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.

1 comment:

  1. I think that the success of the RELU Policy & Practice Notes is that i) award holders had to produce them; and ii) you had a strong hand in editing or re-writing material to ensure it was accessible to all readers. For some researchers, no matter how hard we try, after a while it becomes hard to know what's jargon and what's not, so having someone like you to comment on and improve our writing is essential. If a programme doesn't have someone like you, then I now budget for a science writer in my research proposals, having learned the value of this from you, Anne.

    Having said this, I think that the only weakness of the RELU Policy & Practice Notes stems from the first reason for their success. Because they were a condition of the award, Policy & Practice Notes were produced, whether or not there were findings that were particularly relevant to policy or practice. You did a sterling job in such cases, but there's only so much you can do if you don't have relevant material to work with. And if researchers do it because "they have to", then there's a danger that their Policy & Practice Notes aren't actively promoted. For me, the value of having these documents is in what you do with them. Actively promoting them at events tailored to the audience they're aimed at, or even in one-to-one meetings with key decision makers is essential to extract the full impact from these great pieces of science communication!