How science is distilling its message

Dalmeet Singh Chawla looks at short, sharp new ways to impart information from journal articles

September 10, 2015
Woman with head in hand of large sculpture
Source: Getty
Gripping yarns: as people’s attention spans shrink, academics are finding new ways to serve up their findings in eye-catchingly concise packages

In 1974, clinical psychologist Dennis Upper of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Massachusetts, US, published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis the shortest-ever academic paper.

The tongue-in-cheek paper, titled “The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of ‘writer’s block’”, contained no words except the title, the author’s name and affiliation, one self-reference, and words of praise from one reviewer who examined the manuscript “very carefully with lemon juice and X-rays”.

You do not need to look too far for further examples of papers that get straight to the point.

When physicists found that neutrinos travelled faster than the speed of light, a claim that would break Einstein’s universal speed limit, Sir Michael Berry of the University of Bristol and his colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and Theoretical titled “Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?” Their abstract revealed their stance: it read “probably not”.

Although some may be under the impression that this needed a bit more elaboration, the “probably not” abstract was a “precisely crafted answer to the question posed in the title of the paper”, Sir Michael told Times Higher Education.

The abstract was “perfectly informative”, in light of the title, he said: “not” because of their negative result, and “probably” because they needed a calculation to arrive at this conclusion. A “one-word abstract ‘no’ would not accurately reflect the work we had to do while writing the paper”, Sir Michael added.

Although the aforementioned cases are somewhat amusing, they are also good examples of what is often lacking in academic literature: concise communication of complex ideas. Such an approach is arguably even more important now that information is flowing so quickly, so are any steps being taken to move scientific writing in this direction?

One movement designed to counter information overload and help readers to get to grips with difficult concepts quickly is data visualisation.

Viputheshwar Sitaraman, an entrepreneur and an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona, founded the blog Draw Science, which publishes infographics based on research papers (see example below). The foundations of using graphics in academic journals have already been laid with the rise of graphical abstracts in recent years, said Mr Sitaraman. His blog’s aim is to turn “papers into pictures”, he said, and “put the art back into article”.  

It is far too difficult to comprehensively read a research paper, Mr Sitaraman explained. “With a population where people read only 28 per cent of the online content and have an eight-second attention span, graphics are the fastest way of getting someone’s attention,” he noted. “Thirty-two per cent of people lose interest in one to five seconds and we have five times [more] information as we had in 1986.”

According to Mr Sitaraman, “science communication is moving towards graphics, but graphics will never be a complete substitute for an academic paper”. However, we have to provide incentives to academics to encourage them to disperse their work more widely, he added.

One way to lure researchers into writing in a more lay-friendly fashion is to give blogs and infographics unique digital object identifiers to make them traceable on the web, so that the researchers can claim credit.

How to unboil an egg

This is one of the focuses of The Winnower, a DIY publishing platform that plans to draw attention to valuable alternative scholarly content. Examples of such underrated documents include rejected grant applications, peer reviewers’ reports and blogs, said founder Joshua Nicholson.

Traditional publication practices are “constraining how we communicate our results”, Dr Nicholson said. But this is changing, he added, as shorter and more concise articles are starting to get the attention they deserve.

One long-standing criticism of the research paper format is the time lag from original idea to eventual publication of the final journal paper. Along this bumpy ride, many ideas are refuted, scrapped or not tested at all. Those that make it to the final stage may be only a small part of the polished research paper.

But The Journal of Brief Ideas, an online platform that publishes 200-word “idea” articles, plans to address that shortcoming. Since its launch in February, the journal has published more than 200 ideas from many disciplines including natural, physical and life sciences, astronomy and even economics, said co-editor-in-chief David Harris.

The journal’s intent is straightforward: publish ideas as and when researchers have them instead of keeping them locked up. Making them available earlier would not only speed up processes but also trigger connections in other fields, Dr Harris said. Gradually, the journal aims to expand its remit into disciplines such as architecture and art. 

He said that having ideas available in a mere 200 words makes them more “accessible”, and enables interdisciplinary collaboration to happen more easily. I think there’s room for communicating at all different lengths,” said Dr Harris. “The point of The Journal of Brief Ideas was that brief ideas themselves weren’t well represented.”

Most recently, he said, the journal has added a functionality that allows authors to curate collections of ideas on their topic of choice.

Meanwhile, a new journal called Research Ideas and Outcomes similarly aims to publish all outputs of the research cycle – including rejected grant funding proposals, project reports and ideas. 

Another trend has seen some researchers taking the up-goer five challenge, a text editor devised by Theo Sanderson – a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute – that requires academics to explain their research in only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language. Although the outcome is usually ludicrous, it gets researchers thinking about the process of distilling down convoluted information.

Moreover, scientists submitting papers to the medical journal International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology are now also required to provide tweets that succinctly summarise their papers.

With constant floods of large amounts of information being published in academic literature, the need for brevity is more apparent than ever. But it is the harnessing of new technology and methods of presentation that is likely to be the result, rather than journal papers as short as those mentioned at the start of this article.

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