Scicomm Accessibility: A Call For Shared Language
High profile policy issues, such as those related to global climate change or antibiotic resistance, highlight the need for helping people understand scientific concepts and how they relate to “real world” problems. And there seems to be an increasing level of awareness among scientists, reporters and bloggers (among others) that science communication, as a discipline, can help us communicate more effectively with a wide array of audiences.
But there’s a stumbling block – and it’s an ironic one: science communication researchers are often not very good at communicating about the science of science communication.
[Note: I think there are actually two issues related to science communication and accessibility: language and journals. I’m focusing on language in this post, and plan to write a second post about access to scicomm journals.]
Much of the peer-reviewed science communication literature is written in jargon that is difficult for people outside of the discipline to understand. As a friend of mine put it, “it often seems to obfuscate rather than clarify….[Many science communication researchers] have created a language that is a barrier to sharing their understanding of their subject…and it perpetuates the communication problem.” (It’s worth noting that the friend in question has spent decades writing and reviewing academic literature in multiple disciplines, and has a healthy respect for the value of technical language.)
I appreciate that science communication researchers are writing their papers for other science communication researchers. But that is true for researchers of every discipline. Yet some researchers find a way to explain their work and their findings in clear prose, using shared language that is accessible across disciplines. I think that should be encouraged.
I say this for selfish reasons, of course, since I often find myself reading and re-reading papers in an effort to understand them. But writing in accessible language can have benefits for the authors as well.
For example, the current funding climate favors interdisciplinary research. Grant proposals that span disciplines are far more likely to find favor at the National Science Foundation than proposals that focus on a single discipline. And clear communication can only help the efforts of an interdisciplinary research team. Using shared language ensures that all of the members of an interdisciplinary team understand what the other members of the team are doing.
Finally, writing in shared language can help to serve a larger audience.
People use the term “science communication community” to refer to a wide variety of things. In the context of this blog post, I’ll offer two definitions: 1) Scicomm Scholars: researchers who study science communication; and 2) Science Communicators: people who do not engage in science communication research, but who do communicate about science with various audiences (this second group includes science communication professionals – like me).
It’s important to note that these two groups are not mutually exclusive. For example, the manager of SciLogs, Paige Brown, is both a Scicomm Scholar and a Science Communicator. However, most Science Communicators are not Scicomm Scholars, and aren’t necessarily fluent in the language of Scicomm scholarship.
I think most Science Communicators do want to improve our science communication efforts, and also know that we can learn a lot from Scicomm Scholars. But the lack of shared language makes that harder than it needs to be.
I do not want this to come across as sounding like a longwinded, navel-gazing complaint. Instead, I’m hoping that this can be part of a conversation about how we can bridge the gap between science communication research and science communication practice.
This is not a novel idea, but it’s one worth pursuing. How can we make it happen?