Last week I wrote a post that outlined a proposal to require plain-language summaries of all research papers. I decided that I would start to do this with my own papers to see how difficult it might be, and also to see if this could help to make the research more accessible to a broad audience.
So… here it goes. This is a summary of paper written with my former MSc student Andrea Dechene, about mites, forests and fallen logs:
Mites are small animals, closely related to ticks and spiders. They are so small that it is very difficult to see them without the help of a magnifying glass or microscope. There are many kinds of mites, and they are found almost everywhere, including forests. Mites are important in forests because they can affect how leaves and rotten wood decompose on the forest floor.
In this research, we studied whether certain kinds of mites were associated with logs that were decomposing on the forest floor, and we did this work in north-western Quebec. We collected mites living in the wood, on the ground near the wood, and on the forest floor about 1 m away from logs. Mites were collected by taking a handful of soil, leaves or rotten wood, putting this in a zip-lock bag, and then the samples were taken to a laboratory. In the lab, these handfuls of soil, leaves and wood were placed on a bench below a light. Mites do not like bright lights and they try to get away by moving away from the light – in this case, they move downward where they think it is safe. The samples are on a screen, however, and the mites fall through the screen and into a jar that contains a liquid that will kill them. These jars are taken to a different lab where the mites are inspected with the help of a microscope. With the help of books and other resources, we could figure out all the different kinds of mites and sort them into their different varieties. Some kinds had names while other ones did not
We discovered 80 different kinds of mites and over 15,000 mites, in total, fell into the jars. That means a lot of mites live in forests! We also discovered that different kinds of mites live in the rotten wood compared to the forest floor and compared to the leaves. We found that the most different kinds of mites actually lived in the leaves that were over top of very, very rotten wood. This is an exciting result because nobody figured this out before, and it means that long after wood decomposes, there are still animals that ‘remember’ the wood was there and are using it as a suitable place to live. Lots of scientists have worked on rotten wood and it is well known that wood is very important for many animals and plants in a forest. Our work is different because we looked at some of the tiny animals in forests and they are also telling us that rotten wood is a good place to live. Next time you see a fallen tree, remember that many kinds of mites depend on that tree and you should leave it where it is.
By the way, here is the actual Abstract from that paper:
The removal of timber during harvesting substantially reduces important invertebrate habitat, most noticeably microhabitats associated with fallen trees. Oribatid mite diversity in downed woody material (DWM) using species-level data has not been well studied. We investigated the influence of decaying logs on the spatial distribution of oribatid mites on the forest floor at the sylviculture et aménagement forestiers écosystémique (SAFE) research station in the Abitibi region in NW Québec. In June 2006, six aspen logs were selected for study, and samples were taken at three distances for each log: directly on top of the log (ON), directly beside the log (ADJ) and at least one metre away from the log and any other fallen wood (AWAY). Samples ON logs consisted of a litter layer sample, an upper wood sample and an inner wood sample. Samples at the ADJ and AWAY distances consisted of litter samples and soil cores. The highest species richness was collected ON logs, and logs harboured a distinct oribatid species composition compared to nearby forest floor. There were species-specific changes in abundance with increasing distance away from DWM, which indicates an influence of DWM in structuring oribatid assemblages on the forest floor. Additionally, each layer (litter, wood and soil) exhibited a unique species composition and hosted a different diversity of oribatid mites. This study further highlights the importance of DWM to forest biodiversity by creating habitat for unique assemblages of oribatid mites.
Thoughts? –I kind of like the plain-language summary.
The plain language summary was not easy to write and it took a lot of words to explain certain things. Despite the challenge, I’m convinced it was a worthwhile use of time. Please consider doing this with your own papers!
Dechene, A. and C. M. Buddle. 2010. Decomposing logs increase oribatid mite assemblage diversity in mixedwood boreal forest. Biodiv. Cons. 19: 237-256. http://www.springerlink.com/content/r3681l0185620311/
14 thoughts on “Plain-language summary of research results: Mites, rotten wood, and forests”
I agree with the inclusion of a plain language summary. As an English major with a biology minor I qualify for work in creating the summary you are talking about, but can’t seem to get hired to do it. This is probably due to the (reasonable) expectation that scientists can make their own work available to the masses. Even Einstein found this important.
For another argument in favor of your position, consider Legalese, that horrific and completely unwarranted abuse of language. But then, maybe if you report your results in unintelligible jargon you can charge $400 an hour to decipher it…
Thanks for your work. 😀
Thanks, Rick – great comment. You are right – scientists perhaps assume they can easily disseminate work to ‘the masses’ but without training and help, it just won’t happen and because plain-language summaries are not part of the culture of science outreach, there is little incentive to get it done right.
Cool initiative Chris. After giving it a read through a couple of times, I think you may have over-simplified a little with this attempt though, as it reads like you were trying to explain it to a fairly young audience (grades 6-10 maybe). Perhaps that was the audience you were aiming for, but I’d worry how this could be perceived by an older, more mature audience of non-scientists (i.e. condescending). I think it goes to show there’s no one right way to communicate science, but rather multiple options depending on the situation.
Morgan – thanks for the thoughts – I did purposefully write this in the most simplified way possible, as a trial for being ‘extreme’ in the plain language writing. You are quite correct – and in this particular example, it is too simplified for an older, mature non-scientist audience
But it is accessible and that’s what matters.
It’s very good, Chris. You have an aptitude for clear writing. I say that having assessed the writing of thousands of professionals in writing workshops (lawyers, accountants, engineers, scientists, bureaucrats). You used a lot of the right tools (normal language, active voice, short sentences). But more than that, at a higher level, you told an interesting story, using a conversational tone, as if you were talking with a friend. That’s a key principal in clear communication. Of course, you also undercut my previous post that people can’t just magically produce clear language without knowing what tools to use and how to use them. Or maybe you’re the exception proving the rule, as research shows 98% of scientists could not go where you have gone (this last part is attempted humor).
Others identified tone and grade-level as things you can vary. Another thing is that some of the sentences don’t use parallel structure. That matters because it tends to trip up readers, interfering with readability (as unevenly spaced stairs tend to trip people).
Thanks John, for both the kind words and the constructive comments – this is much appreciated! I will work on the parallel structure issue. (there is always room for improvement – and, by the way, writing blog posts is forcing me to practice and write more – a good thing!)
Seems there should be a different summary for ‘what we found’ vs. ‘what we did’ in a paper, separating What vs How or Why. Here’s an approach using Kelly Meaning Mapping(tm) that we have developed to try to get at the essence. Would this be helpful? Its only done for the What we found.
(Rats! Apparently, I cant insert a PDF here. Look for it in a separate post.) Any suggestions?
Ok, here’s the Kelly Meaning Map version of ‘What we found’ from the Mites abstract. Would this be useful? For what purposes? What are its limits? Thanks
Michael – this is very fascinating – an interesting and innovative way to think about presentation of a research paper. Thank you so much for comments and ideas. Let me mull things over a bit, but we should talk in more detail!
I like this Chris. I often look for scientific works to share with students. It’s a challenge to find ones where students won’t miss the signicance of the work because of their difficulty interpreting the language. In fact, when I read scientific works in an area I am not familiar with, I can have the same problem. When I read your simplified version, I immediately wondered how many handfuls of stuff did you collect? Over what area? And what are the implications of this information for the timber industry and particularly for the use of biomass in energy production? I see that you answer these questions to some extent in the actual abstract. To use plain English to fully explain important aspects of scientific research, such as methods, sample sizes, statistical significance, etc., as well as procedures and results, and to provide a discussion of implications of the research that lay people understand would go a long way towards not only informing the public about what scientific evidence has been discovered, but also how good scientific exploration is carried out and why it’s important. Increasing the scientific literacy of the general population will have far-reaching consequences. Plus they would love reading your great blog.
And of course my name is actually Dickson.
Thanks for this! I’m THRILLED that my extended circle of friends/family is enjoying this idea of plain-language summaries. You are quite correct – finding the balance with details yet avoid jargon and technical methods is really tricky. And yes, I couldn’t agree more: increasing the scientific literacy of the general population is is important- especially now re: environmental challenges we are facing
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