Thursday, 13 March 2014 08:38

Vote the People’s Choice for Science in Plain English

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typewriterGrad students and postdocs were challenged
to turn a bioscience paper into a story that
ordinary people, even relatives, could follow.
Photo by John Fleischman
It's Thanksgiving. You're home from grad school and lab where you're fired up about cytoplasmic accumulation and nuclear clearance of TDP-43, a protein implicated in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, when Aunt Carol passes you the candied sweet potatoes and sweetly asks, "Now, dear, what is it that you are doing in your research?" You take a deep breath and begin, "So..." About a minute later, you're explaining how to knock out the TDP-43 analog in fruit flies when a look of horror crosses Aunt Carol's face. "Flies? Your laboratory is full of flies?"

"But it's involved in Lou Gehrig's disease," you blurt out. But it's too late. At meal's end, you're staring moodily at your pumpkin pie and thinking, "I could have done that better."

Your Aunt Carol still loves you but her reaction is all too familiar to other young scientists who know how difficult it is to translate science into plain English for ordinary people. That was the challenge set in the Access to Understanding 2014 Science Writing Contest run by Europe PubMed Central in cooperation with the British Library. The contest was only open to biomedical and life science graduate students and postdocs with no more than six postgraduate years of experience. The organizers posted 10 recent scientific papers and asked entrants to make one of them understandable in no more than 800 words (including the title) to a general reader. In typically British style, the prize was materially moderate (an iPad) but intellectually distinguished (the winning story will be published in the new open-access journal, eLife).

The contest opened November 12 and closed December 10, attracting 260 entries from 16 countries, although 80% were submitted from the UK. Given the typical deadline habits of biomedical researchers, 69% of the entries arrived in the last 24 hours and 20% in the last hour. The entries were sorted into 10 stacks, one stack per scientific paper. A distinguished panel of judges read them all, picking one story from each stack for the shortlist. They've already made their final choices but the world won't know until March 24 during a special awards ceremony at the British Library in London.

Which is where you come into it. Even though you've blown the 2014 deadline for submission, interested young cell biologists (and anyone else including Aunt Carol) can read all 10 and vote for the People's Choice. The People's Choice voting is set to close at noon (GMT) on March 24.

Meantime young scientists yearning to write for ordinary people should take the opportunity to read all 10 shortlisted entries and then all 10 original papers. Then ask yourself, how would I have done this? Once you've mastered that, you'll be ready for Access to Understanding 2015 and for Thanksgiving.

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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