By Rachel Lane
May 7, 2018
The phrase "publish or perish" is commonly used in academic settings and implies the imperative need for scientists to both generate and communicate publication-worthy research in order to continue practicing science. Every day, scientists confront this twofold pressure to generate quality research and adequately communicate the significance of their findings. If the scientist fails on either account, the lab will be unable to procure funding and will eventually shut down.
This phrase is also true outside of academia. If science is not communicated well, it will not gain the public or clinical support needed to progress into relevant applications. Well-communicated science engages public interest, facilitates collaboration among scientists, and expedites the translation of research findings into clinical uses. While an increasing number of resources, such as the "Friends of Joe's Big Idea" network and "Communicating Science" workshops offered by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), help scientists improve their communication skills, collaborations between scientists and science writers are vital for science to progress in today's world and for the significance of research findings to be translated between disciplines and to nontraditional audiences.
Scientists and science writers have a similar background, as both professionals have successfully completed a PhD in a science-based field (although a PhD is not required for science writers). During the PhD training process, both professionals learn to identify important unanswered questions, hypothesize potential connections between the known and unknown, and devise methods that test these hypotheses. This common experience means both experts understand and appreciate the challenges and triumphs associated with research. However, the career tracks of these two professionals begin to diverge after the PhD has been defended. At this step, the scientist enters a postdoctoral fellowship to continue developing research skills, while the science writer may choose a communication-centered position or begin freelance writing/editing.
During a postdoc, the scientist's technical expertise and personal perspective grow and become more specific, creating an irreplaceable skill set that cannot be replicated. However, when a scientist opens a lab or joins a biotech after completing one or more postdocs, this skill set often takes a backseat to new responsibilities. Funding and managing the lab become an academic scientist's top priorities, and biotech scientists must promote the technology to investors and end-users while continuing to refine the current science and develop new applications. The scientist spends more time at the desktop and computer screen than at the benchtop applying her specialized skill set. In this paradigm, the research catalyst, the scientist, is removed from the lab, slowing the progression of science. In addition to impairing the accumulation and dissemination of a scientist's experiential knowledge, this shift in responsibilities decreases job satisfaction, as the scientist's first passion is generally for lab work, not writing.
Like scientists, science writers have a unique skill set, with a combination of scientific and communication expertise. Science writers have the training and capacity to efficiently and effectively communicate intended scientific messages among different disciplines and audiences through traditional and nontraditional vehicles, including manuscripts, blog posts, books, and podcasts. Scientists are pulled in many different directions that often take precedence over effective science communication, slowing the dissemination and application of science. When a scientist relinquishes communication responsibilities to a writer, the scientist is free to maximize her unique skill set and spend more time in the lab, applying her specialized knowledge to solve the unknown and ensure research continuity and quality. The resulting findings are then clearly and effectively communicated by the science writer. These two factors synergistically facilitate science progression, benefiting both the scientific community and the public.
Collaborations between scientists and science writers promote science progression by enabling each expert to fully apply their specialized skill set: scientists spend more time in the lab, generating results that provide insight into the unknown, and the significance of those scientific findings are more effectively communicated and, thus, more likely to be translated into relevant applications. The career satisfaction of both experts is also increased. However, challenges do exist in this relationship. Mutual respect is essential in the scientist/science writer relationship. Each expert's insight must be fully revered: if a writer says the message is unclear, the two should work together to clarify the meaning while maintaining scientific accuracy. When the writer lacks specific scientific knowledge, she should work directly with the scientist to cultivate her subject knowledge and ability to accurately communicate the intended material and message. An open, honest collaboration will expedite future projects, creating a dynamic, fruitful, and efficient working relationship.
Scientists must also continue to refine their own ability to communicate science, especially to the public. The scientist is more likely than the science writer to discuss their work on public platforms, such as radio, television, or social media. To be effective, scientists must establish trust with their audience (for more see here and here), identify the jargon that commonly enters scientific descriptions, and poignantly highlight the most important relevant and relatable scientific findings. Working with a science writer to develop an "elevator speech," a five-minute summary of the research focus and potential relatable applications, may help scientists maximize these opportunities. These collaborations between scientists and science writers promote scientific progress and the translation of science into medicine.
Note: This article was written for biomedical sciences specifically, but the benefits are relevant to all areas of science. The more scientists use their unique skill set, the more connections between the known and unknown are uncovered, and when these findings are clearly communicated by science writers, the receiving audience is empowered to apply the results to policy or other interventions and applications.
Revised May 12, 2018