Communicating Research to the General Public

Communicating Your Graduate Research to Non-Specialists

By Rodney Schreiner, Ph.D.
WISL Associate Director

 

As you prepare to write the chapter of your thesis in which you describe your research to non-specialists,
it is worthwhile to consider how this chapter will differ from the remainder of your dissertation. The other chapters of your thesis are reporting to a very limited audience what you did and what you discovered. In these chapters you describe the significance of your work in a limited context, and you can assume that your readers understand the broader context and significance, so you don’t need to explain it. You may be very excited about what you’ve discovered and think that it is very important, but the style of a research thesis does not allow you to say this. However, in your chapter for non-specialists, this is precisely what you should do. Communicate your enthusiasm, your excitement, your sense of accomplishment to your non-specialist readers as you lead them into the world of ideas and phenomena in which you have been working over the past few years.

Some of the best models for your non-specialist chapter are the articles that appear in popular science periodicals, such as Discovery magazine and the science section of the New York Times. One significant difference, however, between you chapter and these articles is that most of these articles are written by journalists who have not actually done the research. You have an advantage on them of being the world’s expert on the research you are describing. Nevertheless, you can profitably take a cue from the way they present the science they report.

The format of your chapter can take a wide variety of forms. Yet, whatever the form, the chapter needs to have a consistent point of view. Before beginning, decide what is the most intriguing or interesting aspect of your work. Consider different ways to tell the story about this aspect. You can approach this story historically, that is, how you came to your study and how it evolved as you worked. Or you may decide to present the story by arranging its elements in a logical order to show how one idea leads to another. Or you may try to move your readers to an intellectual appreciation of your subject. No matter how you decide to present the story of your work, stick to that story throughout to provide your readers with a satisfying experience.

After adopting a point of view, begin to write the chapter. Start by preparing a brief summary, a sort of abstract that is only three or four sentences long. Use this summary to build a more extensive outline. Then, use the outline to prepare a rough draft. As you work on the draft, you may develop ideas that did not occur to you while you prepared the outline. Incorporate these ideas into the outline. When the draft is completed, revise and rewrite it, polishing it as needed.

When writing the draft, remember your audience. You are not writing for the same people for whom you wrote the other chapters of your thesis. The readers of this chapter do not already have an interest in its subject. Therefore, you need to lead them into the story. The first few paragraphs are very important to catch the interest of the reader. You need to start the story in general terms, in terms familiar to the non-specialist. There are a variety of ways to do this. You could start by describing everyday phenomena that are familiar to the readers, but that are also related to your work. Or you can start with a very dramatic opening image, something easily imagined but not familiar to the readers. Or you can take an oblique approach that combines the familiar and the dramatic in a way that makes the reader wonder, “What could this be about?” Or you could take a personal approach and describe how you came to do the work you are going to describe. These are a few of the ways to draw the non-specialist into the story you are going to tell.

Keep in mind that in telling your story, you are free to tell the parts of the story of science that otherwise don’t get told in a dissertation or scientific publication. You can express the beauty and wonder and mystery and variety of nature. You can dramatize the excitement of discovery. You can speculate about the future and show the impact of science on society and culture. You can focus on the human side of science, the personalities, the individuals, and the teamwork that goes into scientific discovery. You can even offer personal reflection. In short, this chapter is your opportunity to represent realities of science in ways that formal scientific discourse cannot, and to use your creativity to communicate your ideas.


While you are revising there are a number of guidelines to keep in mind when writing for non specialists. Here is a brief listing, with details for each linked below.



1. Be clear and concise. Fewer words are almost always better and more communicative.

2. Use active voice. Passive voice almost always requires more words which reduces clarity.

3. Limit the use of technical terms and symbols. Use only those that are absolutely necessary. Clearly define for a lay person those that you must use. Avoid all acronyms except those you will use frequently, and define those clearly the first time you use them.

4. Avoid gratuitous colloquialisms and slang.

5. Make sure to clearly spell out the logic behind your reasoning. Don’t make the reader try to decipher how a conclusion was reached.

6. Do use analogies, which are comparisons between two things that bring out similarities or creates striking images in the reader's mind. These are powerful tools by which specific properties of a more familiar object are compared to those of a less familiar object in order to make the latter more comprehensible to your audience.

7. Read your text out loud, as though you were speaking with your next-door neighbor. If you come to unpronounceable symbols or to sentences too long to read in one breath, revise them to be easily spoken.

While writing for non-specialists, you still must be truthful and precise in your language. Nevertheless, you are free to spread your wings stylistically. You may use metaphors, intense and descriptive language, elaborate analogies, and qualitative adjectives. You may become eloquent in describing a subject and go far afield in providing a context for understanding its importance. You can paint the big picture, argue for a position, and still make an important contribution to knowledge and to the institution of science as well as to the public good.

Almost as important as the opening of your chapter is its conclusion. You want to leave the reader with the feeling that the story is satisfying and complete. There are a number of types of conclusions. A common technique is to provide a summary of the story. Another is to broaden the scope and point to what may develop in the future from the work that you’ve described. A third is to wax poetic or to turn dramatic or to become visionary with vivid descriptions of a scene developed from aspects of your story. The goal is to leave the readers feeling glad that they read about your work.


HOW TO START
When beginning to consider how you might communicate your work to a general audience, you may want to employ the standard five W’s:
Who, What, When, Where, and Why. These are a summary of the five basic questions that a good report should answer:

 


Who did it?
What happened?
When did it occur?
Where did it take place?
Why did it happen?

Sometimes a fifth question is added to this set:
How did it happen?

In a technical scientific report, such as the bulk of your dissertation, some of these questions are paramount, while others are almost insignificant. You probably devoted little space in your dissertation to describing the location where you worked or the people with whom you worked beyond naming them. On the other hand, you very likely devoted the bulk of the dissertation to describing what happened and why or how it happened.

In communicating with a general audience, you need to change the balance somewhat. A general audience will be quite interested in the people involved, especially you and those you worked with. It can also help to generate interest in the more technical aspects of your work to describe the setting in which you worked. In this chapter, you will be describing a human story about people in a particular setting who are working together on a particular problem trying to answer questions of human interest.

The “when” question is at the heart of a good story. Stories unfold over a span of time, with a beginning, middle, and end. The temporal aspect of a story can serve as a framework on which to hang the logical elements. Over the course of your work, you followed leads, some of which may have been fruitless, while others were productive. Putting these leads into a temporal sequence can help to clarify their logical connections and portray progress to discovery.


Should you prepare an outline?

The advice given to novice writers often incudes a recommendation to prepare on outline before beginning. An outline can serve a number of functions. The most useful of these is that it will contain all of the major points you want to include and serve as a reminder to incorporate them. An outline can also be a hindrance if you spend a lot of time creating it, or if you find yourself tied to it and cannot express your ideas clearly as they develop. Often as you tell a story, you discover better ways to express it, new ways to organize it, and new features to include. If you are bound to an outline, you may not be able to utilize these new ideas. Therefore, if you do prepare an outline, keep it simple and sketchy, and remain open to modifying it as you progress. You may not need an outline at all. The most important part of writing is assembling words together. At the first pass, they do not need to be well organized or complete. Once you have a collection of words, you can re-organize them and add to them in the process of revision.

REVISING

Take a break between writing and revising. Do something else for a while to take your mind off what you’ve been writing. Getting away from writing will help to give you the distance you need to properly assess what needs to be changed and what can stay as it is.

BE CLEAR AND CONCISE.
Fewer words are almost always better and more communicative.

When revising, pay special attention to those passages that you struggled to produce. If you had trouble putting your ideas into words, chances are you used more words than necessary. These superfluous words are analogous to the “um” and “you know” that people often say while they are looking for their next words. Don’t worry about being wordy while you’re writing. This wordiness can be alleviated when you revise.

While you’re revising, you may discover your own particular forms of wordiness. We all have certain turns of phrase that come easily to us. However, these phrases can become distracting to a reader when they appear regularly in the text. Be sensitive to your own quirks.

What follows are some common examples of wordiness. Look out for these in your own writing and condense them where appropriate.


Omit filler phrases.
The phrases “It is” or “There are” at the beginning of a sentence hinder communication by delaying the true subject and action of the sentence. These sentences can almost always be shortened and made more direct by rephrasing them without the opening phrases.

WORDY:
It is difficult to measure the ultraviolet spectrum without affecting the sample.

CONCISE:
Measuring the ultraviolet spectrum without affecting the sample is difficult.



Rather than using “This” at the beginning of a sentence, combine that sentence with its predecessor.  

WORDY:
Chlorofluorocarbons have been banned from aerosols. This has reduced the depletion of the ozone layer.

CONCISE:
Chlorofluorocarbons have been banned from aerosols, reducing the depletion of the ozone layer.




Omit phrases beginning with "which" or "that" when possible.

WORDY:
The product, which was brown and viscous, collected at the bottom of the flask.

CONCISE:
The brown and viscous product collected at the bottom of the flask.


 

Change "is" or "was" when they occur alone to an active verb.

WORDY:
A colored compound is needed to absorb some of the visible light.

CONCISE:
A colored compound absorbs some of the visible light.


 

Replace "is," "are," "was," "were," or "have” used with an -ing word to a simple present
or past tense verb.

WORDY:
The chiral compound was changing into a mixture of isomers.

CONCISE:
The chiral compound changed into a mixture of isomers.


 

Use active verbs in place of verb-derived nouns that end with "-tion" and "-sion" words
whenever possible.

WORDY:
I submitted an application for the job.

CONCISE:
I applied for the job.


 

Combine two closely related short sentences into one by omitting part of one.

WORDY:
The product contained a mixture of compounds. Some of these compounds were colored.

CONCISE:
The product contained a mixture of compounds, some of which were colored.


 

Avoid nominalizations, that is, nouns that convey the action in a sentence. Readers expect the action to be in the verb, and when it isn’t, the reader must slow down and figure out what the action is.

WORDY:
We performed an analysis of the data. (The noun “analysis” contains the action.)

CONCISE:
We analyzed the data.


 

Place the actor, the person or object that performs the action in a sentence, as the subject of the sentence.

WORDY:
The data needed to clarify the problem can be obtained using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

CONCISE:
Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy provides the data needed to clarify the problem.


USE ACTIVE VOICE.
Passive voice almost always required more words which reduces clarity.

The verb in a sentence can be either active or passive in voice. In the active voice, the action that the verb denotes is performed by the subject of the sentence. The following sentence contains a verb in the active voice.

 



The committee approved the minutes of the last meeting.
The committee is the subject, and it is what performed the approval. In the passive voice the action denoted by the verb is performed on the subject rather than by the subject. The following sentence conveys similar information, but with a verb in the passive voice.

The minutes of the last meeting were approved by the committee.
In this sentence the subject, minutes, is the recipient of the action of approval. As is usually the case, the passive voice here requires more words than active voice.


Passive Voice in Scientific Writing
Scientists use passive voice to make their writing seem objective or simply out of habit. Scientists have not always written in passive voice. First-person pronouns such as I and we began to disappear from scientific writing in the United States in the 1920s when active voice was replaced by today's impersonal and often dull style of scientific writing.

Although active voice is generally shorter and clearer, passive voice also has its uses. One of the problems with passive voice is that it is actually more difficult to use clearly than active voice. Even though most of their writing uses the passive voice, scientists frequently do not use it well.

Some of the advantages and disadvantages of both active and passive voice are described below:

Length
Active voice is shorter than passive voice (usually only slightly). If you can write more concisely, you should. Using more words than necessary impedes communication.

Dangling modifiers
Passive voice seems to encourage the use of dangling modifiers, that is, a word or phrase whose implicit subject is not the same as the explicit subject in the sentence. For example, the following sentence contains a dangling modifier:

 

When making a soufflé, only the freshest eggs should be used.
The dangling modifier is “When making a soufflé.” The implicit subject of this phrase is the cook who is making a soufflé. However, the explicit subject of the sentence is “eggs.” The implicit and explicit subjects are different. Although in this case it is quite clear that the eggs are not making a soufflé by themselves, it is quite easy for a dangling modifier to lead to a misunderstanding.

Having misinterpreted the results, the sample was discarded.
In this case, it’s clear that the sample is not who misinterpreted the results, but who did is completely unclear. A lack of grammatical exactness can lead to scientific inexactness. It is quite possible to use passive voice and avoid dangling modifiers, but it takes care and discipline.


Passive voice can lead to ambiguous actors
One of the key problems with passive voice is that it easily results in actor ambiguity, that is, the producer of the action in the sentence may not be clear.

  The chromophore was reduced in solution.
Who or what caused the chromophore to be reduced is not clear. Was it the scientist, or an apparatus, or a substance? Further context may clarify the issue, but using the active voice to convey this information would immediately answer the question. It may be that the actor is completely obvious, in which case passive voice is unambiguous. However, in many cases, the identity of the actor is not easy to determine, and if you leave out the actor, your reader may get it wrong.

Passive voice encourages nominalization
A major problem with passive is that it makes it easier to overuse nominalizations. A nominalization is the use as a noun a word derived from a verb. Examples of verbs and their nominalized forms include analyze/analysis, regulate/regulation, understand/understanding, and perform/performance. While nominalizations can be useful at times, their repeated use leads to wordy, dull, and confusing language.

Because scientific writing is supposed to reflect the presumed objective and impersonal nature of science, an active-voice sentence such as the following would likely not be used.

 

We further analyzed the product using mass spectrometry.
It is more likely to be stated in the passive voice.

The product was further analyzed using mass spectrometry.
The passive voice allows, even encourages, further depersonalization by allowing the nominalization of the verb.

The product was subjected to further analysis by mass spectrometry.
Through the transfer of the action, analyze, to a noun, analysis, the actors (we) become further removed from the action, in what seems a more objective and impersonal statement. It is also a more wordy and less direct statement. The ease with which nominalization occurs in the passive voice can be discerned by comparing the last version above with its active-voice counterpart.

We subjected the product to further analysis by mass spectrometry.
The excess verbiage, subjected, is more obvious in the active-voice than in the passive voice. It is almost comical to imagine how the actor in this sentence (we) performed the action (subjected).


Passive voice allows switching the order of subject and object
This is an argument in favor of using the passive voice. Sometimes a writer may want to emphasize the object of an action rather than the actor. What comes first in a sentence is emphasized over what comes later, simply by coming first. When a writer wants to emphasize the recipient of the action by placing it first in the sentence, passive voice will accomplish this.

  Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons absorb ultraviolet radiation.
Ultraviolet radiation is absorbed by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Which of these sentences is better depends on where the emphasis lies in the surrounding context. If the context deals mainly with ultraviolet radiation, then the passive version may be a better fit. Thus, the passive voice is a tool that allows the writer control over the structure of sentences.

Conclusion
The best thing to do is use a mix of the active and passive voice. Use passive when necessary to maintain cohesion. When you do, make sure the actor is not ambiguous, be careful to check for dangling modifiers, and avoid excessive nominalizations. Make sure your use of passive sentences is intentional rather than habitual. More important than the active vs. passive debate is the structure of your writing. Make your writing flow, connecting one sentence to the next, and it will be understandable.


LIMIT THE USE OF TECHNICAL TERMS AND SYMBOLS.
Use only those that are absolutely necessary. Clearly define for a lay person those that you must use. Avoid all acronyms except those you will use frequently, and define those clearly the first time you use them.

Technical terms are essential in communicating scientific information between scientists. These terms have precise meanings understood by scientists, and their use makes communication precise and efficient. However, these technical terms do not carry their precise meanings to the lay reader. When its meaning is not understood, a technical term is more a hindrance than a help to communication. At best, an unfamiliar term will drive a reader to a dictionary, which may not contain the most up-to-date meaning for the term, or may offer several options, from which the reader has no means to choose. At worst, the reader may assume an entirely incorrect meaning based on a misunderstanding, which only deepens the misunderstanding.

The use of technical terms in communicating with general readers should be limited. A profusion of technical terms can come across as jargon, which may give the appearance of intentional obscurity. Even a conscientious reader, who makes a serious effort to learn the meanings of technical terms, can be frustrated when trying to learn a multitude of such terms in a short time. On the other hand, the use of a few, well-chosen technical terms is beneficial. It communicates to the reader that the work being described is significant beyond the everyday. It also gives the impression that you are serious about bringing the reader into your world of innovative ideas. Balance is the key – neither a profusion nor an absence of technical terms is desirable.

What applies to technical terms applies as well to acronyms, the sequences of letters composed of the first letters of a series of words. Acronyms are common in everyday communications in our modern and technical world, so readers will be accustomed to seeing them.

  FBI = Federal Bureau of Investigation
MRI = Magnetic Resonance Imaging
ATM = Automated Teller Machine
PIN = Personal Identification Number
HDMI = High Definition Multimedia Interface

However, just because an acronym is in common usage does not indicate that what it stands for is commonly understood (consider the last in the list above). Common usage of some acronyms reveals that what they stand for is not appreciated, as in the commonly encountered phrases “PIN number” and “ATM machine.”

If you find that you will be using a complicated phrase multiple times and that there is an established acronym for it, then certainly do use it. Once its meaning is understood, an acronym can reduce wordiness and increase readability. However, use of a multitude of acronyms is more efficient at obscuring meaning than in conveying it (remember the PIN number and the ATM machine!). If you find yourself using several multi-word phrases and would like to use acronyms instead, perhaps you should examine whether you really ought be using those multi-word phrases in the first place.

AVOID GRATUITOUS COLLOQUIALISMS AND SLANG.

This guideline is the flipside of the previous one. Just as a heavy dose of obscure technical terminology can be off-putting, so can a profusion of slang and colloquialisms.

A colloquialism is an expression that is commonly used in casual speech, but seldom in serious writing. There are very many colloquialisms in common usage, and a small sample are listed here.

  “get rid of” to mean “remove” or “eliminate”
“incredible amount” to mean an “extreme amount”
“a bunch of” to mean “a large group of”
“lots” to mean “many”

One of the major problems with using colloquialisms in writing is that colloquialisms tend to be regional. Some colloquialisms that have a particular meaning in one region of English speakers may in another region have a different meaning or not be understood at all.

Slang is a type of expression even more informal than a colloquialism, often having somewhat rude undertones. Slang is frequently as regional as colloquialisms, and even more fleeting in usage. Slang quickly becomes dated.

Frequent use of colloquialisms tends to reduce the apparent importance of your communication. It will make it appear that you do not take your own work seriously. However, using some colloquialisms and even slang can make your description less formidable or daunting. Balance is the key.


MAKE SURE TO CLEARLY SPELL OUT THE LOGIC BEHIND YOUR REASONING.
Don't make the reader try to decipher how a conclusion was reached.

This should generally apply to your entire dissertation. However, your technical expert readers will not need as thorough a description of your reasoning as your general readers. General readers do not have the background to follow the same reasoning path that is clear to expert readers. A danger for the reader, when the reasoning is not clear, is that the reader may fill in the gaps with improvised reasoning. This improvised reasoning may be wrong, and then can lead the reader astray when applied in other cases, both in your writing and when the reader encounters a similar topic in other publications.


DO USE ANALOGIES, WHICH ARE COMPARISONS BETWEEN TWO THINGS THAT BRING OUT SIMILARITIES OR CREATES STRIKING IMAGES IN THE READER'S MIND.
These are powerful tools by which specific properties of a more familiar object are compared to those of a less familiar object in order to make the latter more comprehensible to your audience.

Analogies are the life-blood of scientific explanation and communication. That this is the case may not be obvious in what is called “settled science.” This is the scientific knowledge that is no longer questioned, that forms the context into which new knowledge is placed. Much of the scientific knowledge on which your research depends falls into this category. Nevertheless, when this settled science was first discovered, it was done so using analogies. Those analogies that proved fruitful now provide much of the terminology and the structure of settled science. The chirality (“handedness” in Greek) of molecules is ultimately an analogy. The cell “wall” is an analogy. These and many others have provided a language and a theoretical framework so productive that it can obscure their origins as analogies.

Just as analogies are useful to working scientists trying to understand the world, they are useful to the general public in trying to understand science. In helping your general reader to understand what your work is about, then, you may need to develop analogies for analogies. In a way, this is re-imagining your work from a different perspective and in a different language. It is like doing your scientific work all over again, and this can be difficult. Inventing good analogies is challenging, requiring creativity, sensitivity, and imagination. It is working “outside the box,” which is an analogy for making analogies.  

READ YOUR TEXT OUT LOUD, AS THOUGH YOU WERE SPEAKING WITH YOUR NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR.
If you come to unpronounceable symbols or to sentences too long to read in one breath, revise them to be easily spoken.

This bit of advice is specific to your chapter for the general public. It certainly does not apply to the rest of your dissertation. The information communicated in the bulk of your dissertation is so advanced in nature that it is necessary to use symbols and sentence structures too complex to be comprehended when spoken. Written language is not generally interchangeable with spoken language. We are able to comprehend written sentences that are much too intricate to be understood when heard. When reading, we can slow down and even pause to let meaning develop, something we can’t do when listening to a speaker. Similarly, much of what we communicate through speech would be so rambling and repetitive as to be overwhelmingly tedious when read from a printed page.

Reading your text out loud can serve several purposes. It will help you to weed out overly complex sentences. Communicating technical information to a general audience is most effective when the information is transmitted in bits small enough to comprehend quickly. If your text does this when read out loud, ideally to a non-specialist, you can be assured that it will do so when it is read from the page.


SOME EXAMPLES

Do not allow the preceding descriptions of how to create a chapter for the general reader to limit what you do. These descriptions are intended to help you get going, not to determine the outcome. The kinds of chapter you can prepare are unlimited, and there are no length requirements. Communication takes an immense number of forms, and many of these are suitable for communicating the research work you did toward your degree. Below are sections from several chapters that others have already prepared. They show a wide variety of forms, from standard text, to interview format, to graphic novel. Let them inspire you creatively to develop your own style of communication.

Erin Boyle

Thesis Title:
New Mixed Vibrational-Electronic Methods in Fully Coherent Multidimensional Spectroscopy:
Progress Toward Metal Active Site Characterization

Excerpt:
"Quantum mechanics: it’s not all Schrodinger cats

For most people, the term quantum mechanics (QM) conjures up an image of the popularized half-dead, half-alive cat, and all of its philosophical implications. But while those concepts are interesting, they actually constitute an extremely small part of what QM teaches us about the world – the rest is actually quite practical and well-defined! The field of QM seeks to describe how matter behaves, much like classical mechanics did before it. You may remember considering problems like billiard balls colliding or objects falling from the sky in an elementary physics course. Equations described their interaction in terms of mass, velocity, and so on. The key variable in these problems was energy (remember? kinetic? potential?), and the reason for this is the all-important thermodynamic Law of Conservation of Energy. If energy is conserved, it’s basically the best choice for describing how something is.

Classical mechanics works great for large things. But around the turn of the 20th century, things got tricky when scientists discovered that not just light, but actually all matter, has a wave-like nature on a microscopic scale. Quantum mechanics acts as a patch on classical mechanics where this wave-like nature is accounted for, which is important whenever some part of the problem you’re considering is small enough to have important wave properties (like light and electrons). Variables like momentum could then no longer be described as a product of mass and velocity, but needed a wave-like formalism."

Read more


Amber Jain

Thesis Title:
Timescales of Large Amplitude Motion — Classical and Quantum Considerations

Excerpt:
"Q. Can you summarize your thesis as if you are describing it your grandmother?
Wow, that’s exactly the question asked to me in my visa interview. My thesis comprises two projects. First, I study a phenomenon found in nature called tunneling. It is so bizarre that we do not have any direct physical experience of it. Imagine hitting a baseball with a bat, and imagine a full head-on collision. Well the ball will bounce back from the bat, right? Almost always! It turns out that if you follow the laws of quantum mechanics, a theory developed in the last century, there exists a very, very small probability that the ball will pass right through the bat. These probabilities are much larger at atomic scales.

Q. How does your research affect society?
All applications originate from a better understanding of how nature works. Galileo’s thorough study of celestial motion became the precursor to the Newtonian mechanics, which has a vast range of applications. My work adds to our understanding of tunneling and energy flow in molecules, both of which are relevant to society. For example, based on the methods presented in this thesis on tunneling, more simulations and better experiments can be designed to develop medicines to fight tumors. Similarly, with a better understanding of energy flow, we can control the flow of energy. In doing so, we can manipulate reactions to our advantage – for example we can use this research to improve solar cells by increasing the fraction of the sunlight energy that converts into chemical and electrical energy."

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Veronica Berns

Thesis Title:
Chemical Pressure and Its Applications to the Tsai-Type Quasicrystal

Excerpt:

Comic Intro
Page Seven Page Eight Page Twelve


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