If you thought I was done open access, think again. The taunting of the journal impact factor beast in recent posts was necessary because it is blocking the path to free dissemination of the research literature and the omnivorous creature has somehow to be slain.
But thanks to an email I received this morning, I want to loop back to another aspect of open access that I wrote about in New Scientist: its potential, through broadening of the readership, to improve scientific writing. As a small test of the idea, I invited readers to have a look at my most recent open access paper on the structure of a key protein from a mouse virus. I felt we had made some effort to write plainly and wanted to see what people might make of it.
The email was from Mary Lush at Monash University in Australia who wrote to say that her students had taken up the challenge. I was glad they had done so, not least because even in the web-wired world we take so much for granted, it gave me a warm feeling to learn that my words were being dissected on the other side of the globe. The students made some interesting points which I have taken the liberty of posting below, along with my interleaved responses (in brown). You may want to have a quick look at the abstract and introduction to the paper to get a sense of the students’ comments.
I decided to take you at your word and get students to evaluate your article in PLoS ONE.
Background: These are all highly competent 2nd year science students but some have no biology. They are in the process of tackling primary articles. We spent part of a tute reading the New Scientist article and then looking at PLoS ONE.
1. On the proposition that articles can be written so that they are both a contribution to science and intelligible to a wide audience. Students thought this was an impossible task. They observed that it was hard to do without loss of precision.
That is an astute observation. I don’t think theres a realistic prospect of bending the scientific paper completely to two tasks, or two audiences. It’s primary function is for the dissemination of scientific ideas among experts. Though even here there is a challenge. Most people write for other scientists whom they presume to be expert in the same field. Such an approach may put off scientists from outside the immediate discipline (so closing down inter-disciplinary opportunities), never mind the general public.
However, I retain the hope that the move to open access will stimulate authors to think a bit harder about the possibility that they may have a wider audience than previously. Some judicious tweaking of vocabulary may therefore be beneficial (as discussed below). Also I would argue for the inclusion of a ‘lay summary’ in all papers.
2. Did the authors succeed? Students wondered how wide the audience was supposed to be. The students thought the introduction was much more comprehensible than the title and abstract. One or two thought that the introduction was as good as could be hoped and that with the aid of a dictionary (and time), something could be gleaned from it.
Nice to hear that the introduction was found useful. The abstract is difficult to pitch broadly because there is a severe restriction on the word count. One is trying to maximise the info content so the temptation to opt for space-saving jargon is irresistible. However, a lay summary might solve that and gain a few more eyeballs for the introduction.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea that readers should sometimes find they have to reach for a dictionary (much easier in this wired world).
3. Specific changes. The problem with the abstract and title is, for the wider audience, that they are very difficult and likely to put people off before they get to the better parts. One group reworded the title to ‘Structure of a mouse enzyme-product complex revealed by chance crystallisation’. The words ‘mouse’ and ‘chance’ were debated. ‘Mouse’ was not resolved. ‘Fortuitous’ might be preferable to ‘chance’.
OK ‘adventitious’ was maybe posing a little and ‘fortuitous’ would have been a better choice. The problem with the students’ re-working of my title is that it has changed the sense. The enzyme is not from a mouse but from a virus that infects mice (proper name: murine norovirus). That said ‘a mouse virus’ would have been too generic – there are many different viruses that can infect mice.
The students made valid points. I think we agree there are no easy answers to the problem of reaching expert and non-expert audiences; but the problem deserves attention and I hope will be more exposed by open access.
Curiously and coincidentally, a book review by Barton Swaim that also appeared today made me realise that if the drive to open access can break the hypnotic hold of journal impact factors, it could provide additional freedom for academics to write more creatively. The book, Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword, is a plea (and a guide) to authors seeking to escape the rigid protocols that bind too many of us.
Swaim describes current practice with brutal and disarming economy — “Academics don’t write to be read; they write to be published” — and goes on to identify the source of the problem:
Bad writing is (to use a once-fashionable term) institutionalised…
Supervisors typically preach stylistic caution […]; they want their students to demonstrate mastery of disciplinary norms, not to push against disciplinary boundaries. Editors and referees, likewise, are often more intent on self-cloning than on genuine innovation or empowerment. Peer-reviewed publications, meanwhile, offer a range of stylistic models that are at best unadventurous and at worst downright damaging…
How much of this poor writing practice is due to the rules of the impact factor game? How much freer would we feel if our main aim in writing was not to strain for a false measure of approval, but to tell the most interesting story?