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

Kids Like Bugs: entomology outreach in elementary schools (Part 2)

     On Wednesday, Chris Buddle and Paul Manning posted the first of a two-part series on outreach activities in elementary schools. That post focused on the ‘why’ – this one (also written by Chris and Paul) is about the ‘how’.

How to talk to kids about bugs:

First thing about talking to elementary school kids is stay calm and don’t worry!  If you have any University-level training in Entomology, you are qualified – Now, this doesn’t mean you have to be able to speak about all aspects of entomology: play to your strengths! If you are a taxonomists working on Syrphidae flies, bring in your flies and talk about them these magnificent animals.  If your experience is broader and less specialized, browse some notes, look on-line, or peek at a textbook: do a short overview of the main Orders of insects and their characteristics. Although most kids get some entomology in elementary schools, it’s not usually very much (although ALL kids do seem to learn about monarch butterflies!).

One great way to speak to kids about bugs is to make the session thematic.  In addition to bringing in a drawer or two of insects, link the specimens to biology. For example, one of us (Paul) has recently used ‘metamorphosis’ as a focal point for discussion. The transition from larvae to adult is a biological wonder, and acts as an excellent focal point for discussion. It brings together different facets of biology, from hormones, to physiological development, behavioural adaptations, through to discussion about life history strategies.  Paul brought galls into the classroom, and demonstrated that there were larvae living inside. The students screamed with excitement when they saw the larvae living within the gall. One student described it as a ‘cute white blob‘. Several students asked if they could bring the larvae home (wouldn’t Mom and Dad just LOVE that!).

Kids like bugs. And they like to draw them.

Kids like bugs. And they like to draw them.

Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”.  In fact, kids find it refreshing to hear that an ‘expert’ doesn’t know all the answers.  Turn it around to illustrate that the world of entomology is so vast that there are a lot of unknowns out there, and many questions still to be answered.

Have patience. With younger grades, asking kids questions, or having them answer questions, can quickly turn into ‘stories’ from young, enthusiastic students. For example:

Q: Does anyone know what kind of insect a ladybug is?

        [Hand shoots into the air…]

 A (from a 6 year old): Um, yes, I know a lot about those things.  Once, when I was 4, I remember that I saw a beautiful bug flying by my garden – it was really big and black and I think it was a ladybug and my granddad told me about how ones like that eat trees and kill the trees and that makes me sad because we have a big tree in our front yard that I really like but sometimes my little bratty brother hides behind it and scares me when I am walking by. But I really like all bugs especially ladybug ones that are red but they smell funny sometimes and my mom said they can bite – will they bite me if I play with them? why do they smell funny? why are there so many spots on them? do their spots get bigger when they grow….

Give kids a chance to tell you these stories, but know that it will take patience…. but heck, if bugs get them talking and excited, that can’t be a bad thing!

(as an aside, most elementary school teachers will typically coach students so that they will ask/answer question instead of tell stories)

Bring a few props: If you can do an event outdoors, try to bring a few sweep nets and vials.  We will often bring extra vials from the lab and give students the vials to keep (heck, plastic vials cost very little!). For MONTHS afterwards, parents will often tell us about how their child packed that vial full of insects and carried it around obsessively for weeks. That’s a great way to inspire entomology.

Beetle galleries are easily found in wood, and can be a great prop to bring to an entomology session with school kids.

If you are doing an indoor talk, make sure to have a lot of photographs of interesting insects, and whenever possible, discuss/show or use examples from your local fauna – this will allow kids to connect to things they have seen on the playground or in their own yards – this connection between the content you are discussing and the insects they are seeing on their own, is very powerful.  With a smaller group, you can certainly bring in a few drawers of insects – if you don’t have any, this becomes a great excuse to make a little synoptic collection of your own to use for educational purposes. Or, ask your local entomology museum, or local naturalist club, about borrowing some specimens.

Whenever possible, bring a few ‘real’ field guides. One of us (CB) ran a biodiversity challenge at an elementary school and managed to convince the school to buy a couple of sets of field guides. The kids LOVE the look and feel of real field guides and will thumb through them with delight. Part of our own passion about natural history can be traced back to field guides in our houses when we were young.

A field guide to insects - suitable for all ages!

A field guide to insects – suitable for all ages!

Don’t dumb down the material: Too often we think kids need to be talked down to, but nothing is further from the truth. As mentioned above, kids are sponges for information and in our experience they want to hear the details. You will want to avoid jargon, but other than that, provide the details whenever you can. Again, doing a ‘thematic’ talk with school kids becomes quite important because you just won’t have time to cover anything in-depth if you try to cover too much.

Finally, and most importantly, be passionate and enthusiastic. Kids will feel your positive energy and love of entomology; they will feed off of this, take it home with them; they will start asking more questions, start to dream, and fall further in love with the world around them. Spending a bit of time in a classroom is perhaps one of the most important kinds of outreach activities to do.

Kids Like Bugs: entomology outreach in elementary schools (Part 1)

         Written by Chris Buddle and Paul Manning.

Spending time talking to kids about Entomology is ALWAYS worth it. If ever invited to speak at an elementary school about insects, always say “yes”, and in this post, we’ll expand on why it’s worth your time. In a second post on this topic, we’ll provide some tips on how to talk to kids about bugs.  Although these posts are focused primarily at elementary school events, the ideas and tips could be expanded to community nature walks, events at an ‘earth day’ celebration, hosting a bug day in your backyard, etc.

Part 1: Why talk to kids about bugs?

Most kids aren’t afraid of nature. In our experience, elementary school kids (especially the younger grades) still have a fascination with entomology and are still curious and excited by ‘bugs’. Later in life, it seems that many kids will follow one of several paths: (a) disinterest, (b) disgust, or (c) delight. As entomologists, in a field that is so important, getting kids to be delighted is very important.

Kids like bugs.

Kids like bugs.

Kids already know a lot but they like an expert to verify their findings and support their interests. In our experience, kids can get especially excited about insects because they see them all the time – they have played with them in their yards, tasted them (perhaps), and probably spend time trying to burn them with a magnifying glass. Bugs are accessible, small, curious, and catchable, and thus kids learn about them – an entomologist can keep facilitating this learning.

Kids are truly amazed that you can ‘get a job‘ studying insects. This is unfathomable to them, since they don’t typically get much exposure to biologists. They are exposed to limited career options (“I want to play in the NHL“, “I want to be a doctor“, “I want to be a firefighter“) in part because our school systems often exclude the cool jobs like “stream ecologist”, “geologist”, or “entomologist”. The idea that you can spend time (as an adult!) collecting and curating insects (i.e., FUN STUFF) can be quite extraordinary. In our experiences, it’s so painfully obvious that working outdoors with insects is simply not noticed as a real job by many people; entomologists must work to correct this. Giving kids exposure to wonderful careers (like entomology) can help encourage future scientists that there are truly enjoyable careers that involve getting ones hands dirty, and spending time outside.

Entomologists have a responsibility to dispel myths about arthropods, and this should start at an early age. Invariably, we get statements from kids such as “My Dad told me to stay away from spiders ’cause they will bite you“, or “My aunt told me that earwigs go into your ear, so I hate them“, or “I am allergic to bees because my cousin is allergic“, etc. We can bring clarity to these kinds of statements, and by offering an ‘expert opinion’ on these topics, can help kids understand the real facts about entomology.

Kids are sponges: it is satisfying to speak to an audience who is fully engaged and willing to soak up as much as you can provide. Bugs are a very exciting topic for kids, and they will remain interested, excited and enthused if you continue to provide good content.


Kids ask great questions.  As an example, one of us (PM) recently talked about insects to an elementary school class. The class was asked to guess what was living within a gall, and to make guesses as to what they thought the gall was, and how it was formed. After one student quickly suggested that an insect was living within the gall, a flurry of wonderful questions began. Students asked questions like:

  • How did the insect get inside the gall?
  • How does the insect survive the winter?
  • What does the insect eat when inside the plant?
  • Why doesn’t the insect kill the plant?

All of these questions prompt interesting, and relevant discussions that fit well within learning objectives in science curriculum. Providing a concrete example that is applicable to students, might also result in a better understanding of the concept.

Finally, it’s nice to talk to kids about bugs because they genuinely appreciate it. Being thanked for spending time doing this kind of outreach is really, really nice. And, sometimes you might receive some nice thank-you cards or posters to put up on your wall.  To us, these are as important as a diploma on your wall, or a favourite butterfly poster. Thank-you notes from kids are some of the most wonderful things to read, and they often include delightful, creative, and colourful drawings.


Ten fun facts about Daddy Longlegs

Animals with many names: Harvestmen, Daddy longlegs, Shepherd Spiders, Grandfather Greybeard, Phalangids, Opiliones.

Cousins of other Arachnids, but an Order all to their own.   Over the past 11 months, I’ve been on a journal of discovery about these amazing creatures.

After nearly 300 tweets, and over 600 pages of text in Pinto-da-Rocha et al.’s book on Harvestmen, the Opiliones Project (in the way it was originally conceived) is over.  To recap – this was a twitter-based project in which I shared content from that weighty textbook with anyone who cared to follow along (using the hashtag #OpilionesProject).  Many folks followed along, notably my twitter friends Derek Hennen, Jaden Walker, Matthew Cobb, and many, many others…

A lovely Harvestmen - photo by B. Valentine, reproduced here with permission

A lovely Harvestmen – photo by B. Valentine, reproduced here with permission

I learned a lot along the way – and will take this opportunity to highlight ten fun facts about Harvestmen – all of these were part of the Opiliones Project.

Did you know that…

1. Salvador Dali featured Harvestmen in his work!  It’s true – check it out: “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening

2. Harvestmen can breath through their legs!  Spiracles in harvestmen are located just posterior to the coxae of the 4th pair of legs and this supply of oxygen to Harvestmen legs (e.g., after they are removed) contributes to the duration of twitching

3. Harvestmen have been around for at least 400 million years!  Phenominal!  And Harvestmen from the Rynie chert have an extensive tracheal system – the oldest record of such tubes of ANY arthropod

4. Harvestmen are NOT venomous! They don’t have venom glands!  A common urban myth.

5. Over 60 chemical compounds have been isolated from Harvestmen secretions (e.g., the secretions that are often used in chemical defense)

6.  At least a dozen species of Harvestmen are known to be parthenogenetic (females lay eggs that produce only females)!

7.  Harvestmen often show aggregation behavior, and the largest aggregation recorded is 70,000 individuals on a candelabrum cactus!

8. Unlike other Arachnids, Harvestmen males have a penis!

9. In some Harvestmen species, males use their chelicerae to offer oral secretion to female – a type of nuptial gift!

10. In some species, Harvestment moult even after they are have reached adulthood!

So there you have it.  Many fascinating and fun facts about Harvestmen (and there are many, many more) – you can access all the tweets from the Opiliones Project here (all 24 pages of them).

There were some other notable Harvestmen events over the past year, and it was fortunate this project coincided with these events.  For example, the Taxonomy Hulk burst onto the scene, and highlighted an article depicting a mix-up between a spider and a Harvestmen (a common mistake…).  Also, a truly HUGE harvestmen species was discovered – this sucker had a 13 inch legspan.  As May Berenbaum said over twitter…that’s a Daddy Loooooonglegs!

So, to finish – a big THANK YOU to everyone who followed along.  I hope this project was a fun for you as it was for me.

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Another lovely Harvestmen, photo by B. Valentine, reproduced here with permission.

A special thanks to Brian Valentine for permission to use his Harvestmen photos on this blog!

Plain-language summary of research results: Mites, rotten wood, and forests

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.

Mites live here.


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.

The Extractor – getting mites from the samples

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/

Natural History is….

The theme in my undergraduate field biology course this term is “Natural History”.  This is proving very interesting, in part because defining natural history is difficult.

What is Natural History?

Thankfully, my colleague Terry Wheeler wrote a terrific post on this topic recently.  I urge you to read this, as I think it brings a lot of clarity to this issue.  In that post, Terry states his scientific definition of the concept: Natural History is the search for, and description of, patterns in nature.

The Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus)

Terry’s definition resonates with me, but I was curious about what natural history might mean to undergraduate students.  I wanted to share with you some ideas about natural history that were proposed by some of my students.  I had asked them to think about defining natural history, and to think of this concept as it might relate to the discipline of Ecology.

Here is some of what they said, paraphrased by me:

Ecology is a thorough interpretation of natural history

It’s not possible to study ecology without indirectly studying natural history

Natural history is studied with observation rather than experimental methods

Natural history is an indispensable part of science and culture.

Natural History can be represented in an artistic manner.

Natural history is a priceless source of information for biology and ecology.

The field of ecology sprouts from natural history.

Field work is natural history in action.

Natural history is a science which tries to show life and its diversity to a larger public.

Natural history is familiarity with nature, with or without an explanation.

Data gathered from natural history is not necessarily conclusive.

A Panamanian wonder…

Do these ideas resonate with you?

What does natural history mean to you? 

Entomologists at Work: what do they look like?

It’s the end of the summer, and I have been looking through some photographs from this past field season.  Included in the photographs are a lot of images of “entomologists at work” and this prompted me to start a Tumblr blog called “The Entomologist“.  The inspiration for this comes directly from “What a scientist looks like” – a truly wonderful project devoted to rethinking stereotypes about scientists.

Is this a typical Entomologist, Butterfly net in hand? (Photograph by C. Ernst)

What are the stereotypes of Entomologists “at work” ? I would guess that most people probably think Entomologists are either waving around butterfly nets in a rainforest clearing, or perhaps looking at fly larvae under a snazzy microscope to determine time of death (i.e., Forensic entomology as depicted on CSI).

What do entomologists really do?  What does it look like when they are at work?  This project is devoted to answering these questions, through submissions to the site.  Please contribute by going here, and clicking on the Submit tab.  Please provide a photograph of yourself as an Entomologist at work, be it in the laboratory, in a research collection, doing field work, rearing larvae, weighing specimens, checking traps, inspecting a home for pests, counting aphids on plants, etc.  Or, take a picture of a colleague or friend of yours who spends time with insects and catch them in action.

I encourage ALL entomologists to submit a photo – whether you are an amateur, professional, young or old.

Show me your passion for the discipline, and I hope the site will fill with depictions of the breadth and depth of entomology and its practitioners.  Perhaps this can also inspire more people to become Entomologists.