Scicomm by scientists

Warning: profanity

There are scientists who don’t want other scientists to communicate their work to the masses. There are scientists who want to but don’t have what they need to do it. And there are scientists who want to and are doing it. I love the last group. They are the best people to speak to when I want to learn something, and they are often eager to learn themselves.

However, this exact group of people seems to have a few members who have trouble believing that communicating (producing content/editing it) can be a specialised skill. That just because they have been expected to do it and are doing it, it requires nothing more than the will do so. This grates at me. And I used to think it ridiculous that this had to be spelled out. Now I think it is ridiculous that it has to be spelled out again and again.

It is valid to expect scientists to communicate science, to prod and nudge them to not restrict their actions to labs and to engage with the people who populate the world outside. This expectation comes with an acknowledgment that scientists will now be practising a craft that only those people who had trained to communicate used to, that scientists might even be better at conveying certain ideas than professional communicators have been.

But all the invitation, no matter how profuse, is not license to assume that you are now a consummate writer/editor. That just because you took the lateral route into communication, imagining it a two-part skill composed of topical knowledge and writing ability, and assuming you already have knowledge that we don’t have, and probably never will, and the will to communicate that we do, you are closer to the top of the pyramid than we are.

Just in the last two days, I have worked with no fewer than five scientists – two of whom I actually expected better from – assuming that I haven’t noticed grammatical imperfections in the copy but which they have, and – hey! – would like to let me know, too. How fucking sweet. Must have been those mistakes I was too dumb to notice after seven years doing nothing but edit science writing and – hey! – they’ve got my back after five hours on the job. How. Fucking. Sweet.

I think it is relevant to mention here that writing/editing ability has an unconventional learning curve. If it was a building with 10 floors, you would get to the eighth floor before you knew it, but to go from there to the ninth and tenth will take you many years, if not decades (depending on the competition, which is pretty steep considering the quality of writing available these days). And while the communicators’ view is only incrementally better than the scientists’, the former’s sensibilities are lightyears ahead. But who cares, eh?

The reason I’m putting this out here is to vent, and to ask you to please tell these people if you meet them that, in these moments of mansplaining (irrespective of gender), they are unqualified idiots. And if they want to know how to get better, please ask them to read more, like a lot more, and write a lot more! If they can’t, then ask them to trust the people who know something they don’t.

In sum: a) Scientists, please communicate more. b) I’m pissed right now about how I’m treated, but that said, if you treat me fairly, I promise you I will do the best I can to make your content shine. c) At no point is any part of this an exercise in self-effacement. We’d love to share space with you, scientists, but if you expect me to respect you, I damned well expect the same in return.

Featured image credit: ferdinand feng/Unsplash.

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