13 November 2007

Writing across the disciplines

Science, the journal, walks a narrow line between accessibility and scientific rigour. Up front the articles are for all and sundry, well anyone with a smattering of, and an interest in, science. At the back of the paper it is heavy science.

The result of this balancing act, which Nature also manages, is that many readers can't penetrate much of the back half. The editors are well aware of this, which is why Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science, has tackled the subject in an editorial Approaching Science (vol. 318, issue 5851, p 715). He also introduced a new experiment and invited readers to respond.

Kennedy sums up the issue as follows "The language used in Reports and Research Articles is sufficiently technical and arcane that they are hard to understand, even for those in related disciplines." No one would disagree with his assertion that "accessibility is a problem". And it is getting worse, as subjects become ever more arcane. "Each specialty has focused in to a point at which even the occupants of neighboring fields have trouble understanding each others' papers."

The experiment? "Each Research Article published this week and in the next five issues will be preceded by a one-page 'Authors' Summary': an account, with one figure, of what the paper reports and what its conclusions are."

The approach that Science is taking matches the way I used to describe the approach that New Scientist took to its editing. Unashamedly written for scientists, but not so much so that a seriously interested "outside" would stumble, the line was that the physics, to pick a discipline at random, was there for geneticists, for example, and vice versa.

Kennedy takes a similar tack in describing Science's experiment. "Our plan is for summaries of papers in physical science fields to be reviewed by our life-sciences editors and vice versa."

The objective is laudable,m if ambitious. "The one-page summary is intended to make clear what the investigators did, how it was done, what the result was, and its significance."

It would be wonderful if every scientific journal went down the same road. But there just aren't enough literate scientists out there. Nor enough science journalists and editors to help them with the task.

Anyone interested in this experiment can catch up on the papers that have received this treatment over on the relevant bit of the Science web site.

Let's hope it catches on. In these web enhanced days, it would be a great add on for the electronic versions of journals. No need to soil paper with the summaries. They could even make them freely available to people who do not subscribe to their journals. But that may be a step too far for the money machine that is scientific publishing.