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 I’ve described.
Our translations are short and sweet—they provide visitors the context for the work, the methods the authors used, and the key results in about five minutes of reading. And they’re 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 don’t write in exactly the same way as most science writers do. We cheat a little—and 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 Kepler’s 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, we’ve 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.
We want to see this model of translation spread to other fields, and we’re 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 help—please contact us!
We’re 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. It’s also what science writers do professionally, and I’m eager to see the bonds between these two communities strengthened. If you’re of the same mind, I invite you to read more about the Communicating Science workshop we’re 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.