Science outreach: plain-language summaries for all research papers

1) Scientists do really interesting things.

2) Scientists have a responsibility to disseminate their results.

3) Scientists do not publish in an accessible format.

This is a really, really big problem.

Scientific research is largely funded by public money, and it can be argued that scientists have a responsibility to make their work accessible to the public (and scientists are particularly well suited for outreach activities!).  The main platform for disseminating research results is the peer-reviewed journal paper and this is not ideal.  Let’s be honest – these kinds of publications are often very specialized, full of jargon, and unreadable to most (even other scientists).  Many papers are also behind pay-walls, making them even less accessible to people outside of certain institutions.

Earlier this week I attended a scientific conference (the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada) and as part of this conference I was invited to speak in a symposium that was about social media in science.  It was a great session and some of my favourite social media mentors were also speaking at the symposium, including Adrian Thyssemacromite, the Bug Geek, and Biodiversity in Focus.   As I was preparing that talk the week before, I was also madly finishing a grant application, and in that application I was require to write a plain-language summary of my proposed research.  The granting agency uses this ‘summary for public release’ as a way to communicate research to the public.  Taxpayers fund the research and they might want to know where their money is going; the granting agency has found one way to communicate this information in a clever and effective manner.


Here is the proposal:  Every scientific paper published in a peer-reviewed journal must be accompanied by a short, plain-language summary of the work.

This summary would be placed on-line, free for everyone to read.  It would be concise, clear, free of jargon, and highlight why the work was done, how it was done, and what was discovered.

Here are some examples of how these plain-language summaries could be used:

1. Media: Media offices at Universities are constantly interested in promoting fantastic work by their Professors.  This work, however, is often not accessible and it can be a lengthy process to put together a press release (how easy is it to track down a researcher?).  A plain-language summary written by the researcher would be readable, clear, accessible, and an easy way to start the process of promoting research activities occurring at Universities.

2. Blogging: I am a regular blogger, and always happy to promote the research occurring within my laboratory, the laboratories of colleagues, or just discussing interesting scientific papers that I have read.  If I had plain-language summaries to access, it would make the process that much easier, and help facilitate timely communication with the public about recently published work.  Other science bloggers could also pick up on these summaries for their own writing.

3. Publishers & Editors:  As an editor-in-chief for a scientific journal, I sometimes look for ways to promote great papers, and promote the journal to a larger audience.  If I was able to peruse the summaries for public release,  this would make the process much easier.  Publishers could also take text from these summaries, put together a press release or blog post, and also promote research results from their journals based on particularly interesting papers and findings.

4. For Everyone: In my experience, people outside my area of expertise are always keen to hear about research activities.    It’s sometimes a challenge for me to explain my research results, and if I was always doing plain-language summaries, this would get easier.    The audience for research results can be as big as you can imagine: high school students, friends, family, colleagues, Departmental chairs, graduate students, journalists, libraries, etc…  Finally,  the Bug Geek has a great post about the challenges of talking science to 10-year olds:  it is hard to do, but important.  We need practice.  These summaries will help.

The procedure for getting plain language summaries could be quite simple.  When an author submits the final revisions on a scientific publication, they would be required to write a short plain-language summary.  I would like to think that publishers would be willing to incorporate this (simple) step into the on-line systems for manuscript processing, and be willing to post these, as open-access, on their websites, possibly paired with Abstracts.   These summaries would not diminish the value of the actual peer-reviewed papers – it would probably help increase readership since these summaries would help people find the work they are actually looking for, and give them a doorway into the scientific literature.

Let’s make this happen.  

It will be an effective way to do science outreach.

 Please comment, share the idea, and let’s see this idea grow.  


Determining authorship for a peer-reviewed scientific publication

Authorship on written work should never be taken lightly.  Authorship implies ownership and responsibility for the ideas and content portrayed as the written word.  In science, our currency is the written word, in the form of peer-reviewed articles submitted and published in scientific journals, and multi-authored works are the norm (sometimes to ridiculous degrees!).   Being an author on a paper is critically important for success in academia: the number of publications on your CV can get you job interviews, scholarships, and often leads to increased research funding.  Scientists are often judged by publication metrics, and although we may not like this system, it remains prevalent.  With this context I pose the following question: What is the process by which an individual is granted the privilege of being an author on a peer-reviewed journal article?  This blog post will provide an objective method to determine authorship for a publication, and by sharing it, I hope it helps bring some clarity to the issue.

(Note: as a biologist, I am drawing from my experiences publishing in the fields of ecology and entomology, and in my role as the Editor-in-Chief for a scientific journal, The Canadian Entomologist – the ideas presented below may not be transferable to other fields of study).

A paper that resulted from a graduate class; should all these individuals be authors on this paper? (yes, of course!)

The method outlined below starts by thinking about five main stages in the publication process, and there are individuals associated with each stage:

1. Research concept, framework, and question:  The research process leading to a publication has a conceptual backbone – it is the overarching research framework.  The background ideas and concepts that initiate the research that leads to a publication come from somewhere (…and someone).  Although the end product of research may be the publication, a good research question is at the start, and drives the entire process.  Without a solid framework for research, and a clear question, the research will simply never be in a form suitable for publication.   The person (or people) who developed the big-picture ideas, research framework, and research question are to be considered as authors on the final publication.  In the University framework, this is often an academic who has developed a laboratory and research program around a thematic area of study.

2.  Funding.  Someone has to pay for research – whether it be a large, collaborative research grant that supports many graduate students, or whether it be a small grant from a local conservation agency.  An individual scientist applied for money, and was able to support the research that leads to the publication.  These monies could directly support the research (e.g., provide travel funds, purchase of equipment), the individual doing the research (e.g., pays the graduate student stipend, or technician), or the monies could offset the costs associated with the publication process itself (e.g., many journals charge authors to submit their work, also known as page charges).    The individual(s) who pay for the research need to be considered as authors on the final publication resulting from the research.  More often than not, this individual is the main “supervisor” of a research laboratory, but could also be important collaborators on grant applications, often from other Universities or Institutions.

3. Research design and data collection:  Once the overall research question is in place, and funding secured, the actual research must be designed and executed.  These are placed together under one heading because it is difficult to separate the two, nor should they be separated.  You cannot design a project without attention to how data are collected, nor can you collect data without a clear design.  In a typical University environment, Master’s and PhD students are intimately associated with this part of the research equation, and spend a very significant portion of their time in design and data collection mode.  Without a doubt, the individual(s) who “design and do” the research must be considered as authors.

4.  Data analyses, and manuscript preparation:  The next step in the process is taking the data, crunching the numbers, preparing figures and tables, and writing a first draft of the manuscript.  This is a very important step in the process, as this is the stage where the research gets transformed into a cohesive form.  In a typical University laboratory, this is often done by Master’s students, PhD students, or post-docs, and the product of this stage is often (part of) a graduate student’s thesis.   However, it is also quite likely that a research associate, technician, or Honour’s student be involved at this stage, or that this stage is done by multiple individuals.  For example, data management and analyses may be done by a research technician whereas the head researcher does the bulk of the synthetic writing.  Regardless, one or many individuals may be involved in this stage of the publication process, and all of these people must be considered as authors on the final product.

5. Editing, manuscript submission, and the post-submission process: The aforementioned stage is certainly not the final stage.  A great deal of time and effort goes into the editing process, and quite often the editing and re-writing of manuscripts is done by different individuals than those who wrote the first draft.  Important collaborators and colleagues may be asked to read and edit the first draft and/or other students within a laboratory may work to fine-tune a manuscript.  Most likely, the supervisor of a graduate students invests a lot of time and energy at this stage, and works to get the manuscript in a form that is ready to be submitted to a scientific journal.   The submission process itself can also be difficult and daunting – papers must be formatted to fit the style requirements for specific journals, and the on-line submission process can take a long time.  After the manuscript has been submitted and reviewed by peers, it will most likely return to authors with requests for revisions.  These revisions can be lengthy, difficult, and require significant input (perhaps from many individuals).   For all these reasons, this fifth stage of the publication process cannot be undervalued, and the individual(s) associated with editing, submitting and dealing with revisions must be considered as authors.

Those five categories help define the main stages that lead to a scientific publication, and there are individuals associated with each stage.  Here’s the formula to consider adopting when considering which individuals should be authors on the final product:  if an individual contributed significantly to three or more of the above stages, they should be an author on the final paper.  Here’s an example: in a ‘typical’ research laboratory, the supervisor likely has a big-picture research question that s/he is working on (Stage 1) and has secured funding to complete that project (Stage 2).  A Master’s student, working with this supervisor, will work on the design and collect the data (Stage 3), and as they prepare their thesis, will do the bulk of the data analysis and write the first draft of the paper (Stage 4).  In most cases, the editing and manuscript submission process is shared by the supervisor and the student, and both individuals are likely involved with the revisions of the manuscript after it has been peer-reviewed (Stage 5).  In this case, both individuals clearly contributed to at least three of five categories, and the paper should be authored by both individuals.

A classic example of a paper with a graduate student and supervisor as co-authors.

What about the research assistant that helped collect data? – since they only contributed to Stage 3, they are not considered as an author.  The same is true of a collaborator at a different University who may have helped secure the funding (Stage 2), but did not help with the process in any other way – they do not qualify as authors on this work.   It is quite possible that a post-doc in a laboratory contributes to multiple stages, even on a single Master’s project. For example, the post-doc may have helped secure the funding, assisted significantly with data analysis, and helped to edit the final paper – this entitles them to authorship.

This entire method may be considered too rigid, and cannot really be implemented given the complexities of the research process, and given personalities and politics associated with the research process. Furthermore, many researchers may include their friends on publications, in hopes that the favour will be returned so both individuals increase their publication numbers.    I do not think this is ethical, and overall, if an individual did not contribute to the research process in a significant way, they should not be authors.  The method outlined above provides one way to help determine how this ‘significant way’ can be determined objectively.  The process is certainly not without fault, nor will it work in all circumstances, but perhaps it will help to define roles and help to consider seriously who should be considered as authors on papers.

I can also admit that I have not always contributed to “3 of 5 stages” on all the paper for which I am an author, so you can call me a hypocrite.  That’s OK, (I’ve been called worse), and I reiterate that the process outlined above is context-dependent, and simply provides a framework, or guide, for thinking about this important issue in science.

I am certainly not alone in this discussion, nor with this concept – Paul Friedman wrote about this (in A New Standard for Authorship) and the method in analogous to the one outlined above (although with more categories).  Some journals also specify their expectations for authorship.  As an example, in its instructions to authors, PNAS states that ‘Authorship should be limited to those who have contributed substantially to the work’, and request that contributions be spelled out clearly.  This is a good idea, and forces people to think about the issue.

I’ll finish with two more important points:  First, determining authorship, and thinking about authorship, must be a transparent and clear process.  Graduate students must not be surprised when their supervisor states that some other researcher will be an author on their work – this should have been clear from the start.  A discussion about authorship must occur early in the research process.  Full stop.

Second, another key question is the order of authors.  For example, when is the student’s name first on a publication, and the supervisor second?  What’s the convention for your field of study? Who should be second author when there are four or five co-authors?  This is a complicated question and, you guessed it, one that will be addressed in a future blog post!

Please share your thoughts… how does your laboratory deal with the question of authorship on scientific papers?

Why a scientific society needs a blog

I’ve been involved with the Entomological Society of Canada for a long time.  It’s a wonderful community of Canadian entomologists sharing an interest and enthusiasm for arthropods. The ESC’s activities are mostly centered around  its annual conference, its range of publications, and it offers a suite of awards and scholarships.  The society’s website also hosts career opportunities, photo contests, and a range of other rich and varied entomological content. The latest, big news for the society is that on 1 June, the ESC officially launched its own blog.  This blog was the brainchild of a few members of the society, and two great Canadian entomology bloggers, Crystal Ernst and Morgan Jackson, are the administrators of the blog.

So…why does a scientific society need a blog?  What’s the benefit to members of the society, to the society itself, and what’s the benefit for the broader entomological community?  Here are some thoughts about this:

1) Visibility:  it’s a tough time for scientific societies – funding is tight, and for a lot of people, the value of memberships to societies may seem less important than it once was.  Therefore, increased visibility though an on-line presence is important. A static website is essential, but a blog has a fluidity and dynamic presence that is hard to match with a website.  An active blog with well-written and interesting content will do a lot to increase a society’s visibility.  The visibility from an active blog is also global in its reach.

2) Opportunities to contribute:  the ESC blog will have dozens of contributors – means anybody with an interest in entomology (regardless of their profession and educational background) has an opportunity to write something for a broader audience.  Blog posts are often easier to write, they are shorter than research papers, and the content need not be vetted through a peer-review process.  It’s a forum for creative ideas, stories, photographs, and fun facts about insects.  The blog already has a couple of nice examples to illustrate this point.  For example, Chris Cloutier, a naturalist at the Morgan Arboretum on the Island of Montreal, just wrote a lovely post about the Hackberry Emperor.  Chris is an example of a different kind of entomologist – he’s not a research scientist, nor is his primary profession Entomology.  However, he does outreach, has a wealth of expertise and  talent, and he has a lot to offer the entomological community.  These kind of opportunities create an environment of inclusion for a society – members have a voice and can share their ideas and expertise.  Non-members can also contribute and recognize that there is a strong community associated with the ESC (…and perhaps some of the non-members will see the value of the society and join).

Screen shot of Chris Cloutier’s post

3) Economics: more than ever before, scientific societies are struggling to maintain members, and balance their books.  A blog is a cheap and effective way to promote their science to the world and the cost can be as little as a domain name.  I can think of no other method by which a society can promote itself at this cost point.  You could even argue that the time for static websites may be coming to a close since they are costly to host, require people with specific technical skills, and require a lot of back-end support.  The good blog sites can be administered by people with relatively few of these skills (I’m proof of that!!).

The ESC logo

4) Marketing and branding:  a high quality blog helps a society get its brand to a broad audience, and helps to market the society to the world.   The ESC has a long and wonderful history, but its main audience over the years has mostly been academics, research scientists, and students of entomology.   The ESC brand has excellence and quality behind it and that kind of brand should be shared, expanded, and through this process, the society will hopefully gain positive exposure and more members.

5) Communication: At the end of the day, knowledge is something to be shared.  Scientific communication is a fast-changing field and one that is making all of us reconsider how we talk and write about our interests.   I think we all have a responsibility to do outreach.  There is so much mis-information out on the Internet, and people with specialized and well-honed skills must be heard and must have a means to share accurate information in a clear and effective manner – e.g., a society blog. I also think many entomologist are perfectly positioned to do effective outreach (I’ve written about this before).  Part of the ESC’s mandate is dissemination of knowledge about insects and social media is a key piece of any communication strategy.

What do you think?  Can you think of other reasons why scientific societies need to embrace social media?  Please share your ideas!

I will finish with a stronger statement:  scientific societies are perfectly positioned to have the BEST blogs on the Internet.  A scientific society is a community, a community with history, and a community built on high level of expertise.  A scientific society also provides a structure and framework for bringing together high quality knowledge about a particular topic.  A blog can be amazingly strong with this kind of support.  A society is also about people and these people work tirelessly behind the scenes to facilitate the dissemination of high quality content.   These people, structured in committees, and with oversight from an executive committee, can provide tangible support that will help to keep a blog from becoming unidimensional.  The ESC’s blog administrators (Crystal and Morgan) know how to keep the content of high quality, and know how to put all the pieces together – and they know they can do this because they have an entire community behind them.  The society is committed to supporting the blog and for that reason, there is reason to be optimistic about its long-term success.  Please follow the blog!    

Why I love 140 characters

As the Editor-in-chief of The Canadian Entomologist (TCE), I have recently joined the twitter-verse.  This is an interesting experiment and I’m only a couple of weeks into it, but it is proving fascinating enough that I wanted to write this blog post about the experience.

The Canadian Entomologist on Twitter

I have long had mixed feeling about the role of Twitter in science.  There are many arguments both ways – Twitter can be a way to help promote good science, bring neat ideas to a larger audience, and initiate productive and exciting collaboration. It can, however, take the most limiting resource away: time. The Twitter-verse is also full of unusual, non-reviewed, speculative, non-scientific opinions, and often the same stories just gets repeated dozens of times.  All of this is the very stuff that concerns me.   In my professional world of publications, peer-review, and critical scientific analysis, is there a place for Twitter….how can 140 characters do any of this justice?  (I am, obviously, a fan of blogs – these can be a great forum for thoughts, ideas and opinions in a longer-format)

Well, after some lively exchanges with graduate students, friends, colleagues, and the marketing team at Cambridge University Press (TCE’s publisher), I have started tweeting for TCE.  Initially I was worried that coming up with tweets would be a big challenge but as I came up with lists of ideas for future tweets, I realize that there is an unbelievable amount of rich and fascinating content associated with the Journal. For example, exciting papers that are getting published, interesting stories about entomology and entomologists in Canada, links to events and opportunities within the Entomological Society of Canada, and information about past papers within the journal.  And, perhaps most importantly, I think twitter can be a way to promote the discipline to a different audience.

Pique your interest?  You can follow @CanEntomologist