Recent discussions about open access science coincided with my finishing my report and so the trials and tribulations of writing have been on my mind.
I agree with Alice Bell writing here in Times Highered – the real opening up of science is about so much more than publishing impenetrable articles without paywalls.
Access is not understanding. Understanding is not necessarily helpful
But if we keep to one of the components of that, asking scientists to communicate better about their work, it is still not straight forward. This was brought home to me recently by that annoying Harvard study which showed that eating red meat every day shortens life expectancy. Another in a long line of studies telling us we shouldn’t eat this and that, resulting in us throwing our hands in the air and doing what we always do. Thank goodness for the fabulous Prof David Spiegelhalter for trying to make a bit more sense of it here on the BBC website. Very poor science communication by Harvard in my opinion.
Don’t forget how hard writing actually is
But I also want to acknowledge how really difficult it is to write, and make oneself understood. I have been writing for 30 years in one way or another, often getting paid to do it. Every article or blog I write is really really hard, which is why I tend to ‘get it out, not get it right’. Writing reports leave me in tears very often, and during every single one I vow never to write another and give it all up and go and work in Tesco.
Then, like childbirth the feeling fades with time and I find myself doing another one. I have read that it is the same for many writers of all types, but we somehow feel compelled to do it. So what is it like for those who have never had any experience of this, who don’t feel the need to communicate in this way and who are being compelled to do it perhaps against their natural inclination? Not only that, but expecting it when they are not even being rewarded for it. Very tough and perhaps too much to ask with the perverse incentives on citations which currently exist.
So I would like to see more help given by the Research Councils, Universities and Companies to their scientists – it might be support by professional writers, coaching and training, forums to allow them share with each other what a pain in the arse it is etc etc. We also need better ways to allow the rest of us to access all this new writing, starting with better university websites to help them communicate and others to access their writing.
But most importantly it should be acknowledged and incentivised through the reward system. It’s not enough just to pontificate about the importance of involving the public if scientists are actively penalised for doing so. Without that it seems to me unfair to ask.