We are in for a great month. It’s not October… it’s Arachtober. It’s a month to celebrate all things Arachnid, from photos, to blog posts and stories about our eight-legged friends. It’s a month to appreciate Arachnids for what they are: stunningly beautiful animals.

A beautiful long-jawed orb-weaver (image by Alex Wild, from "Insects Unlocked".

A beautiful long-jawed orb-weaver (image by Alex Wild, from “Insects Unlocked”.)

To get all set for Arachtober, here are some ways to get involved and to learn about spiders:

First, do check out Africa Gomez’s blog – she’s promised to do daily (yes, DAILY) posts about spiders. Yay!

Be sure to follow Catherine Scott – she is on a terrific campaign to help educate people about spiders, and calm down the nerves and assure folks that the spiders they find are *not* brown recluse spiders. 

This is Catherine Scott, wearing a t-shirt with an important message.

This is Catherine Scott, wearing a t-shirt with an important message.

Be sure to keep an eye on the Arachtober Flickr group. Amazing photos to be found there; this was the first place that Arachtober got started… members of that group tried to post new spider photos daily, throughout the month of October.

For other photos about arachnids, do check out work by Sam Martin, or Thomas Shahan, or Sean McCann, or Alex Wild, to name a few. Here’s an example of Sean’s work:


If you want to find other Archnologists on Twitter, here’s a Twitter List for you.

Want to learn more about Arachnology? Check out the American Arachnological Society, or the International Society of Arachnology. Here’s a more general post about what to do if you want to be an arachnologist.

Arachnology has a rich and fascinating history. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a wonderful resource: here, you can look at old titles about spiders and on their Flickr page, view stunning plates from those old books and journals.

Have some interests in drawing spiders? Don’t forget to get the anatomy correct! Here’s a post from a 10 year-old who did it right:


Have a read through these great Arachtober posts from the past, from Bug Gwen.

Another great blog to check out, for wonderful spider natural history, comes from “Bug Eric”.

Have a spider and not sure what it is? Sometimes you can surf around on BugGuide and work towards an identification with that. It’s a great resource for Arachnophiles.

Arachtober ends with Halloween, of course. Perhaps viewing some movies featuring spiders is a fine idea.

Oh, and for Halloween, here’s how to make your 3D spider cake (um, too bad about the spider’s anatomy is all wrong. Sigh)

And, finally: SPIDER ROBOT (check around the 7:00 mark):

So, how else will you celebrate Arachtober? Share your thoughts in the comment section, below!

[As many of you know, I’ve been posting weekly with links to stories about arachnids, called “SPIDERDAY“. Given a busy travel schedule this month, Spiderday may be a bit ‘irregular’ – sorry!]

Spider Book!

WE are excited. The “We” is me and Eleanor Spicer Rice, of Buzz Hoot Roar fame, and author of the incredible e-books about ants.

Here’s the really big news…

We are teaming up with The University of Chicago Press, and writing a book about spiders!

Lynx spider! Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Lynx spider! Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

There are already some really amazing spider books out there – one of our favourites is Rich Bradley’s gem, Common Spiders of North America: it’s beautifully illustrated, rich and in-depth. For those looking to cuddle up with a microscope, there is “Spiders of North America: an identification manual“: that book can unleash your inner taxonomist and help you identify (to genus) most spiders of the region. There are also some regional field guides about spiders, photography books, and detailed books about spider silk, or about general spider biology.

However, more books about spiders are needed! There is so much to say! These amazing arachnids are one of the most diverse groups of animals on the planet, with about 40,000 known species. They have the most unusual courtship and mating behaviours, and are often misunderstood, eliciting fear and loathing due to unwarranted fears about spider bites. Fundamentally, spiders are our friends and our goal with this project is to help share a fascination and love of these eight-legged marvels. We want all people to be familiar with the spiders they most commonly encounter, and when they bump into spiders as they move about the world, they’ll see friends and familiar faces instead of fangs. We want our book to be a non-technical primer of spiders and our goal is to bring awe and wonder, dispel myths, and help create an entire generation of arachnophiles. We hope to reach as broad an audience as possible, and teaming with University of Chicago Press will certainly help with this.

Our project will share stories about some of the most common spiders you will find in North America. Much like Eleanor’s ant books, we will research (using the primary literature) the life history and biology of common spiders in North America, and weave the science into a narrative about the species. We will unpack their biology, and write about spiders using accessible language. We’ll team up with our favourite photographers, and stunning images will accompany the text. Our hopes are that this book will complement the other books out there, and provide readers an accessible and fun-filled glimpse into the fascinating world of spiders.

An awesome Phidippus spider. Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

An awesome Phidippus spider. Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Calling all Arachnologists!

We can’t do this project alone and WE WANT YOU! This project will be bigger and better with your help. Although we would love to include ALL the common spiders in our backyards, local forests and fields, this would make the project a little too big… so we need to narrow down to a reasonable number of species. So, we would like to know what species you want to read about.

Do you want a chapter about the glorious Black-and-yellow garden spiders?

What about the Zebra spiders?

Surely you would like to hear more about black widows?

Please provide us some feedback in the comment section, below. Tell us what you want to read about, and what aspects of spider biology must be included in our book. We will take your feedback seriously and try to include your suggestions.

Surely you want to know more about these lovely Black Widow spiders? Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Surely you want to know more about these lovely Black Widow spiders? Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Needless to say, we are SUPER excited about this project, and those of you that know us are already aware that we super-enthusiastic people to begin with, so this project has taken things to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL OF EXCITEMENT!!! We are so thankful for University of Chicago Press for the opportunity to tackle this project, and are already quick out of the starting gate: we have an upcoming writing retreat planned in March, and have already drafted some chapters. And in the coming months, we will certainly keep you updated on progress. We do hope you are as eager as us to see the finished project hit the bookshelves.

Spiderly, yours,

Chris & Eleanor


Expiscor (16 September 2013)

Bringing you another week of discoveries… Expiscor is here!

  • Don’t believe me? Well here’s a photo from that blog post (reproduced here, with permission)

    (photo copyright C. Ernst)

    (photo copyright C. Ernst)

  • The path of least resistance. A wonderful post about evolution, from Malcolm Campbell. I love this quote:  “Evolution shows us that, contingent on the forces that shape them, paths of least resistance can lead to stunning innovation
  • Ok, I know you are now ready for a spider photograph, courtesy of Thomas Shahan (reproduced here, with permission)
Jumping spiders are the best.

Jumping spiders are the best.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 2.51.17 PM

  • How Chris McCandless died – a more scientific take on some of the mystery surrounding his death in Alaska.
  • And a spidery video to finish things off. So awesome:

A guide for writing plain language summaries of research papers

Some time ago I wrote a post about the need to have plain language summaries for research papers. That post generated terrific discussions, new collaborations and many ideas, and I am now trying to write plain language summaries of my own research as it gets published. The goal of this current post is to provide some guidance about how to write plain language summaries. This work does not come from just from me, but rather from continued discussions with others, notably Mike Kelly and colleagues over at TechTel. The idea of plain language summaries resonates with so many people, from the business and marketing community, journalists, through to science writers, researchers and academics. I am continuing to work with Mike, and will share more as our ideas and projects develop. For now, however, it’s timely to provide some idea about how to write plain language summaries. As usual, your ideas, opinions, and comments are always welcome!

To revisit, what are plain language summaries?

Plain-language summaries are a way to communicate a scientific research papers to a broad audience, in a jargon-free and clear manner. Jargon is defined as technical terms understood only by specialists in a field of study.  In this post, I am assuming that plain language summaries are aimed at a ‘scientifically literate‘ audience, but an audience that is not specific to a discipline. Most scientists who publish in the peer-reviewed literature are familiar with Abstracts – which are a short synthesis of the research, and which typically highlight the research objectives, method and main findings.  Abstract are typically aimed at the audience that will read a specialized journal, but often contain technical terms, and typically jump into a specialized topic quickly and concisely.  A plain language summary is different because it focuses more broadly, is without jargon, and aims to provide a clear picture about ‘why’ the research was done in additional to ‘how’ the work was done, and the main findings.

Plain language summaries are a valuable contribution as they allow research to be accessed by a broader audience, and because the people who do the research write them, the findings are directly from the source and should capture the proper context for the research. Plain language summaries can provide a means to promote research, whether it is through a publisher, on the blog of a scientific society, or for a University’s Media Relations Office. Department Heads and Deans can take these summaries and both understand and promote the high quality science done by their Professors, research scientists, and students. Journalists could read these summaries and not have to wade through technical terms, and have a higher probability of getting the message right. Colleagues can better understand the work that all scientists do, even when disciplines are quite far apart. Other scientists, journalists, the public, government officials, friends and family, can all better understand science if all research papers were paired with a plain-language summary. Plain language summaries make research available, tangible, and are a way to truly disseminate research findings to all who are interested.

How to write a plain language summary:

The first, and perhaps most essential step, is to explain ‘why’ the research was done. The overarching reason and rational for the research must be explicitly stated in general terms. It’s easy to slip into the habitat of justifying research because “Little is known about x, y or z”.  However, this is not adequate for a plain language summary – ‘something’ is surely known on the topic, it’s just a matter of defining that ‘something’ and explaining how the work is expanding beyond, perhaps to a new research direction, or in a different model system.  Mike Kelly, from his perspective (and background) in marketing, was particularly instrumental in helping recognize that the “why” of research is vitally important, and explaining this should never be taken for granted. Scientists need to start a plain language summaries from a broad, ‘big picture’ and more general framework, and work to place their research paper within this context: they must address and answer the ‘why’.  It takes a lot of time to define the ‘why’ and describe it to a broad audience – take the time – it will make the other steps much easier.

The second step is to state the more specific objectives of the research.   This should flow easily from the first step if there is a clear rationale for the work. The research question is a continual narrowing down to a finer study topic, logically flowing from a big picture overview of the discipline into which the research is nestled. A research objective could be phrased as a question, or goal, and may have several sub-questions.

The third step is to explain ‘what’ you did to answer the research objective. Too much detail will be overwhelming and confusing, too little will not allow the reader to envision how things were done. Try doing a flow-chart that depicts the process of the science, and use this as a guide to writing how the work was done. The goal of a plain language summary is not to allow other scientists to follow your methods, but rather to provide readers with a sense of how you did the work, in broad brushstrokes.

The fourth step is to provide an interpretation of results and make them relevant. Unlike a scientific paper, which typically presents results in a linear fashion and independent of a discussion, plain language summaries should integrate the results with a discussion or interpretation. A plain language summary should show readers how the results to fit together and provide insights into the bigger framework or context of the research. It is not necessary to provide all the results, nor is it necessary to provide specific details about each observation of experiment; rather, the results must tell a story and inform the readers of what you found and why the findings are important relative to your research question. The end of your summary should scope out again, and leave the readers will a strong and positive sense about the contribution of your science to the big-picture that you developed at the start.

The last step is to go through the plain-language summary with a keen eye for meaning and jargon.  Assess each sentence and see that the writing is drawing out the meaning from the research, whether it is a description of the study organism or system, or a rationale for quantitative modeling. Without attention to meaning, at all levels, a plain-language summary will be a re-packaged Abstract, which is to be avoided.  Circle or highlight all terms that could be considered jargon  – have a friend, an uncle or a colleague from a different discipline read over the work to confirm that the jargon is gone.  When jargon is identified, rewrite in non-technical terms – it will take more space, but this is better than having terms that cannot be understood by a general audience.

Then: edit, edit, and edit again.

Some hints….

  • If you are visual person, draw the plain language summary before writing it, this will help draw out the meaning and allow you to understand the flow of the summary and how the different sections fit together.
  • It will likely be helpful to first write your plain language summary with headings.  Use headings such as “Why we did this work”, “How we did this work”, “What were the interesting things that we discovered”, etc. Afterwards, re-work the summary to remove the subheadings.
  • Don’t talk down to your audience. A common mistake is the ‘dumbing down’ of the research and this must be avoided. As mentioned, you are assuming the audience for this summary is scientifically literate, and thus you need to speak to them in this way.
  • Aim for about 500 words – more is too much, fewer can be difficult, especially if your research is highly technical.
  • Have your summaries read by other people outside of your discipline, and then have them explain it back to you. If it’s a good summary, the explanation of your own work should be clear, accurate and precise.  If it’s not, find out the trouble-spots and re-work the summary.
  • Finally, don’t rush the process. Plain language summaries are very difficult to write; they take time, and often draw upon skills that have not been part of a researcher’s typical training. Write the summary, leave it for a day or two, and come back to it. It is very important to get it right, as these summaries have the potential to be read by many more people than would normally read a scientific paper within a journal.

In sum, I hope you find that there is value in plain language summaries, and that this guide provides some ideas about how to write one.

You may have more tips or better ideas – please share! (comments welcome…!)

Update: spiders STILL don’t bite

My post, titled ‘Spiders do not bite, remains the most frequently visited post on my blog, receiving hundreds of hits each week. It was written over a year ago, and has received quite a number of interesting comments.  Some people decide to comment without actually reading the post (!), and by in large, these comments come from people who just can’t be convinced that spiders rarely bite people. In other cases, people comment with a big “Thanks“, as the post has provided them some comfort (this is a key reason why I wrote the post). The title of that post was meant to be provocative, and to help swing the pendulum a bit, and be an antidote to the garbage out there on the Internet about spiders bites.  I remain emphatic: spider bites are exceedingly rare and other causal agents are much more likely.

Just recently, I was thrilled to see another paper published by Rick Vetter (a well respected Arachnologist who has worked on debunking myths about spiders). This recent paper is titled “Spider Envenomation in North America” and was published in the journal Critical Care Nursing Clinics of North America. The paper was aimed at Nurses and to a lesser extent, Doctors, and gives frank, clear and concise information about spiders and spider bites.

Here’s the opening sentence: “Spiders occupy an interesting position in human society and in medicine. The overall health risk that they pose is minor compared with other routine events such as driving an automobile, vocational and recreational hazards, or living an unhealthy lifestyle

Bingo. Spider bites are exceedingly rare!

Here is some more detail and context: there are only two groups of spiders in North America which can truly be considered ‘medically important’ – some species within the ‘widow’ group (e.g. black widows) and some within the ‘recluse’ group (e.g. brown recluse).  Here’s a lovely photo of a brown recluse spider, courtesy of Matt Bertone (thanks, Matt, for permission to post the photo here!).

A beautiful brown recluse spider. Photo © Matt Bertone, reproduced here with permission.

A beautiful brown recluse spider. Photo © Matt Bertone, reproduced here with permission.

Much of Rick’s article documents the effects of bites from these two groups of spiders, and without a doubt, verified, real cases of spider bites from these two groups can certainly affect your health. Rick provides a clear list of symptoms and also discusses treatment options (including what used to be done, historically e.g., cocaine treatment for widow bites in the early 1900s).  He also points out that the actual number of recorded, verified bites by spiders are quite rare, even in regions where widows and recluse spiders live in proximity to humans (um, I have to state that because recluse spiders are continually blamed for bites in areas well beyond their range!).  Without doubt, poison control centres, Doctors, and other health care professionals hear panic about spider bites, and certainly see cases of lesions that are attributed (often by the affected person) to recluse spiders.

So, if it’s not spider bites, what is causing lesions?  Thankfully, Rick provides an answer, and I quote from the paper: “Possibly the most important advance in spider toxicology is the realization that many skin lesions that were attributed to spider bites were actually bacterial infectionsAnother study showed that of 182 southern Californian patients seeking treatment for spider bites, only 3.8% had actual spider bites while 85.7% had infections“.  So… more likely causal agents should be investigated.  Here’s a table from a 2003 publication by Vetter et al. that lists some of the potential causal agents that could be confused with brown recluse bites.

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 12.32.06 PM

In sum, I remain steadfast in the claim that spider bites are exceedingly rare. Furthermore, there are very few species that are medically important, and of the thousands of spider species that exist in North America, few warrant any concern or fear. Spiders are our friends. Arachnids deserve positive attention.

I’ll finish on a positive note: as I was preparing this blog post, I had some nice discussion with Rick about his crusade to reduce fear and anxiety about spider bites. He’s worked hard to publish articles in journals which are read by health care professionals, and he believes the strategy is working.  Here’s a quote from Rick:

I have seen significant change in the medical literature where they are quoting my papers a lot and telling colleagues to be cautious with their diagnoses.  There are still those out there that continue to misdiagnose but I think that they are now in the minority.

This is great news, and I am heartened. That being said, I think we must continue to provide clear and accurate information to a broad audience and to the news media. I believe general paranoia and hysteria about spider bites is still high despite a potential shift in diagnosis from the medical community.


UC (Riverside) Spider Site.

Vetter, R. (2013). Spider Envenomation in North America Critical Care Nursing Clinics of North America, 25 (2), 205-223 DOI: 10.1016/j.ccell.2013.02.006

Vetter RS, Cushing PE, Crawford RL, & Royce LA (2003). Diagnoses of brown recluse spider bites (loxoscelism) greatly outnumber actual verifications of the spider in four western American states. Toxicon : official journal of the International Society on Toxinology, 42 (4), 413-8 PMID: 14505942

Expiscor (27 May 2013)

Well, another week has passed. Perhaps you missed some neat links and stories?  Here’s a list of some interesting things I have come across from small animals to big science. Enjoy! (oh, and Happy Memorial Day to my American friends and Happy Bank Holiday to those in the UK)

  • The Wandering Leg Sausage.  That’s a common name for a species of African millipede. It’s latin name is also nice (Crurifarcimen vagans), but doesn’t quite stir up the imagination in the same way (Thanks Derek Hennen for that link)
  • Speaking of Latin names – Did you know that Carl Linnaeus’s birthday was on 23 May? Mark that in your calendar for next year!
  • More about names – how about studying species without names? Here’s a post from the Lindo soil ecology lab at Western University (yes, that is the new name for a University that is not actually in the ‘west’ of Canada).


  • Return of the Cicadas – this is really a stunning and beautiful video.

Return of the Cicadas from motionkicker on Vimeo.

  • What’s up with all the caterpillars? If you live in some parts of Canada, you may be up to your neck in them… here’s a terrific post by Dezene Huber on the topic. (and he’s welcoming your questions!)
  • More on Art, Design & Entomology from Bug Girl. (yes, those of you who are regular followers of Expiscor can see a pattern – Bug Girl is here a lot. And for good reason!)
  • Blue Frogs.  No, they are not sad. They are blue. A relative of mine asked about a blue treefrog she found in her backyard in Ontario. This got me into a fascinating discussion with my twitter pals (thanks in particular to Heidi, Germán, Rafael, and Kate!). Conclusion? Probably a rare “mutant” frog who may be missing the yellow pigment in its skin, resulting in blue colouration.  Here’s a photo in case you aren’t convinced:
This is a Gray Treefrog that is blue. Photo © R. Dickson

This is a Gray Treefrog that is blue. Photo © R. Dickson

  • The most popular drink in Medieval Europe? I assumed wine or beer… no so!
  • Living in the cold: some fascinating results out about high Arctic bacterium – and lab who published this work is just one floor up from me. Congrats to the McGill team!
  • Fun with feathers – I visited the McGill Bird Observatory earlier this week. What a terrific resource – long-term monitoring of our winged friends is rather important and quite a suite of volunteers is helping to make this happen. A big thanks to Barbara Frei for letting me see the operations and help with a bit of data collection.
  • Whiz, Bang, Beakers & Blankets! My wife’s business (Organic Quilt Company) has some new science / geeky fabrics in stock.  Here’s a peek:
Organic Quilt Company - new spring collection with a bit of a science theme. You can follow that fine business on twitter, too.

Organic Quilt Company – new spring collection with a bit of a science theme. You can follow that fine business on twitter, too.

A Paradigm Shift: How universities can support effective outreach

This post is written by Chris Buddle, Associate Professor at McGill University. Click here for contact information, or follow on twitter.

    On Wednesday,  COMPASS published a commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. This post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences we hope will expand the conversation. Read the summary post here, or track the conversation by searching for #reachingoutsci

I really enjoyed the article by Smith et al. – it presents a clear rationale for why effective science communication is so important, and it discusses some of the key issues, including the need for the right kind of training and right kind of institutional support.  This quote from the article really struck me, and I think it gets to the heart of the issue:

“Academic institutions and tenure committees must measure and reward time and effort devoted to outreach. And that, we’re keenly aware, will require dedicated leadership and collective effort to change the culture of science”

Good, but how?  Without answering the ‘how’ we will struggle to get further ahead.  I realize that individuals must lead the charge in doing and valuing outreach activities, but in addition to this bottom-up movement, there must be top-down support, training and direction from Universities. This is especially relevant for the Academics who may be keen to do outreach, but whose institutions don’t support this endeavor in a direct manner. So, to achieve a broad, more global acceptance of outreach activities, Academic institutions have some important things to do, and in this post I will explore these.

I will also expand the discussion beyond ‘scientific communication’ to ‘outreach‘ more broadly defined. Outreach is a term that includes the type of effective communication discussed by Smith et al., but also includes other outreach activities that I see among my colleagues –  it could be sharing knowledge with local elementary schools, writing blogs or articles in the local newspaper, to organizing nature walks and delivering public lectures.

Outreach just doesn’t fit easily into the typical and traditional parts of an Academic’s job. Academics are incentive-driven, and the currency of Academia remains the peer-reviewed publications, effective teaching and some form of service. The latter category is a catch-all for various committees, involvement with scholarly societies, editorial work, and anything else that doesn’t fit into teaching and research. What about outreach? Is it service?  Outreach is certainly at the intersection of research and service, but can also be part of teaching (e.g., social media as a way to take the classroom beyond the walls of the institution…).  A while ago I tracked my own work hours, I didn’t include writing my blog as part of the hours – I just wasn’t sure how to categorize outreach activities, nor did I feel that my institution would necessarily see outreach as a core duty. And that is the crux of the problem.

How can Academic institutions incentivize and value outreach activities?

1) Academics who do high quality outreach activities should get paid more. Promotion and salary increases should be tied to the level, but more importantly, the quality of outreach activities done by Academics.  Those who do not engage with a broader audience about their work would not be eligible for full pay raises. Extreme?  Perhaps so… but I suspect it would work.  This does not mean the quality of the research will decrease, nor does this imply any kind of shot-gun approach to outreach will work.  In fact, a measured and careful strategy with outreach is required, as Simon Donner argues in his excellent post.  And, of course, the research upon which the outreach is built must be strong and high quality – we cannot give up research excellence for outreach – they must go hand in hand. If outreach is tied to pay raises, this raises the question of evaluating these kinds of activities. How do you measure amount and quality of outreach?  This is incredibly difficult (“hey, I got 500 hits on my blog – I guess I’ll get promotion to full professor now!”). A reasonable Chair or Dean may be able to judge effective outreach, and the onus would certainly be on the Academics to make their case about their outreach activities; after all, we do this already, all the time. We need to justify journal choice, our level of funding, why we may or may not have a certain number of graduate students, etc. Adding commentary about how much outreach we do could be included in the mix.  There could be a system by which an Academic is only considered for a certain level of a raise if s/he can provide evidence of high quality outreach activities. Judging this quality will be difficult, and will certainly require some deep conversations about what kinds of outreach activities are valuable, and why.

2) Institutions need to make effective outreach activities a part of their institutional culture. Home Depot, for example, includes ‘giving back to the community‘ as one of its core value, and people working at Home Depot go out, as a community, to help build homes for people in need.  Almost all Universities have mission statements that include words about ‘service to communities’ (not convinced? Check out a few – here’s the one for McGill) but by in large, Academics don’t do this on a regular basis, and in most cases it’s certainly not a requirement of the job! Institutions must work to build outreach directly into their culture and this must include active and direct participation by Academics – the people who are doing the research need to be in the community giving mini-workshops, talking to the general public, writing articles for the local press, and writing blogs that explain their work in a manner that is accessible to a broad audience. Universities can help facilitate this with effective marketing about outreach activities, highlight the ways their researchers are engaging with the public, and making it clear how Academic staff are really working with the mission statement in mind. I do recognize that some of this is already done, but I am arguing that it could be done more broadly and better integrated into all facets of the institution. As mentioned above, this could be a reality if pay raises were linked to outreach activities…

3) Coordination:  Academics cannot do outreach in isolation. The article by Smith et al. does point to the incredible value of COMPASS and how that framework can bring people together, and can be a true collaboration in all the rights ways. However, this also has to happen at a more local level, and I find that outreach activities tend to be done in a haphazard manner at Universities.  There is often a lack of co-ordination between media offices from different parts of the University, among researchers, and between researchers and media offices.  Most Academics don’t do any outreach. Of those that do, a few might be in regular communication with a media office, but many ‘go it alone’ and independently engage some outside organization, journalist, or write their own blog and publicize work without support or without much attention to the subtleties or nuances of the process. This is certainly what I do, and although it’s been fun, validating and a positive experience, I don’t have the training, nor do I really know if what I’m doing is correct ! Media office, despite their best intentions, may not always get the story right and/or may not get the required materials from the researchers.  Despite a willingness and interest for effective outreach from different arms of institutions, a lack of coordination means work is being duplicated, and stories are missed. A solution? Media relations offices at Universities should spend as much time with ‘internal’ media and communication as with ‘external communication’ with journalists or other news media. There must be an easy and clear process by which Academics can communicate laterally within their institutions. Media offices must effectively aggregate the various blogs, research findings, big grant winners and Academics must have a willingness to engage with these media offices, provide them content and access. One way to make this process much, much easier is through the use of plain language summaries.

4) Write and speak in plain language. Institutions, publishers, and peers need to demand plain language summaries for all research papers. We are used to writing abstracts; we also need to write plain language summaries. I’ve written about this before, and I am trying to write plain language summaries of my papers (e.g., see here and here for examples).  This has been a very interesting process, and what has been especially useful about these summaries is that they have provide me an easy way to talk to my media office, students, my family, and peers about my work. These summaries have forced me to think about the broader meaning and impact of my research.  It’s forced me to think beyond ‘I’m doing this research because little is known on the topic‘ and clarify the meaning behind the work – the broader framework. I think this is the start of effective outreach. I have worked with a few other authors on plain language summaries, and what has become clear is that these are not easy to write, and require a different set of writing skills.  Training is required to help Academics write in plain language.

5) Institutions must require communication workshops for all Academics. When I first started my job, I attended a lot of workshops, and the topics included things like ‘how to prepare a course outline’, ‘research ethics’, ‘the tenure process’, etc.  Communication courses must be part of this mix, and a requirement of the job should be training in communication and outreach. As Smith et al. point out, we lack training – some of us can write in a jargon-free way, and are happy to put together a talk for a local naturalist club, and are willing to speak to journalists: many of us don’t know how to do this, don’t know where to start, are afraid to take the leap, or have done things badly and are perhaps nervous about outreach activities. We’ve been trained to write research papers; we’ve not been trained to write in other ways, or in language that is more accessible to a broader audience.  We’ve been trained to give specialized talks at conferences, or to speak to undergraduate students in a familiar lecture hall.  Many of us don’t know how to put together a presentation to a room full of school kids. We need help, and our institutions need to provide quality training opportunities, and ensure Academics take advantage of the opportunities.

A key issue, and one that is pointed out by Smith et al., is that Academics don’t have the time to do outreach activities. We are pushed and pulled in various directions, and it’s hard to juggle the regular and required part of our jobs, so how can anyone rightfully argue that we must also include communication of our research to a broader audience? Jessica Hellmann talks about this in her lovely post about science communication and outreach. There’s no denying that it’s a chronic problem, and there’s no easy solution. However, finding ways to dovetail the research with outreach can lead to efficiencies, new collaborations, and new ways of doing things. Smith et al. do discuss the value-added that can come from outreach.

The chronic time issue is exactly why outreach MUST be incentivized, and why institutional cultures must shift to require, accept, and reward effective outreach activities. This will have to happen from the top-down and the bottom-up. University Principals need to make it clear that their institutions are truly at the service of the larger community in which they reside and live. From a bottom-up perspective, individual Academics need to buy into the idea of effective outreach, and may need a nudge here and there to make it happen, and be fully supported in these endeavours.  But it can happen! Universities can change, over time, and they have the skills and the people to make it work.

It is also very timely to be thinking seriously about how Academic institutions re-think outreach activities – the place of Universities in today’s society is being questioned, and effective outreach is one way to help ensure that everyone sees what we do, and why. How our work relates to policy, government priorities, our environment; how we are working to understand climate change, fight against persecution of the poorest members of our society and how are working to understand global health issues. The list goes one. Donors will be more willing to give money if they really had a clear handle on what Academics do and why. Media offices could do a better job of promoting our Universities if they had access to a all Academics who are engaged with outreach Activities.

To finish: Smith et al.’s paper was optimistic, exciting, and a truly great contribution to the discussion about science communication.  What I worry about is that we must move beyond this article to some clear ways that institutions can properly incentivize and support outreach articles. I hope these ideas (and others) are discussed, debated and that institutions can move towards a new paradigm that includes effective outreach.

If we can figure this out, we’ll all win. 

A special thanks to Elena Bennett for reading over and helping me with an earlier draft of this post.


Smith B, Baron N, English C, Galindo H, Goldman E, et al. (2013) COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement. PLoS Biol 11(4): e1001552. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001552