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Engaging in the Conversation of Science: Its Time for You to Take an Active Role

Every day, headlines scream about cures, causes of disease, and questionable scientific advances. While many health reporters work hard to get the science right and translate it into something digestible for the public, they are still subject to pressures that can lead to less than precise articles. And once a scientific paper or abstract finds its way on to social media, the “facts” can be distorted into something barely resembling the original results, leaving scientists and the authors of the paper cringing. Given the speed of information-sharing today and the resulting imprecision, NOW is the time for all scientists (including early career scientists) to actively engage the lay public in the conversation of science through all means possible – even social media.

This was the topic of the early morning, early career presentation Bailey DeBarmore and I gave at the 2019 AHA EPI Lifestyle Scientific Sessions. To be honest, using social media to disseminate my science was definitely not something I learned in graduate school. In fact, my first exposure to blogging was through the TV character Barney Stinson, and for most of the past 15 years, I thought blogging was typically superficial and shameless. However, recently I have seen (and used) its immense power to share my own science. These experiences convinced me that social media may be one of the powerful tools we have to actively engaging and shaping in the conversation of science.

https://unsplash.com/photos/0gkw_9fy0eQWhether or not scientists should blog has been hotly debated. In 2018, Eryn Brown and Chris Woolston published a persuasive article on why science blogging matters in Nature. They list a number of benefits to blogging including furthering one’s career, recruiting more bright minds to science, creating a new community of scientists, and it can further the reach and understanding of science (by both the public and often by the scientist herself). Those are significant reasons to write a science blog. But, if you’re someone like me and didn’t really understand what blogging was, you may be wondering how to start.  There are several ways to get started writing science blogs:

  • Write your own. Brown and Woolston mention a several blogs started by scientists including Small Pond Science. This is a viable option, and there are a number of books and companies ready to help anyone start to blog for a fee. However, it can be a lot of work. Not only will you have to create the content, you will need to create and maintain the website, as well. Depending on your experience with website creation, you may not want this to be your first foray into science blogging.
  • Work with your professional organization. Many professional organizations including the American Heart Association, The American College of Sports Medicine, and the American Society for Nutrition have active blogs. And all blogs need one thing to stay relevant – content. As professional organizations have recognized the power of social media and blogging to advance their noble goals, they have increasingly worked with their members to help develop and promote accurate, timely, and engaging blogs. Some, like the American Heart Association and the American Society for Nutrition, have formal programs that provide both the blogging platform and training to help improve the quality and reach of the blog. (See links above to learn more about these great programs)
  • Collaborate with your journal editors. Increasingly, journals are offering authors the opportunity to create video abstracts, blogs, and podcasts on their accepted manuscripts. While it may seem like one more tedious or abstract thing to do, these can be highly engaging mediums on which to share your work. After all, if you’ve just spent years working on a research study that has somehow been condensed to 8 single-spaced pages, don’t you want that paper to have the maximal amount of impact?

Hopefully by now you’re convinced that that science blogging can be a helpful tool and want to see how you can test it out yourself. But science bloggers are [often] not paid, and if something is going to take away from your teaching, patient care, grant writing and manuscript writing time, then there needs to be a way to derive academic benefit from it. We need metrics – specifically metrics that your promotion and tenure committee can appreciate. So I’ll conclude with a couple of tips for benefiting from blog writing.

  • Put your blogs on your CV. Edge for Scholars has great advice for how to cite a blog post on your CV (note they also publish some great early career academic blogs, as well).
  • Get your analytics (page views, geographic reach of your blog, number of times shared) and use them. You can include your analytics in your CV and also use them to highlight the reach of your science and your national and international impact on your 3- and 5- reviews.

 

If you like this blog or have any questions, let me know. I’d also love for you to share some of your science blogs with me on twitter at @AllisonWebelPhD and tell me how they helped you better engage in the conversation of science. Happy Writing!

 

 

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The Struggles of Scientific Writing

After months of collecting and analyzing data, the time has finally arrived to start writing your manuscript. You are excited and ready to share with the research community your groundbreaking findings. Now the only thing standing in between you and your published articles is that blank Microsoft Word document.

Can you remember the daunting task of writing your first, first author manuscript in graduate school? Including months of intense writing and re-writing, attempting to get the perfect final draft just for the reviewers to eventually rip it (and your ego) to shreds.

Well, there is no quick fix for scientific writing. However, what if I told you that there is a close second? Recently, I had the esteemed pleasure of attending the American Physiological Society Writing for Scientific Journals live workshop. This professional development course is designed for trainees, with the sole purpose of providing the necessary tools for crafting a better manuscript.

After being accepted into the program, one of the requirements, along with having a draft manuscript, is to complete the online homework assignments before the start of the in-person workshop. Over Christmas break, I eventually found the discipline to sit down and read the pre-course readings. This is when I realized that I knew just as much about scientific writing as I knew about slugs. I understood there was an order to the sections, along with what was generally supposed to go into each section. However, this was still just scratching the surface. Writing for science is a very hard task and one that should be done properly. So many times, poor writing has watered down great science. It is not only our responsibility as scientists to do good research, but we also must ensure that we are communicating our findings to the public properly.

Another great aspect of the program is the networking opportunities in place. The course was led by six amazing mentors with a special expertise in the scientific journal publishing business. As trainees, we were split among these six mentors who helped to lead small-group discussions on how to address flaws in our manuscripts. As such, not only are we learning how to draft a better manuscript, but also how to be a good reviewer and respond to reviewer questions. After leaving this workshop I had the tools in hand to write, better respond to reviewer suggestions, how to select a journal for submission, how to be a good reviewer, and learned about resources that can further build my writing and reviewing skills. On top of everything the course is held at a Disney World resort in sunny Orlando, Florida. Overall, it was an unmatched experience that I would recommend to trainees struggling to write that first draft.

 

 

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5 Tips for Science Writing

Among the many responsibilities you have, writing is probably the one that gets pushed to the bottom of your to-do list again and again.

During the #EpiWritingChallenge last November, many public health researchers, trainees, scientists, and clinicians shared their biggest barriers to achieving their writing goals.

My next few posts will summarize some of the discussions and writing tips that emerged from the 20 day writing challenge. Each post will be dedicated to one topic: writing, editing, and incorporating coauthor feedback.

 

Tip 1: Make time and space for writing

If you’re like me, you’re juggling several research projects among other work duties, and while you think about working on your manuscripts often, it seems like you never get to them. Unless there is an abstract deadline, it seems like the writing process stretches on and on.

Many #EpiWritingChallenge participants set goals aimed at writing more often, with daily or weekly goals.

Hopefully you’ve heard of SMART goals, but if you haven’t, they stand for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

First, if you want to change your writing habits, telling yourself to “write more” likely won’t cut it. It takes at least a month to form a new habit, and to maximize your success I suggest breaking down your overarching goal into manageable chunks (that are also SMART).

Second, reflect on when and where you write best. Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you need complete silence or the bustle of a busy café? Thinking about these aspects of writing and how an ideal writing session can fit into your schedule will set you up for success. You might block off time on your work calendar as busy (to avoid meetings being scheduled during that time), and shut your office door. You might wake up an hour or two earlier to enjoy the quiet of your office as you type away. If you work best in a group, you might organize a Writing Accountability Group for even better accountability.

 

Tip 2: Focus on writing clearly

Writing clearly is something we all strive for (hopefully) but is harder than it sounds. As Ernest Hemingway said, “prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”

Two rules of thumb are 1) write shorter sentences and 2) choose simpler words if it doesn’t change the meaning.

Dallas Murphy, a book author and writing workshop instructor, gave a great example of typical scientific writing transformed into clear scientific writing, in “How to write a first-class paper” published on the Nature blog last year.

ORIGINAL: “Though not inclusive, this paper provides a useful review of the well-known methods of physical oceanography using as examples various research that illustrates the methodological challenges that give rise to successful solutions to the difficulties inherent in oceanographic research.”

This writing is defensive and scared to make confident statements. The language is ornate, and lists caveats, fending off criticism that hasn’t yet been made.

REWRITE: “We review methods of oceanographic research with examples that reveal specific challenges and solutions.”

Much better!

You might even explore voice-to-text apps for clear writing. We often express ideas more clearly in speech than in writing. In that same Nature article, Stacy Konkiel of Altmetric encouraged readers to make their point “in non-specialist language” if possible. “If you write in a way that is accessible to non-specialists, you…open yourself up to citations by experts in other fields and make your writing available to laypeople.”

 

Tip 3: Keep a “great writing” folder

What we read strongly influences how we write. In other words, “you write what you read”. Keeping up with the literature is a whole other blog post in itself, but reading other science writing not only expands your content knowledge but your writing abilities.

Whenever you come across a paper that makes you think “wow, that is great writing” tuck it away in a “Great Writing Folder”. When you sit down to write, marinate your brain in that concise science writing before putting pen to paper.

 

Tip 4: Create an elevator pitch for your paper

We typically talk about elevator pitches in relation to networking and job interviews. In fact, at last year’s AHA EPI | Lifestyles Scientific Sessions, one of the Connection Corners was focused on crafting an effective elevator pitch. Just as you summarize the key parts of what you do and why, and what you research, you can adapt that to a specific paper or project.

Create different ways of explaining your project in terms of what you did and why. Keep that list nearby when you write to help you stay on point and stay clear throughout your paper. Every main point should be coming back to that elevator pitch. That list is great to review at the beginning of each writing session to get you in the right mindset, too.

 

Tip 5: Prioritize topic sentences

Topic sentences are just as important now, in your science writing, as they were in your high school English class. Make sure you have topic sentences for each section of your manuscript. If you create an outline beforehand, those main ideas should morph into your topic sentence. After the topic sentence, every bit of that paragraph should connect back or move the argument forward. If it doesn’t contribute, cut it or move it.

In the tips for editing post we’ll be talking about using a Reverse Outline, a method with topic sentences as its backbone, to strengthen your argument.

 

 

In sum, science writing is a complex task for us to tackle. Whether a clinician-scientist, full-time researcher, trainee, or professor, it’s something on all of our to-do lists.

What is your biggest writing challenge?