1000 simple words to improve science communication

Inspired by popular web comic XKCD’s Thing Explainer, and motivated by a desire to get complex research ideas into the hands (and newsfeeds) of a broader audience, researchers in Dr. Rebecca Todd’s lab have been blogging about the lab’s publications using the 1000 most commonly used English words.

“A lot of scientific writing can be … dry,” says Dr. James Kryklywy, a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Todd’s Motivated Cognition Lab. “For most non-scientists, and for a lot of scientists as well, your average research paper isn’t really a fun read.”

“It’s a bit of a challenge, as a word like ‘results’ doesn’t appear on the list, so we have to say ‘after-study information’ instead,” says Kryklywy, who suggested using the SimpleWriter format for lab blog posts. “But restricting ourselves to 1000 words has really made us think about language and how we can communicate more effectively.”

The research out of Dr. Todd’s lab is complex, and looks at influences of biology and experience on neural systems underlying emotional processes and the way how we feel affects what we pay attention to and what we remember. Writing about the lab’s findings in the simplest possible language is challenging, as in order to convey the scope of the research, blog authors have to rely on nuance instead of a wider vocabulary.

“You don’t want to dumb the science down,” Dr. Krklywy says. “And that’s not even the point – we want to remove barriers to accessing the work we’re producing in our lab. We want to make it interesting to read about research discoveries. We want to get Canadian science in front of a more diverse audience.”

In recent months, there has been a renewed focus on generating excitement for Canadian research, with the Fundamental Science Review calling for increased funding for investigator-driven fundamental research. Improving access to scientific information among the general public and our Members of Parliament is important, because without a broad public understanding of the value of science, science will not be a priority for taxpayers or the government. In order to improve funding for Canadian science, Canadian scientists are going to have to tell their stories in a way that non-scientists will understand. That means reducing jargon, abandoning acronyms, and, perhaps, adopting a less complicated vocabulary.

“It has really surprised me how much expressing ourselves in this way helps me clarify my own thinking about why we’re doing our research and what it means,” says Dr. Todd, who reviews each blog post before publishing. “Writing about our own work in this way helps us get to the heart of what is important about our research in a way that is meaningful to those who don’t live it and breathe it, and I’m struck with how much I’ve gotten out of this process.”

“I just thought it would be fun to try translating our research into plain language,” says Dr. Kryklywy. “It turned out to be a great way to better understand our own research. I can see it changing how the researchers in our lab communicate about our work more broadly.”

This story was originally featured on the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health website.