Today, on the 50th anniversary of the first human moon landing, I’d like to state how important it is to clearly convey our science to the general public. One way to do that is, with your next manuscript submission to JGR Space Physics (or any other AGU journal), to include a Plain Language Summary. These have been around now for about 3 years and I have written before about how to craft a good one. Today, being a significant anniversary of a momentous space event, is an excellent time to revisit this topic of how well we communicate space physics to people beyond our scientific niche.
From my notes from the EiC meeting last March, Jenny Lunn, one of the Directors of Publications for AGU, gave a presentation that included a concise listing of the elements of a good PLS:
- Understandable to non-specialist
- Free of unexplained scientific jargon
- Narrative that sets the scene for the research
- Concise explanation of the article’s main aims and results
- Discussion of the broader relevance of the findings
A big concept that summarizes these points: do not simply change a few words in your technical Abstract and paste that into the PLS text box at AGU’s GEMS site for manuscript submissions. This might actually do more harm than good.
This process of science communication to non-specialists is not an easy task for most space scientists. We are not trained to write this way. Instead, we have been trained to do the exact opposite of the first two bullet points. As we work towards brevity in our manuscript prose, we intentionally include jargon, which, by definition, is a shortcut word for something that researchers in the field would already understand. We often skip the longer definitions of the field’s common terms, and sometimes even have reviewers or editors telling us to remove verbose definitions. Writing for the non-specialist is systematically pounded out of us as we publish more scholarly articles.
It takes significant effort to rework our research article into something understandable for someone that might have had one physics or chemistry class in high school. And it takes practice, too. Do not be discouraged if your first attempt is not that good. Keep reworking it. This is definitely a skill that can be learned.
AGU has resources for you. One is their Sharing Science page, where there are many resources, such as a page on writing a PLS, another on avoiding jargon, advice for devising a good elevator pitch, and a science communication tips&tools PDF. On avoiding jargon, a question they prompt for us: would a ninth grader understand you? That’s hard to do with ultra-low-frequency pulsations of the Earth’s magnetosphere, or counterstreaming Alfvén waves in the solar corona, or the thermospheric quasi-six-day-wave. Your PLS needs a good introduction, yet it is mandated to be shorter than your regular Abstract (200 words for the PLS, instead of 250 for the Abstract).
At the same time, don’t overstate your findings in the PLS. It’s okay to state that “this study addresses a small part of this bigger picture.” Claiming that every paper is “a fundamental advancement of profound impact” will give the public discovery fatigue. I encourage you to write a PLS with every paper, but not all PLSes need to worded as a breakthrough moment for the field. Do it when it is appropriate, but save it for those times, and use less haughty wording for your other papers.
Finally, I’d like to say that takes a sustained and concerted effort to be good at conveying space science to the general public. So, start with the small stuff, like a PLS, that can be rewritten, revised, and honed as much as you need before it is released. The more you do it, the better you will become at it. The more of us that do it, the better we as a research community become at raising awareness of our field to the general public. And today is a great day to remember that most people love outer space and that our work has a pretty high “cool” factor in most people’s minds.