Monday, April 22, 2019

Tips for Making Your Paper Have Broad Impact




Meaghan here! I have been working for PBS Eons for a few months now as a writer. It has been amazing - I have learned so much about different organisms I never really looked into before, and about the whole process of scientific storytelling.  Some personal moments of pride include a video about climate that went viral, and also slipping a 9 minute dick joke past the PBS censors. And one of the big things I've learned along the way are that there are certain things you can put in scientific papers that make me want to write love sonnets to the authors, and certain things you can omit that make me want to glitterbomb your office. So that's what this blog is about: what can you put in papers so that it's easier for science writers to read them and get the information they need to compose a good piece of science communication about it?

Or: please sweet Jesus help me out, mama needs to not have to read 60 papers and resort to Image-J when trying to figure out how tall a T-Rex was.

1) Please Please Please OMG Please Give Me Basic Info
As a writer, I spend about 90% of my time tracking down dumbass details like "was it bigger than a breadbox." Context really, really matters - but while you as a scientist who hath touched the holy fossils might know that Diplocaulus is about 3 feet long, I don't. So if you don't write that down, I have no idea and spend hours tearing my hair out trying to find out basic details.

Remember how A/S/L was considered key in 90's chatrooms? Let's make A/S/L a new paleontological hit. That is, Age/Size/Location.



Age - most people put something like this in their paper... but not necessarily in a way that is useful to me. Look, I'm a mammalian paleontologist - and I get that I should just have the start and end dates of North American Land Mammal Ages emblazoned on my brain in flaming neon. But I don't. I Google that shit every time - and that's for time periods I know pretty well. What I'm trying to say is that your Permian subdivisions don't make sense to me, please please please give me age ranges too because otherwise I will have to go and rely on Wikipedia or look up a bunch of other papers that ALSO don't tell me when the Rupellian or what-the-fuck-ever was.

Cuz this isn't useful to me.

Size - See, one of the first pieces of context I really want to know about your organism is HOW GODDAMNED BIG IS IT. I barely know what Marella is, let alone its size. And I know that calculating mass is it's own mess of problems, and even height can be hard when you don't have the full limbs - but for the love of my sanity, can you please tell me if it's like... deer sized versus giraffe sized?? Seal length or guppy length? Tennis ball or basketball? I often have to chase down several papers to try and piece together the most basic size estimate, because while you as the expert paleontologist may know how big Sacabambaspis is... I do not.

And judging by this, nobody else does either. (yes I know how google searching works don't @ me)

Location - not just of your specific one! Please don't make me read 10 papers to find the range of one genus. I can and do use the Paleobiology Database, but I know that isn't always accurate taxonomically so it'd really be nice if it came from the mouth/keyboard of experts!

So that's the basics. They're important pieces of context that help the audience become more familiar with your organism. Think of early drawings of walruses, or how people think that Velociraptor is shoulder height - A/S/L will help your friendly neighborhood science writer avoid enforcing these myths!

But that's not all you can do to help us. 

2 ) Provide Pronunciations
I do think it is a very fun game to try and pick organisms with terribly difficult pronunciations for my scripts, because I am mean. Unfortunately Blake (editor, producer, and host) has caught on to this ('cuz I stupidly told him) and now asks me to provide pronunciations in the script.

Ugh.
He's on to my bullshit.
Anyway, that means I'm going to pass the buck to you. If you are describing a new species, having a phonetic pronunciation guide would be awesome so we can all mispronounce Latin, but, like, together.


3) Use Mid-Sentence Citations
This won't always be possible, depending on the journal format, but putting your citation right next to the piece of information to which it refers makes it easier for me to track down those papers and read more about the topic. I can still do this with citations at the end of the sentence, but if that citation is lumped with 5 others with similar names that might be a lot of guess work for me.

I don't really have a joke about this. Just do it. I don't want to read any more papers about ancient fish than I 100% have to. 


cuz... meh.

4) Informative Graphics
If you put your range information for a group in a graphic... I will love you forever. No, seriously - it is so, so much easier to see phylogenetic relationships and ranges in graphical or even table form than it is in the text, and makes it super easy to go back and add information later when Blake inevitably asks me "yeah but what about..."

Temporal ranges, cute penguin graphics, relationships, AND currents? Be still my nerdy-but-lazy heart!

5) Put Your Answer In Your Abstract
I can't believe how often this comes up, but if you do an analysis, the result should be in your abstract. If it isn't, I might not read your paper - after all, I'm not trying to become an expert in your field, I'm trying to write an interesting 10 minutes of content. Results in your abstract also help for the many, many papers that I can't get access to - I want to read your paper, but if I can't get it, I can still use it if your abstract is actually informative. Many of PBS's other writers don't have current University affiliations - so they are even less likely to be able to access an article and this comes up even more.

6) Have an Informative Title
I am terrible at writing titles, but I've definitely seen way worse than me since I started this job. If your paper is about a specific organism, maybe put that in the title instead of just "archosaurs" or whatever. It'll show up more readily as something I need to read (we tend to be organism-focused so that's what I'm searching for).

7) Introductions and Backgrounds On More Than Methods
This is something I am super guilty of - talking about the methods rather than the taxa in my intro. But there have been multiple incidences where I as a reader have had to go down rabbit holes because there were no review papers on a group, and all of the individual papers didn't have enough background for me to figure out what members a particular group consisted of (Crocodylia, I am looking at you). So add family relationships, known cool facts, generalized ASL info - this sort of info will help students and outsiders reading your paper, it is insanely valuable. Uh, and while you're at it, define a few key terms for us too, would?

8) Anatomical Illustrations
Look, language is only good for so much. You detailing what a tiny chunk of bone is may be helpful to another paleontologist in your incredibly specific subfield but to anyone else, it is jibberish. Like, I know so much about cranial anatomy that it's absurd, but everyone has their own goddamned words for things so my mammal stuff doesn't translate to your amphibian stuff. Illustrations are really helpful here - particularly when I need to reduce "it's a 4th greater trochanter" to "it's a bone bump on the leg bone."

OH it's THAT thing. 'Effin archosaur people man.

All of these tips are meant specifically to increase your papers utility to a science communicator - but if I'm honest, I think they are good tips for increasing your out-of-sub-field reach too, and for helping students understand your research. So really, this is just generally good advice - what a nice person I am to be giving it to you! Happy goddamned 2019 to all of you. 

Now be nice to me in return and start ASLing your research so I spend less time screaming into the ether.

13 comments:

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  2. OMG yes to all, but #1 particularly I don't understand why it's such a consistent problem! Matt Wedel was nagging fellow paleos to "Measure Your Damn Dinosaur!" on SV-POW 10 freaking years ago!
    https://svpow.com/2009/04/23/mydd/

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