Bringing It to the Masses

Little scientific research ever makes it to the public sphere. One postdoc wants to change that with a new website that helps scientists translate their research for lay audiences.

July 16, 2014

Scientists can devote their professional lives to a single question, but chances are that most or all of what they do will only ever be appreciated by a small circle of fellow academics. The reasons for that are complex and numerous, and usually depend on who’s counting them. Non-scientists say it shouldn’t take a machete to get through all the jargon in an article, while some scientists blame the public for being less than science-literate. Others still cite issues of access related to academic journal paywalls, or the increasing specialization of scientists -- or a combination of these and other factors.

Robert Seigel, a postdoctoral research fellow in atmospheric sciences at the University of Miami, is aware of all of these arguments. But he’s more interested in fixing what he calls the “disconnect” between science and society than diagnosing it. His first big push has been creating a website called Publiscize. It’s a platform that helps scientists break down and promote their published research for a lay audience – either readers on their own or college and university communications department staffers who might not otherwise be aware of the work taking place on their campuses.

“I didn’t feel quite satisfied as a scientist with how disconnected I was with the rest of the world,” said Seigel. “So I started working on this about seven or eight months ago, formulating my thoughts and getting everything together. We recently launched and we’re really starting to move this along.”

Publiscize has an intuitive interface that allows users to create accounts either as scientists, organizations, or “enthusiasts” with access to daily email alerts about new content. Seigel verifies the identities of scientists based on their published research before approving them to post content. To post a “scinopsis,” or scientific synopsis of their peer-reviewed research (accepted or published only – Seigel says he’s not interested in the journal business), scientists fill out a form designed to make work accessible. They start with a title and 300-character summary or “lede” before moving on to a short synopsis.

Several principles guide scientists through the process: write in terms that anyone in your family can understand, think carefully about first- versus third-person narration (one brings the reader in; the other smacks of objectivity), and put the bottom line up front. An accompanying graphic from a 2011 Physics Today article by Richard Somerville and Susan Hassol about communicating climate change acknowledges that this process is different from the way academics usually write. Instead of declaring their main point in the opening paragraphs, they say, academics tend to write in a more linear manner, starting with background.

After a post is submitted – ideally with a picture – Seigel and an intern edit it for clarity and concision, then send it back to the scientist for final approval.

The idea of medium between science and the general public isn’t new. Futurity publishes research pieces from university communications professionals, and sites such as The Conversation, which began in Australia, aim to a connect academics with the general public and journalists about a variety of topics – not just science.

But Seigel says Publiscize is unique in that it encourages professors to write about their research without having to communicate through their universities’ communications officers (although eventually, Seigel says, he’d like public relations personnel to use the site to help find out about research at their institutions, and serve as editors to their professors’ initial posts).

Seigel said a “talking point” he uses with professors is that it takes hundreds of hours from start to finish to publish a piece of research. But it only takes about an hour to then share that work “with a much bigger audience” on Publiscize, he said.

In an email, Jenny Leonard, editor of Futurity, said: “We value the work of sites like Publiscize. They give scientists an unfiltered platform to share their findings and to offer big-picture context. But we also value the skill of science communicators to make research relatable and to make science come alive.”

Publiscize’s process isn’t foolproof. Some titles remain scientific mouthfuls that likely wouldn’t attract the click of a casual lay reader (see “Dim bioluminescence of some dinoflagellates may serve as a warning for toxicity” – although the main synopsis is engagingly written). A few articles are similarly dense. But most scientists seem to have taken the message to heart, offering synonyms for complex terms and writing in a way that brings the reader in.

Lisa Murphy, a postdoctoral fellow in atmospheric and oceanic scientists at the University of Miami along with Seigel, recently submitted a post on her research about the importance of including dust cycles in climate models to increase accuracy.

Murphy said she wanted to contribute because outreach “is so important in our field."

"Not only do you want to do good science, but you also want to be able to communicate it in a way that's understandable to the community.”

Publiscize helps with that effort because it gives those people who don’t have access to full journal articles an opportunity to learn about the research anyway, she said, “and you don’t have to be an expert to understand.” The platform is also a means of eliminating “a lot of the miscommunication out there” about scientific issues.

Seigel, whose work in cloud modeling deals indirectly with climate change, said the controversial topic is the “classic” example of why it’s important to have a science-literate public. But it’s not the only reason.

“Science is the seed of all knowledge,” he said. “Everything in our lives has started from science, so it’s crazy to think it isn’t more widely understood.”

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