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Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

Scientific perspectives

Olivia Wilkins

One of the most interesting things I learned during my first week of grad school was the concept of "inreach," like outreach but geared toward other scientists. Inreach can happen in a number of ways, including conference presentations and development of science media to be distributed to others in your field. Scientific inreach can also involve discussions on social media, the topic of today's talk with Emily Lakdawalla, Senior Editor of the Planetary Society, in Social Media for Scientists (ChE/Ch/E/Bi 107; follow the course on twitter!).

An important theme in Social Media for Scientists is discussing why scientists should be active on social media. Benefits include being able to communicate easily and quickly with other scientists and to reach out to non-scientists in an informal way. Another huge benefit is that public trust in news media is pretty low (and often for good reason) while that toward scientists is generally high.

 "The Science News Cycle" via PhD Comics, Jorge Cham (2009)

"The Science News Cycle" via PhD Comics, Jorge Cham (2009)

Social media is an invaluable tool for spreading information and for spreading it fast, but it does have some limitations. For instance, there is always the risk that discussing unpublished work will lead to someone else publishing your work first if the wrong information is made public (and someone decides to be a total jerk). It also moves extremely fast; while this allows scientists to quickly share (sometimes real-time) information, it also means that science communications quickly disappear in a sea of social media posts. Finally, social media is limited, especially when talking about Twitter (try getting your point across WITH references in 140 characters or less). Social media is a great tool for inreach, but sometimes it isn't the best tool.

Similarly, scientific journals aren't always the best media for inreach either. Sure, they have plenty of citations and have undergone (ideally rigorous) peer review, but journal articles are usually targeted at members of a specific field. Sharing an awesome discovery with scientists from other disciplines just is not going to happen with traditional academic literature. Scientists (and more generally, academics) just do not have the time to treat journals like a news source to learn about other research areas.

One way to have the rigor and detail of a scientific article but the generality and casual take on research news of social media is a scientific perspective, which just happens to be the first writing assignment for Scientific Writing (ChE/Ch 91), which I am TAing this fall. Scientific perspectives are a genre of scientific writing that are targeted at an interdisciplinary audience. They show up in publications such as Science to share some of the most exciting contemporary research without all of the field-specific jargon.

From the Science website:

Perspectives discuss one or a cluster of recently published papers or a current research topic of high interest in which an author's perspective sheds an incisive light on key findings in research. These articles typically have one or two authors whose task is to inform our interdisciplinary readership about exciting scientific developments in the author's area of expertise. Other appropriate topics include discussions of methods, books, or meeting highlights. Perspectives are usually between 2000 and 4000 words total (including abstract, main text, references and figure legends). They should have a short pithy title, an abstract of 50 words or less, no more than 35 references, and 1 or 2 figures (with figure legends) or tables.

So let's break this down. Perspectives discuss recently published or current research while the author sheds an incisive light on key findings. Essentially, a perspective is a scientific news article that discusses [1] where the field was before, [2] how the research contributed, and [3] where it is going. Who better to report science than a scientist, right? But, like any news article, a perspective is doing its job only if it is recent. Sure, you can dig up old research that is interesting, but that doesn't make it news. Furthermore, a perspective is about exciting scientific developments; the assumption is that if a research article is 5+ years old, significant developments after the publication have been made. A perspective should project where the field is going. That cannot be done if the field has already gone somewhere.

In writing about this content, the author strips away less-essential bits of information, focusing on the parts that are more riveting. Hence a perspective is not merely a summary of the work; it is a analysis of the key elements of the work. That being said, a perspective doesn't have to even mention all sections of the article of focus. Don't think the methods are important in the development of the field? Ignore them. (Okay, perhaps give one sentence that explains how the work was done.)

In addition to content, the audience of scientific perspectives is different from those of traditional research articles. Perspectives are geared toward interdisciplinary readership about exciting scientific developments in the author's area of expertise. That is, the author acts as a translator such that a member of any scientific discipline can understand the work and why it is important. But in order to be attractive to other academics, a perspective must also be short. Active scientists are swamped with their own research and most can't dedicate hours to read pages upon pages of research news (even if they want to). Hence a perspective is generally short—between 2000 and 4000 words total (or in the case of ChE/Ch 91, even less at a minimum of about 500 words). Like other news articles, a short pithy title is best, and a perspective is a great place to make those science puns you were too cautious to make when submitting to a peer-reviewed journal. Finally, one or two figures are sufficient, and the best figures are ones that illustrate what the work is all about. Including a dense plot that doesn't clearly illustrate the significance of the work isn't the best kind of figure to include (unless of course it is the key reason the topic article is so significant).

Finally, being more of an analysis piece, a perspective doesn't have many references. The focus of a perspective is one or two published journal articles, so except for some background information, you probably don't need to look at a lot of other literature.

Of course, getting people to read your perspective or any other scientific material might be a challenge, so that is where social media can come in. Instead of using social media as a means of sharing information, use it as a means of sharing links to information. This can also extend the story you are trying to tell beyond the page, sparking a discussion among your connections. Whether it is a blog or an interesting article in a publication, social media can be a great way to bring science out of stuffy offices and labs. Just be sure to be careful about copyright laws in the instance of non-open-access sources.