Thursday, 17 May 2012
Writing it how it is
Recently I have had a lot of emails and phone calls from other programmes wanting to know more about how we do communications in Relu and, in particular, how we produce our policy and practice notes. It's always pleasing to receive positive comments about one's work and the PPN series in particular does seem to be very well received. But I also feel slightly bemused that the idea of writing these kinds of accessible notes about research seems to be novel. I know there are a lot of scientists out there doing great work on public engagement and making research accessible, but it still isn't something that happens routinely. Many scientists who want to write in a more popular style find it very difficult. I remember science lessons at primary school and even at that early stage we were instructed in how to set out the account of the experiment, with the method, results and conclusion in their proper order, all written in the third person. I could understand the reasons for this but found the format rather off-putting. I enjoyed science but my attempts were always, I suspect, a little haphazard. The incident when my electrical circuit caught fire is particularly memorable so it's probably just as well that I ended up taking arts subjects at "A" level. However, my degree is in archaeology and this probably gave me my first experience of interdisciplinarity, as it required some knowledge of a range of subjects, including history, geography and physics. If I tried to explain the principles of carbon dating now they would probably sound rather garbled, but I would like to think I still have some basic understanding of them. This rather eclectic background means that I have never felt constrained by the "scientific" writing style that is considered necessary for publication in top journals and which, in my opinion, hampers so many academics when they attempt to write for a wider audience. So the most useful advice I can give to others who want to produce a publication similar to the Relu PPNs is to ignore their early training in science writing and think about explaining their research to someone who is interested in the science but isn't a scientist - someone like me, in fact.