Scientists have been trained to do research and communicate their results to their peers in a highly formal, terminological language. Normally they are not skilled in describing their work in a way that an uninitiated reader can understand it and appreciate its significance or grasp its fascination. Journalists could easily do that, as they are specialists in communicating news to the general public in an everyday language. But when it comes to science, they also have difficulties understanding the researchers in the first place. So how should the gap between the two worlds be bridged?

The usual approach is that the journalist gains some insight into the science fields he covers, so that he is able to read scientific papers and catch their essence or speak to a scientist and follow his explanations. Then he does his best to translate what he thinks he has understood into something easily comprehensible and interesting to laymen.

But this approach bears risks. In most cases the journalist is not aware of all the details of his highly complicated subject and all the caveats that have to be heeded. In translating it from the scientific to the general language he therefore might introduce errors or oversimplify matters. As a result his report may be partly wrong or rather superficial, just stating some simple facts the reader has to believe without providing a deeper insight into the scientific background. Worse still, his story may go beyond the proved facts, since the journalist tends to streamline news in order to make them sound more interesting; in this process he may ignore details that seem irrelevant to him. The result may be statements that are not born out by the facts. This is, why scientists often complain about grossly exaggerated reports in the media.

An alternative approach that circumvents those risks is to let the scientist write himself and restrict the journalist’s role to assisting him by giving hints how to best structure the report or telling him where additional explanations are necessary. The journalist will rephrase the text to a large extent, eradicating scientific terminology, where possible, and improving its style and fluency. The scientist will check the result, and since the article will bear his name, he will be careful to make sure, that everything is correct. This may be an arduous process going through several rounds, and the journalist has to step back and be content with a mere supporting role (sort of ghostwriting). But the result is an authentic report the reader can rely on.

Since Spektrum largely employs this approach, my talk will focus on our experiences with it detailing its advantages, problems and limitations.

">
 [PCST]
PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Writing versus ghostwriting
On the best way of popularizing science

Gerhard Trageser   Spektrum der Wissenschaft

Scientists have been trained to do research and communicate their results to their peers in a highly formal, terminological language. Normally they are not skilled in describing their work in a way that an uninitiated reader can understand it and appreciate its significance or grasp its fascination. Journalists could easily do that, as they are specialists in communicating news to the general public in an everyday language. But when it comes to science, they also have difficulties understanding the researchers in the first place. So how should the gap between the two worlds be bridged?

The usual approach is that the journalist gains some insight into the science fields he covers, so that he is able to read scientific papers and catch their essence or speak to a scientist and follow his explanations. Then he does his best to translate what he thinks he has understood into something easily comprehensible and interesting to laymen.

But this approach bears risks. In most cases the journalist is not aware of all the details of his highly complicated subject and all the caveats that have to be heeded. In translating it from the scientific to the general language he therefore might introduce errors or oversimplify matters. As a result his report may be partly wrong or rather superficial, just stating some simple facts the reader has to believe without providing a deeper insight into the scientific background. Worse still, his story may go beyond the proved facts, since the journalist tends to streamline news in order to make them sound more interesting; in this process he may ignore details that seem irrelevant to him. The result may be statements that are not born out by the facts. This is, why scientists often complain about grossly exaggerated reports in the media.

An alternative approach that circumvents those risks is to let the scientist write himself and restrict the journalist’s role to assisting him by giving hints how to best structure the report or telling him where additional explanations are necessary. The journalist will rephrase the text to a large extent, eradicating scientific terminology, where possible, and improving its style and fluency. The scientist will check the result, and since the article will bear his name, he will be careful to make sure, that everything is correct. This may be an arduous process going through several rounds, and the journalist has to step back and be content with a mere supporting role (sort of ghostwriting). But the result is an authentic report the reader can rely on.

Since Spektrum largely employs this approach, my talk will focus on our experiences with it detailing its advantages, problems and limitations.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

BACK TO TOP