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A conversation about the importance of conveying complex scientific concepts to broad audiences

Last month, Kristin Sainani, PhD, a clinical assistant professor at the School of Medicine, launched an online science-writing class that teaches researchers how to clearly and concisely communicate their work. The course, titled Writing in the Sciences, is available through Coursera, and it drew thousands of students shortly after being introduced.

Curious to know more about what prompted Sainsani to develop the class and her teaching methods, I contacted her to discuss the project. Below she talks about the importance of teaching researchers how to explain their work to broad audiences and offers some tips for conveying complex scientific concepts in a reader-friendly manner.

A recent article states that your mission is to enable scientific literature to change. What motivated you to pursue this goal?

I am partly motivated to change the literature because, like all scientists, I have to read it. It’s frustrating that so many papers are unnecessarily difficult to get through. Scientists assume that because they are talking about complex ideas, the language also must be complicated and unreadable. This is simply untrue.

A second motivation is that better writing improves transparency. As a peer reviewer, I encounter lots of poorly written papers. I often wonder if the authors are intentionally being obscure in places to hide flaws or shortcomings in their methods. I wonder how many errors slip through peer review as a consequence of obscure language.

A final motivation is that better writing increases access to the knowledge. When you get your ideas across to as many scientists as possible, from as many diverse disciplines as possible, this moves science forward. If your article can only be understood by a handful of other people, this lessens its impact.

Why is it important that scientists be able to easily communicate their work to the general public?

The public needs to be adequately informed about science to rationally debate issues from genetically modified foods to global warming to health-care economics. Scientists have a responsibility to communicate effectively with the general public to help inform the public discourse, as well as to help increase general scientific literacy.

How did you as a writer overcome the common belief among the science community that if prose isn’t jargon and turgid, it isn’t serious or accurate?

It’s a challenge to convince scientists to write in a clear, succinct style. Because they are exposed to so many jargon-filled and turgid papers, they often assume that they have to write in a similar style to be “part of the club.” To help convince them otherwise, I point to a few examples:

  1. Journals, such as Science, explicitly instruct authors to avoid jargon, write in the active voice, and write concisely. Journal editors want clear, simple writing!
  2. Watson and Crick’s famous paper on the structure of DNA is a great example of clear, concise, and effective prose.
  3. An interesting psychology study (.pdf) shows that people actually perceive a writer to be more intelligent if they write clearly and simply than if they use big words and convoluted sentence structure.

What’s the biggest challenge your students face in learning how to convey complex scientific concepts in reader-friendly language?

They have to get over their initial fear that they will somehow “dumb down” the language too much. Once they get over this fear, it just takes some practice to break old habits.

In one of your early modules on YouTube, you discuss avoiding the common problem of turning formerly spunky verbs into boring nouns. What other helpful tips can you share?

First, cut unnecessary clutter and jargon. Instead of "Ultimately p53 guards not only against malignant transformation but also plays a role in developmental processes as diverse as aging, differentiation, and fertility," try "Besides preventing cancer, p53 also plays a role in aging, differentiation, and fertility." Instead of "Clinical seizures have been estimated to occur in 0.5 percent to 2.3 percent of the neonatal population," try "Clinical seizures occur in 0.5 percent to 2.3 percent of newborns."

Second, use the active voice. Instead of "The predicted sharp edges characteristic of a cosmic string were observed by several teams, try "Several teams observed the predicted sharp edges characteristic of a cosmic string." Instead of "A link between smoking and breast cancer is suggested by multiple studies," try "Multiple studies suggest a link between smoking and breast cancer.

Now that you’ve launched Writing in the Sciences, what’s next?

My next massive open online course endeavor will be a statistics course rather than a writing course. I am developing a course on statistics for medical students and medical professionals. Though not directly related to writing, the course will put to use a lot of the skills that I teach in my writing course - I will try to make statistics lively, engaging, and understandable to a wide audience.

Photo by Selena N. B. H.

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