Logo of Astrobites

This is a guest post by Nathan Sanders, a PhD student at Harvard University and a writer at Astrobites.

Understanding science is hard. This is true even for well educated and highly motivated readers, like college students earning science degrees. These students may have all the technical knowledge they need to absorb and even reproduce cutting-edge research in their field, but I can tell you from experience that when an undergraduate picks up a peer-reviewed journal paper for the first time, they might as well be reading in another language.

For scientists, graduate school is like the immersion method for teaching the foreign language of science. At the end, students come our fully versed in the historical context, methodology, and jargon needed to parse journal articles. Until then, as I described in my previous post on this blog, we can translate scientific writing for young scientists to help them reach their full capability as researchers sooner.

Two years ago, in my first year as a graduate student in astronomy at Harvard and having made it much of the way across this language barrier, several of my classmates and I banded together to help others cross with us. We founded a website called Astrobites, where each day we take one new research paper in astrophysics and translate it in the way Ive described.

Our translations are short and sweetthey provide visitors the context for the work, the methods the authors used, and the key results in about five minutes of reading. And theyre no longer written by just a few of us at Harvard, but by a collaboration of more than three dozen graduate students around the world.

At Astrobites, we dont write in exactly the same way as most science writers do. We cheat a littleand we do it to make things easier on our target audience. We assume a readership with about a first-year undergraduate level of scientific knowledge. We take for granted that our readers are familiar with technical concepts like blackbody radiation and Keplers laws, which may take hundreds of words to elucidate in publications for mainstream audiences. Our readers benefit from seeing terminology like these in use, by saving a few minutes of unnecessary reading and by immersion in the concepts.

But while Astrobites articles are aimed at undergraduate students, weve been delighted to find that readers with vastly different levels of training visit our site as well. Our readership has as many professors, graduate students, and non-scientists as it does undergraduates.


Astrobites' homepage

Homepage of Astrobites

We want to see this model of translation spread to other fields, and were happy to help other graduate students found -bites sites in their fields of research. Chemistry graduate students at MIT have already founded Chembites. If you would like to apply this model to your own field, we would love to helpplease contact us!

Were all volunteering our time as Astrobites authors, but we get important pedagogical, writing, and editing experience in return. I think that practice interpreting research and explaining it clearly to others is invaluable for scientists in training. Its also what science writers do professionally, and Im eager to see the bonds between these two communities strengthened. If youre of the same mind, I invite you to read more about the Communicating Science workshop were organizing, to be held in June.

UPDATE (1440 EST, January 31 2013): This post has been commissioned by me but was written by Nathan Sanders. Huge apologies for initially missing out mentioning this.