Why effective scientific communication is crucial, and sometimes lacking

A few weeks ago, I attended a graduate student conference on current life science research in general. The format included presentations both by Canadian graduate students presenting their research, and distinguished scientists as guest lecturers. Although the scientific content in both sets of presentations was usually impressive, one thing immediately stuck out as a discriminating factor between some members of the former group and the latter; the ability to properly communicate science, especially to a general audience.

As I’ve said before in these articles, communicating scientific findings to a general audience (including peers in other fields and, in particular, the general public), is crucial. In fact, it’s arguably the most important job of scientists today. To briefly summarize my previous arguments, effective communication of science can protect the public from being misled, overthrow previous misinformed beliefs, influence public policy, lead to further progress and clinical or otherwise practical applications, and cultivate a sense of wonder.  Paradoxically, however, proper communication in science is often relegated to a much lower priority than it deserves.

For example, one of the guest lecturers at this particular conference gave a talk about communicating effectively as a scientist. She did an excellent job of pointing out ways that graduate students in science, as well as established scientists, could improve how they convey their findings to their audience, including avoiding jargon and overly technical language, writing clearly and concisely, taking the level of understanding of their audience into consideration, and writing in an active voice to create clear and informal prose. However, at this point a girl at my table raised her hand to make a comment. Isn’t it true, she asked, that it’s better to appear ‘formal’ and intelligent in the eyes of the audience than to ensure that the audience understands clearly? I was surprised that she’d asked this, but I was more surprised that other students in the audience were either in agreement with her or silent. In fact, the point this student made was the exact opposite of the truth. The first priority is conveying an understanding of the points involved. Overly florid writing may seem more formal, but it’s also more pretentious, less clear, and much less accessible to the audience.

This girl wasn’t an exception at this meeting; she was definitely bright, and her research was impressive. But somehow she’d gotten the exact wrong idea about scientific communication. Where do these misguided beliefs originate?

There are a few possible reasons proper communication is not taken as seriously as it should be in some levels of science. First, I don’t think scientists and scientists-in-training receive enough training in effective writing and presenting. The average graduate student has had an extensive scientific curriculum from the end of high school through their undergraduate and graduate education, which is essential, but often leaves less room for education in effective communication. In addition, the importance of writing and rhetoric is probably not stressed sufficiently to students training to be scientists. Given the collaborative and international nature of research, language barriers may also contribute to communication problems. Finally, some scientists (hopefully a minority) may believe that having a broad audience understand their work is not important enough to justify the time and effort required for proper communication.

Fortunately, what all the above scenarios have in common is that they’re more or less easily addressed. Emphasize the importance of clear, concise and effective communication to aspiring scientists and give them the training and resources necessary to improve these essential skills, and the next generation of scientists will inevitably both possess and value better communication skills. This benefits everyone, both those with a desire to communicate their findings, and their audience, with a desire to understand them.

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Posted in Public Education.

Posted on 06 Sep 2010

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8 comments to Why effective scientific communication is crucial, and sometimes lacking

  1. Stéphanie Lassonde
    On Sep 7th 2010 at 15:44

    You are TOTALLY right, Ian. The best scientists I have seen describe their work is Sonia Lupien and Joe Rochford.

  2. Camillo Zacchia
    On Sep 7th 2010 at 18:36

    Excellent thoughts as always, Ian.
    I think some scientists think that simple language cannot convey complex ideas. Not so.
    I just looked at someone’s CV that cited a publication about “Extradyadic relations.” You can’t be serious? To the uninitiated it means your boyfriend or girlfriend is schtupping someone else. I’m also reminded of an article I came across several years ago about “Psychogenic Urinary Retention,” which of course referred to people who can’t pee when others are around. I suppose it’s tough to apply for grant money if you haven’t come up with a cool new name for something. Give me a short-term inter-productivity hiatus (a break!)

    • Ian Mahar
      On Oct 3rd 2010 at 03:42

      Thanks for the comment, Cam; I agree that there seems to be a misconception that if you can describe something plainly, you’re selling the idea short, whereas in truth it’s the opposite, as clear prose allows someone to understand the concept with less ambiguity. As an example, I think ‘extradyadic relations’ could also technically refer to inviting an additional person into your ‘dyad’, although in this case implying a desire for either to one’s spouse would probably get them into some trouble.

  3. Denise Cook
    On Sep 8th 2010 at 04:26

    Here, here. We seem to be striving for the same goals! I’m planning to add a blog to the Brain Awareness Week website to write about current research in Neuroscience in a way that is understandable to a general audience. Would love to have you on board for a couple of blogs!

  4. Adrienne
    On Nov 28th 2010 at 05:53

    I’m currently a graduate student, and what I find interesting about this problem is the what it is propagated. I do a lot of writing/speaking, and every time I get feed back from professors in the department, I am told I need to sound more “sciency,” or that I’m speaking too simply. The student in your example had probably been told the same thing. When I present for a group, if it’s mostly professors I tend to use a lot of jargon. If it’s mostly non professors, I tend to speak more simply. I guess what I’m saying is we’re being trained this way, and it can be very hard to know when to break out of it.

    • Ian Mahar
      On Nov 28th 2010 at 22:19

      Thanks for the comment. It does seem to be a common issue, as I’ve heard similar statements from multiple grad students. The point is, if you’re able to present your work simply, without jargon, as you said you did for informal audiences, there’s no additional benefit to adding jargon or sounding “sciencey” for a formal audience, especially if the primary goal is communicating effectively. By the way, thanks for the link to your blog, it’s interesting stuff.

  5. Marty B. O'Malley
    On Nov 28th 2010 at 16:01

    I perceived an author’s bias against women when the author injected gender unnecessarily.

    • Ian Mahar
      On Nov 28th 2010 at 22:11

      You perceive falsely. I have no bias against women, and if you read closely you’ll notice that I unambiguously identified the lecturer, whom I agreed with wholeheartedly, as female as well.