a new learning curve.”
This was an especially instructive moment because it opened my understanding to the fact that each discipline has its own frame of understanding, its own knowledge and lack of knowledge. It taught me that being mindful of my own scientific communication might open more opportunities for science rather than accidentally closing them.
Scientific collaboration isn’t limited to science. In fact, really fascinating innovations can happen when two or more very different fields combine. Interesting collaborations have allowed science to restore art, create art, create meat alternatives that taste just as good and use DNA for digital data storage.
Casting a wider net by making your publication applicable to a much broader audience can lead to extraordinary jam sessions between science and – well, anything.
2. Your paper will get read in the TLDR era
In this case, maybe the illustration should be TCDR, too complex – didn’t read versus the traditional too long – didn’t read.
The information age is opening the world to an explosion of innovation, but with that explosion comes all the “noise,” that is, the overwhelming amount of stimulation and information.
It has become too much for us to process so we are forced to filter, skim and summarize. When things are too long, too complex or too drawn out, we click on something else.
Considering all the time and effort that has gone into a published study, all of it is wasted if the reader deems it too complex to read and then moves on.
The added effort spent making a research manuscript more concise, straightforward and interpretable by a broader audience can essentially save the life of that research.
3. What you write and how it’s written can naturally market your work
This goes along with the idea of avoiding a TLDR situation. Clear communication detailing what your research is, its impact and why that matters has more chance of being discovered.
A paper that quickly addresses to its readers “what’s in it for me?” will undoubtedly keep the reader engaged because it’s relevant to him or her.
Why is marketing your research important? It might not be for some researchers. If the goal of publishing is to be published, then its subsequent impact might not be a priority. However if the goal is collaboration, inspiration, awareness, impact, etc., more eyes on your paper is important.
More attention can increase the impact of your research, influence greater changes, inspire collaborations, drive curiosity and discovery, showcase your achievements.
4. Your research publication immediately tells a reader if this is what he or she looking for
No one has a lot of time to waste, especially when it comes to perusing titles of recent scientific publications. Unfortunately, if a person doing literary research clicks on a complicated string of scientific jargon that formed a title, they now have to spend more time reading and reading until they can determine whether this paper will solve their problem or not.
Worse, if the abstract and introduction are constructed in the same tedious manner, they’ll scroll to the results and discussion section. After several minutes of side Googling, it might still be unclear if this paper is what they need. At that point, however, it doesn’t matter. They move on, and regret burning that time.
5. More reads means more citations
The more people reading, really reading your paper and using it as a source for their own research means more citations for your work.
Citations are important because they bolster the reputation of that publication. Additionally, they help the impact factor of the publication journal.
6. Easy to follow scientific publications reduce the mistrust between the public and science
The public has generally held some mistrust for science. The idea that science might alter nature in ways not everyone can understand casts a veil between the research world and the rest of the world.
Most of the public won’t say to themselves, “wow, I should really catch up on the latest research publications in Nature,” and then start scrolling titles and abstracts. But, well written papers that are easy to follow by a broad audience will, in the long-term, increase public confidence when it comes to fact-checking.
7. You protect your paper from media misinterpretation
There are so many stories of researchers who no longer speak to reporters because reporters just can’t seem to get the story straight – that’s for another article. However, an accessible, straightforward paper does help reporters, bloggers, vloggers, editors and other journalists easily interpret the overall conclusion and significance.
At 7:18 p.m. the reporters and editors finally shuffled out of the newsroom and turned out the lights. The science correspondent eventually came up with a list of six potential stories that he would have to research at home that night. He said he needed at least three stories for next Wednesday’s paper, and luckily already had a back-pocket story that just needed one more interview.
“It’ll be fine. It always is,” he said to the EIC before heading to his car.
* The referenced story is a depiction based on true events from the author's experiences with a small newspaper.
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