Though scientists are often motivated to explain their research to the public, many find themselves floundering with how best to communicate what they do for those with little or no experience in their field of study. Like any skill, translating science for novice readers—especially kids and teens—is developed through practice and feedback. For many scientists these kinds of opportunities can be infrequent enough to make learning from them difficult.
The authors who have written for Frontiers for Young Minds knew going in that they will be helping to create a valuable science resource by translating their work directly for young readers. But many of them have found that having direct access their target audience as reviewers yielded feedback that was not only helpful, but occasionally surprisingly blunt in regards to their communication skills.
Thanks to their frank honesty, the FYM Young Reviewers of our first ~45 manuscripts have revealed many of the pitfalls that scientists face when trying to explain their own work to a novice audience. While we are in the process of compiling this feedback into a how-to guide to help our future authors learn from the experiences of those in the past, I wanted to allow some of the most notable comments from our Young Reviewers to shine in their own right.
Below I have selected eight pieces of feedback that highlight some of the most common pitfalls. I think of this as an important starting place. But as soon as these pitfalls are addressed, I am certain that our Young Reviewers will find more ways for scientists to improve their communication skills.
Explaining your motivation
For any researcher, the justification for their research might seem obvious or intuitive. Assuming your reader automatically understands the motivation behind your research as well is a great way to invite them to disengage or disregard the work as trivial.
“The writers of the article did not make it clear why such an expensive and involved research project was done to begin with ... It seemed like a fruitless task.”
- Reviewer, Age 14
Forgetting the basics
Scientists can often forget what a “basic” understanding of their field looks like, and assume something to be a middle-school level of familiarity with a subject when it is actually more representative of an undergraduate major in their second year.
“It would be helpful if they told us how they took the measurement of brains without actually having to remove the brain.”
- Reviewer, Age 9
“The point is not clearly expressed. I didn’t understand the main scientific question because there were so many details at the beginning. Maybe state what the main question is earlier in the manuscript.”
- Reviewer, Age 10
Interest and reading level of your audience
Years of practice have led researchers to write about their work as dispassionately as possible. Unfortunately this bleeds over into when these researchers write for young audiences. Add the extra limitation of a ~2000-word maximum and the effect becomes even more profound. Authors will fall into the habit of creating dense and nested sentence structures in the interest of saving space. Instead of choosing structures and vocabulary most suited to learning, many will choose the structure that allows them to introduce as many new terms and concepts as possible in the limited space. This leaves the young readers struggling to engage with something that is not only new content, but has all of the excitement of a DVD player instruction manual.
“This seems important, but the way it is written is so boring I can’t even get to the end. Could the authors maybe sound excited about what they are doing?”
- Reviewer, Age 12
“(After reading the first two paragraphs) This paper is very long and there are too many words that kids are not going to understand.”
- Reviewer, Age 12
“Moving on, some long and confusing Latin words appear. The problem with these Latin words is that they distract from the text, with it becoming less interesting.”
- Reviewer, Age 15
Including figures for the authors instead of the readers
Researchers think of figures as ways to visualize data instead of tools for displaying meaning, visualizing difficult concepts, or presenting connections between important pieces of information. Depending on the age group, figures should entice the reader, teach the reader, or foster deeper understanding of key ideas.
“I wish that the pictures were easier to understand just by looking at them. When it takes me a long time just to figure out what they mean, it feels like homework.”
- Reviewer, Age 9
“This article is fun. Now, let’s talk about what I don’t really get … I just don’t understand figure 2. I think nobody in the third grade knows what power spectra are.”
- Reviewer, Age 8
Davachi L and Shohamy D (2014) Thanks for the memories…Front Young Minds. 2:23. doi: 10.3389/frym.2014.00023
DeFelipe J (2013) Going to School to Sculpt the Brain. Front Young Minds. 1:1. doi: 10.3389/frym.2013.00001
Gleichgerrcht E, Salvarezza F and Manes F (2013) Our Brain Enjoys Making Friends. Front Young Minds. 1:5. doi: 10.3389/frym.2013.00005