Make research more accessible

The over-complexity of science writing is a hindrance to public understanding.

by Jennah Fannoun

A group of classmates and I received an assignment last semester: design a research project and describe the experiment that would accompany it. We chose an experiment that would test the effects of installing rain gardens in suburban lawns, exploring the extent to which they would resolve storm water runoff issues and help store atmospheric carbon.

The research topic was relatively simple, but this is the title we chose: “Assessing the change in water recharge rates and carbon storage capacity in Minnesota’s residential areas as a result of the conversion of turfgrass lawns to rain gardens: a collaborative research project in the Department of Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management.”

If that title seems unnecessarily intricate, it is. It’s a parody of what my classmates and I, as science majors, have read in professional scientific journals during our college and work lives. These articles, the direct publications of researchers, are an excellent source for the latest updates in research.

But the ribbing suggested in our class project title indicates the problem with many such articles. They are often so technical, or use such specialized jargon, that they’re impenetrable to students, laypeople or even other researchers outside that field.

A quick search through recent publications reveals the issue. From Science Magazine, there is “Adolescent Stress-Induced Epigenetic Control of Dopaminergic Neurons via Glucocorticoids.” Nature, another major journal, published “Giant nonlinear response from plasmonic metasurfaces coupled to intersubband transitions.”

The articles are no more comprehensible to the average person than the titles are.

The exclusive nature of these articles makes it difficult for anyone to learn about a subject using direct sources, which tend to be most reliable and informative. It’s telling that many journals, including Science and Nature, publish a separate section with simpler explanations.

In Nature last week, for example, one of the research highlights from the Astrophysical Journal Letters about an asteroid stated, “The [research] team estimated the rocky body to be just 6 metres across and remarkably porous — made up of around 65% empty space, like a pile of rubble.”

But the researchers actually said, “We find the asteroid’s most probable bulk density to be [(1.1^{+0.7}/{-0.5})
g cm^–3, which implies a total mass of (50-350) t and a macroporosity of ≥65 percent], assuming a material bulk density typical of non-primitive meteorite materials.”

If the research articles themselves were more accessible to the public, then a simplified explanation would be unnecessary.

In no way am I advocating that researchers dumb down scientific writing and research. To some extent, the technical language and complex ideas of research articles is necessary. However, the disparity between what researchers write and what the average person understands is too big.

My classmates and I could just as easily have named our project “The effects of rain gardens on storm water runoff and carbon storage compared to turfgrass lawns” without any loss of information. Finding a balance between comprehension and scientific integrity would be the best resource to a public sorely in need of more scientific knowledge.