Thursday, August 9, 2007

summaries for non-scientists: what should they contain?

Chris Rowan had a very thought-provoking post a couple days ago based on a suggestion by Propter Doc: that all scientific journal articles should include (possibly on the web, rather than in a print version) a lay statement written by the authors of the journal article. The basic idea is that the statement could be used by all sorts of people who are interested in the science, but don't have the time or the background (or the access to the journal) to read the entire article. Chris makes the point that these statements would solve some of the problems with press releases that result from not understanding the science in the paper. (And Chris has some great examples of press releases that needed help, too, and great discussion of them.)

I think this is an interesting idea. But, as the person who teaches my department's writing course, I would add that writing for a lay audience is a skill that needs developing. (I make my students write one paper as if they're writing for an audience of non-scientists. It's amazingly difficult to do well.) So, if this is a valuable skill... then students need to practice it.

As luck would have it, right now I'm trying to put together a new Advanced Structural Geology course. I'm going to run it as a semi-seminar (not as individually motivated as grad school seminars generally are - I only teach undergrads), and we'll be discussing journal articles. And I thought: ah-ha! There's a new idea for an assignment! So I'm going to have each student choose one article and write an "executive summary" for it.

But I need to give them some kind of guidance. So, geoblogosphere: what do you think an "executive summary" or a "lay summary" (or a press release, for that matter) would need to do, in order to be successful? How is it different, in your mind, from an abstract? Is its goal to catch the attention of the audience, like a journalist would need to do? Is its goal to accurately summarize the research? Is its goal to explain why the research is interesting and important? All of the above? None of the above?

My students thank you in advance for helping me clarify my assignments before I grade them. :D


Brian said...

This is important...and I need to think about it some more, but my first thought is that I usually don't have too much negative to say about press releases in their entirety. I think the problem (and hence the ultimate challenge for a writer) is coming up with very short (2-3 sentences) blurbs or, even worse, "headlines". This is where meaning gets completely lost usually.

i will reply more when i can think more clearly

CJR said...

What a great idea.

The sort of thing I had in mind would be pitched at the level of the interested lay person (unlike an abstract, which assumes a degree-level or higher level of expertise). So no jargon.

There probably also needs to be much more focus on motivation (why do this study in the first place?) and consequences (how does this affect the field of research as a whole?). The former, especially, is something that scientists are very bad at (as 8 out of 10 conference talks demonstrate).

I sort of think of it like my experience of teaching - to actually communicate a new idea to somebody, you need to really understand it. Given that press offices are generally populated by humanities graduates, you're obviously asking for trouble (and it's rather unfair) to leave it entirely to them.

Kim said...

Chris: actually communicate a new idea to somebody, you need to really understand it.

Yes, I agree - and that's one of the reasons I like to make students write (even though grading papers is hard).

Thanks - the focus on the motivation and the consequences is a good idea. That should push them to put the research into more of a context (which is hard for students, but in this case they've already taken one structural geology class, and we'll be discussing the papers before they have to write the summary).

Brian - it isn't so much that press releases are usually bad, but that they are really hard to write well. And even if the students never write press releases, they will have to communicate with non-specialists at some point.

Brian said...

Maybe one thing you could do in the seminar is find papers/studies that do have press releases and then compare them to the abstract. You could then discuss what each say, how they say they're the same, different, and so on.

I get Nature every week at home and really enjoy the "Research Highlights" section. This is where they have what might be called executive summaries of current papers in other journals. Most of the time I find these summaries to be just what I'm looking for, especially for fields outside of Earth science where I don't know the jargon. At the very least, these are one example you could show the students.

i'll think about this more...