The task of turning published research into everyday language that people can understand in just 400-500 words is a lot harder than it looks. There is the all important need to not dumb down the science and even more crucially, to keep the science correct while meeting the editor’s deadline. The task becomes all the more harder when an article is dripping in jargon and technical language. I read a lot of science articles and sometimes I find the ones in my own fields hard to follow. Sometimes I feel like joining all the words I don’t understand together like a dot-to-dot diagram with a brightly coloured highlighter.
There is no dictionary or reference book that I can turn to when this happens. I end up reading more articles in order to understand the original article. Other times I may ask another scientist and sometimes I email the person to ask questions. When you are reading articles detailing the latest research and work in science, sometimes you do need to go to the source to understand it. All this with under the shadow of a fast approaching deadline.
As well as the blog I keep here, I also have a Twitter account where I talk mainly about science with the occasional rants. Try explaining science in 140 characters. I have had conversations with people on a variety of scientific topics. I have learned about things in science as well as talking to people from all over the world in all types of jobs in science and science communication.
A little over a month ago, I noticed a tweet from Darren Osborne, the News Editor for ABC Science Online issuing a challenge to decipher the title of a letter to Nature Medicine, Paraoxonase-1 is a major determinant of clopidogrel efficacy.
I wasn’t doing anything terribly important at the time and decided to take up the challenge but my first attempt was riddled in jargon. At the time I wasn’t thinking of communicating to people outside of science, or maybe even medical research.
It wasn’t surprising when Darren responded with and with a few more details:
I wasn’t allowed any “big words”, a nice gentle reminder to not use jargon and that I could only use 42 characters and that the purpose was for a news headline. That is 98 characters less than the usual brevity I am used to on Twitter! I spent some time working on a combination of headlines before making this suggestion:
I didn’t hear anything back. Understandable really because Darren works in a news room and has other things to do than sit on Twitter all day. I went back to working on a report and reading a few articles. A few hours later, Darren tweeted:
BTW – I would go "Gene affects blood thinning drug plavix"—
Darren Osborne (@sciencenewsgeek) January 27, 2011
I was close. Okay, perhaps not that close because having two words the same as the final result isn’t a strong correlation. It is a much better headline because not only does it translate the title, Paraoxonase-1 is a major determinant of clopidogrel efficacy but it also tells what the letter was about in the first place. Another difference is that Darren’s headline is dynamic. It has action words and something is happening. A whole lot more interesting than my efforts.
I didn’t get a chocolate donut but I did get this awesome collection of stuff from ABC Science. One of the Logic Happens bumper stickers is going to be slapped on my laptop and the other on my car.