How I Make My Publications Interesting for Non-Academic Audiences
One of the most important and most exciting parts of being a researcher is getting to finally share your results with the world. It’s the final step of the scientific method taught in middle schools everywhere. And it can be devastating to hear from family and friends, when they ask to see the paper you wrote, that they just don’t get it. Sometimes it’s too boring, or too complicated; other times, they can’t figure out why anyone would care.
Since the first time I heard these complaints, I’ve been working to find ways of communicating what I do and why it’s important to the people close to me. When they ask me what I’m working on these days, I have a few tricks and tools to help me show them why the research I do is important and interesting.
Identify a Clear Conflict or Purpose
First and foremost, I like to have a clear conflict or purpose in mind. This conflict is what drives the research and makes it important. I’ve found this useful in writing journal articles as well: by having a clear problem or question, it is easier to stay on topic. When you’re framing this conflict, stay away from jargon. And if at all possible, use a framing that is interesting and relevant to as many people outside your field as possible.
For example, a few summers ago, I did the data analysis on a project that could be described as “using dental topographic metrics to differentiate fragmentary Trionychidae fossils.” While that is true, it means nothing to a lot of people. To get people interested, I may instead say that we measured the patterns of ridges and pits in the bone to try to sort turtle shell fossil chunks into different species. While some people may still wonder why you would want to study fossil turtles when you could study the dinosaurs that ate them, by having a clear problem (lots of unidentified shell chunks), I am more likely to get people outside turtle paleontology interested in this project.
Use Creative Comparisons
That’s a good start, but I never explained what “dental topographic metrics” are. That’s where another tip comes in: use creative comparisons to explain your methods where you can. Often, the methods we use as scientists to measure things are obscured under several layers of understanding, and it isn’t immediately obvious what we are measuring or why it will help answer our question. Here, we used methods for mathematically describing the topography of a landscape. These methods were recently repurposed for characterizing the chewing surfaces of teeth. But in our paper, we repurposed these methods again to describe the pits and ridges on turtle shells. So to help this make sense, I might say that we measured the complexity of the shell’s pattern in the same way someone could compare the topography of the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains. Even without having seen a softshell turtle, this gives the audience an idea of what two extremes in my data set might look like.
Have a Clear and Relevant Result
Then, like with having a clear problem or question, having a clear result helps drive home why your work matters. When I write for a grant or a journal, it can be tempting to try to find as many implications for my work as possible. When sharing your work outside your scientific audience, though, this habit can create more confusion. Instead, it’s better to have a clear, single result. For the turtles, we found that our method identified the shells correctly about three quarters of the time, which is a great start and shows promise. There are plenty of implications for modern turtle biology, other varieties of fossils, and the methods I described. But bringing them up will only distract from the main result.
However, this result alone, without context, still may not seem relevant to wider audiences. After all, why do we care about turtle fossils, when we could be spending time on dinosaurs? Why spend time studying fossils at all? To answer the first question, we can infer a lot about dinosaurs by studying other aspects of their environment. A turtle shell with tooth marks on it can tell us about the diets of dinosaurs. To answer the second question, only a small fraction of all life is present on earth right now. By studying the past, like human history, we can make better guesses about how to act now and what will happen in the future. In fact, studying past climate events is a major way of learning about the potential effects of climate change. The ways of making your work relevant to your audience are as endless as the interests of your audience. By knowing a little about who you’re sharing your results with, you can frame the results in a clear and meaningful way.
Talking about my research this way can often feel a bit like an elevator pitch: keep it short, only talk about main details, and think about what your audience wants to hear. It can be challenging to adopt this sort of mindset. It helps to remind myself that good science communication is good because it brings more people into conversations about science, bringing new perspectives to scientists and those that wouldn’t normally identify as scientists alike. It helps convince others that what I do matters, and in turn, has helped to remind me of the same thing.