A major source of inspiration for Scientia Crastina is Eloquent Science which is both a book and a blog—together they are compulsory reading for the early career scientist interested in modern communication. Scientia Crastina sent some questions to the author David M. Schultz who is a Professor of Synoptic Meteorology in Manchester.
Hi Dave! Why did you feel that you had to write this book?
I had been delivering a communication skills workshop to our summer undergraduate research students when I worked in Norman, Oklahoma. At the end of each summer, the students would give presentations to the rest of the scientific community about their work. These presentations were always the highlight of the summer for me – to see these young students become scientists and deliver high-quality presentations that would put most research scientists to shame.
One year I had to miss their final presentations to go to a conference. Instead, I sat bored at this conference watching some of the worst presentations that I had ever seen: self-indulgent, poorly constructed presentations by the so-called “leaders in the field”. That was when I thought that the organic notes that I had been delivering to these students needed to be better organized and be seen by other members of our community, and a book might be the way to go. Until that point, I’m not sure that I ever seriously considered writing a book. But, if there was ever a book I felt that I needed to write, it was this one.
Which are the three main issues facing scientific communication today?
The three issues that I would highlight are:
too many articles being published,
too many low-quality articles being published,
too many low-quality journals are popping up.
These three issues all stem from the same set of circumstances: the number of scientists globally is increasing and there is greater pressure for all of us to publish.
Here in the UK, we academics are ranked by our most important publications, with preference given to prestigious journals. Some countries even give monetary bonuses for scientists who publish in prestigious journals. As a result, the entire system is strained. Too many scientists are rushing too many low-quality papers to the journal without having done a complete or thorough analysis. Many studies are published, but are not making a real contribution to the literature. Many of these papers are poorly written and too long.
The result is that we scientists then have to review all these papers (two or three reviewers per paper!), and we have less time to read them once they are published. All authors need to take more care in what we write, and we must ensure that the articles are as well written and as short as possible, but still with sufficient evidence to support our claims.
Do you see any difference between senior and early career scientists when it comes to communication skills?
Early career scientists often make the best reviewers. They have more time to spend going through manuscripts and detailing problems with them. They are also more patient helping authors for whom English is not their native language.
Senior scientists have less time and more experience. They are more likely to cut to the heart of the matter quickly. If a manuscript has flaws, the best reviewers can usually identify them and highlight the problems clearly. But, I think reviews written by more senior scientists are usually shorter and are more likely to recommend rejection than those written by early career scientists.
In general: can you suggest any shortcuts for the busy scientist or student to become a better communicator?
Be a prolific reader of the literature. The more quality papers that you read, the more tricks you’ll see for how to write your own paper. And, use negative role models. If you find a paper that you are having difficulty reading, it may not be your inability to understand the paper. It may be that the author did a poor job of writing the paper in the first place! Don’t mimic that style.
Be a prolific critic of the literature. The more papers that you critique, the more you will see flaws in other papers that you may wish to avoid in your own writing. If you can volunteer as a peer reviewer for a journal (even if you are early in your career), please do so. Editors are always looking for reviewers, especially quality ones. Even if you aren’t reviewing papers formally, you can write pretend peer reviews of papers that you are reading for your research. After you are done reading, write a review as if you were one of the peer reviewers. Thinking critically about other people’s work accelerates your own advancement as a writer. If you can form a reading group with your peers where you discuss a paper every other week, then do that.
Don’t be afraid to write. Write down your ideas, your reviews of articles or books that you’ve read, or your research plans and progress. You don’t need to share it with others; just write for yourself. Despite the adage that some people are “natural born writers,” they needed to start just like everyone else. They may have better ideas or a better command of grammar, but I am convinced that open-minded individuals can develop into good writers.
Could you give three examples of excellent science communication which can be found on the web?
I’m a big fan of clever and creative ways to communicate science to the public. One of my favorites is Symphony of Science. The person John Boswell who makes these remixed videos of Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, and Mister Rogers is not a scientist, but clearly captures the mystery and imagination in science. He is unique.[Comment: A email interview is currently being performed with John Boswell. Coming soon to a crastina.se site near you!]
I also enjoy reading blogs. My friend Jim Steenburgh has a blog about the weather of the western United States and Salt Lake City, in particular. He has reached a large following of people, mainly outdoor enthusiasts who are not scientists, but who are interested in the weather in more depth than they get on the TV news.
If you want to see peer-review process in action, take a look at the articles in the open-access journal Electronic Journal of Severe Storms Meteorology. These articles go through a rigorous peer-review process, but the major issues discussed in the peer review and authors’ replies are published along with the accepted article. This type of review allows both sides of the peer-review process to be seen by the reader. (Disclaimer: I helped create and found this journal, as well as serving as the Assistant Editor for eight years.)
Finally: from my googling it seems that meterological science is a research field where there is a large interest in modern communication. Do you agree?
Yes, very much so.
Forecasts are getting better and better. We now have the computer power to make highly detailed predictions in space and time. It is incredible what the capabilities of meteorologists are that the public doesn’t see. (That’s one of the reasons that we’ve worked to create a web page ManUniCast where we can show the public how weather and air-quality forecasts are made.) Businesses and government agencies would benefit from this level of detail that we can provide.
Yet, despite all these advances, people still die in weather events that were well predicted. Take Hurricane Katrina in the United States. The National Weather Service forecasts were about as good as you could have hoped. The statements issued by the National Weather Service said that New Orleans would be uninhabitable. Yet, over 1800 people still died. Why? They either didn’t get the message or they refused to take proper precautions and evacuate. So, yes, we meteorologists need to figure out how to better communicate our message to the public to get the appropriate action from the users of weather information.
These communication issues are one reason for the growing recognition that meteorology needs to link with social scientists. There is a growing movement in the United States called WAS*IS (Weather and Society * Integrated Studies) and a new journal called Weather, Climate, and Society. These efforts have already started a dialog between meteorologists and social scientists to determine how best to improve the situation so better protect life and property through means other than just improving the forecast itself (which is largely the domain of the meteorologist).
David M. Schultz, the author of Eloquent Science, is a Professor of Synoptic Meteorology at the Centre for Atmospheric Science, School of Earth, Atmospheric, and Environmental Sciences, The University of Manchester. Here he describes his research:
My background is in synoptic meteorology. As I like to say, I don’t make the forecasts, I help make them better. My favorite topics of research include the structure and evolution of extratropical cyclones (these are the low pressure systems and fronts that bring much of the weather we experience in the midlatitudes) and convective storms. My research group uses observations, computer models, and theory to better understand the causes of all kinds of hazardous weather, such as windstorms, tornadoes, flooding rains, and snowstorms.