‘They can’t write for toffee.’ ‘They’ being scientists of course. But like most generalisations, this statement is utter tosh.
You only had to be at the ‘Access to Understanding’ awards (#A2UComp) at the British Library on Monday night to realise that. The lay summaries that I and my fellow judges had been asked to review were of a very high standard. The winner, Emma Pewsey, is to be commended for beating off such strong competition. Sharmila Nebhrajani (CEO at AMRC) has written an excellent AMRC blog today on the whole competition if you are interested in learning more.
I very much doubt that scientists are much worse than any other ‘professions’ when it comes to their writing skills. And, in terms of resonating with the intended audience, success is as much predicated by the mindset of their author as their ability with the pen.
When I was a Head of Communications there seemed no end of graduates rolling up for jobs who would be able to tell you who fronted what TV programme . But they couldn’t write a news release to save their life. It wasn’t their often poor grammar or punctuation that mattered. It was more their inability to identify the story or the most important facts to communicate to their audience.
If I am honest I think that if I pressed a switch tonight and every scientific paper instantly became freely available online and with a good lay summary it would not make much of a difference to public understanding.
That’s not to say that we should not do it. But I simply think we should be realistic. Not least because I sense that technology and consumer behaviour will take us to a different place entirely as they so often do. Even some speechwriters now start off by first thinking what their speech would look like if summarised in a tweet. Should we ask our scientists do the same and to use this as part of their paper title, for instance?’
In the meantime, if we are to reach a better place with the writing of lay summaries then our approach to them must be more consistent. I am delighted that INVOLVE has been working on some NIHR-wide guidance and tools that will see light of day shortly. But i personally would also like to see us incentivise good practice by, for instance, only releasing grant monies when a good lay summary is agreed. I have tried this on some senior researchers and they didn’t seem to think it was too barmy. Well, no barmier than anything else I’ve suggested.
It is interesting that scientists and writers share a common tool – the notebook. Their livelihoods both depend on it albeit in different ways. One to allow replication. The other to feed creativeness ( although this seems a little too simple a distinction). The investment in its completeness is a mark of professionalism.
And I think that for me is why the lay summary remains such an important component of how we communicate science. It is less about the product itself than the discipline and behaviours it encourages: clarity of thought, appreciation of one’s audience, belief and conviction in one’s ideas.
The lay summary is dead. Long live the lay summary.