How hard can it be to write using only the ten hundred words which are used the most often?

5 November 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in speaking science


On Friday & Saturday this week, I will be attending a conference run by Nature Publishing Group at the British Library in London. The event is called Science Policy, Outreach and Tools Online, which is shortened to SpotOn London, which is shortened in turn to Solo. Yeah... science communication conferences are somewhat renowned for using obscure acronyms. But let's be forgiving, this is an industry-internal event after all.

SpotOn London logo

The bulk of the conference programme is taken up by panel sessions and workshops in each of the three themes (i.e.: science policy online; science outreach online; science (publishing) tools online). Panel sessions will encourage plenty of audience discussion, whereas workshops will feature more hands-on activities. My main contribution to the conference will be one of the latter.


Specifically, in my workshop "How hard can it be to write using only the ten hundred words which are used the most often?" (Saturday, 3:30pm, Bronte room) we'll take a look at the question of technical vocabulary in online science writing. I will give teams of participants a variety of texts (from a range of scientific and non-scientific fields) with the objective of "translating" them using the Up-goer 5 text editor. Up-goer 5 allows only the thousand most common words in the English language and was inspired by this xkcd comic.

A piece of the Up-goer Five

Credit: xkcd A section of the Up-goer 5. Click for full comic.

By setting an unrealistically difficult challenge, I'm hoping to generate some thoughts about what words constitute "jargon" and in what contexts they are more acceptable. Does science rely more heavily on technical words than other fields? Are there differences among the sciences? The room will hopefully be full of experts in online science publishing, so I'm looking forward to seeing what everyone comes up with. I will set up a freely-editable online document to store people's thoughts and "translations" so people can make use of them afterwards.

Up-goer 5's co-pilot

Anna Sharman

Anna Sharman

Given the number of people likely to be in the room (I've been told to expect roughly a third of the 200 or so total conference attendees), I've recruited Anna Sharman to take charge of half the group. Anna has a wealth of experience in editing and proofreading in biomedical communication as well as facilitating workshops, so I'm really looking forward to working with her. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Anna for agreeing to help out on the basis of a single email.

Aside: Online discussions have recently revealed that organisers of the Science Online 2014 conference in the USA have opted to select only one moderator per session. David Dobbs, among others, has pointed out that this leaves sessions (and by extension, the entire conference) vulnerable to last-minute cancellations. Also, moderators for Science Online 2014 were apparently chosen to deliver sessions originally proposed by others, which (to me at least) looks a lot like the organisers effectively stealing pitchers' ideas and re-distributing them. All this without even letting unsuccessful candidates know before general publication of the programme. Both of these issues have the potential to jeopardize my participation in SpotOn, so I'm very pleased about how the organisers have handled recruitment and communication in the run-up to the event.

Bottom of Saturn 5 described in Up-goer 5

Credit: xkcd If the fire from people on top of groups starts pointing at the people who make the meeting then no-one will go to space.

Hashtag #solo13upgoer

As well as the conference-wide #solo13, each session has its own Twitter hashtag. The one to use for this session is #solo13upgoer. There will only be minimal scope for us to interact with tweeters on the hashtag during the workshop itself (especially compared to discussion sessions with a dedicated social media monitor), but keep an eye on it beforehand and afterwards for links to resources and examples of the editor in action.


If you won't attending the conference in person, you'll still be able to follow some of the action via the livestream webcast (link TBA), and using the hashtags mentioned above. I'm not yet sure whether mine will be available online in real time, but I'm told it will at least be recorded. I'll make sure to promote the link here and on Twitter when it's ready.

The rest

I've not made my mind up completely, but these sessions look particularly interesting to me:

I'm also looking forward to watching the Story Collider and Science Showoff fringe events. I've previously been a performer at both. Needless to say, I'm a fan of this kind of thing.

Finally, I gather there will be cake. Nom.

DNA cake

DNA cake by Johnathan Lawson.

Over to you:

  • Will you be at Solo13? Are you considering coming to my session? What other sessions are you particularly interested in?
  • Have you been to a SpotOn event before? What were your impressions? Did you go to the annual London event or the monthly New York edition?
  • Have you used the Up-goer 5 editor before? What did you think of that experience? Did you publish the results online?

Leave your answers in the comments below!


6 Responses to “How hard can it be to write using only the ten hundred words which are used the most often?”

  1. Graham Steel (@McDawg) Reply | Permalink

    Great post !!

    In terms of the webcast, AFAIK, ALL sessions will be live-streamed as per last year. There are six of us this time (three last year) ;-)

  2. anonymluse Reply | Permalink

    [edited] ten hundred words. really. obfuscate much? WTF. you cant say a thousand. are you just trying to confuse [people, a lot] [some rudeness]

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      I said "ten hundred" because "thousand", ironically, isn't in the thousand most commonly used words. Well done for calling me out on obfuscatarisation though.

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