Why we should help people understand our scientific literature Most leading journals established their identities decades ago. Since then, the role of science in society has gradually changed from a pure academic pursuit to an endeavor that is much closer to mainstream, a result of mainline and social media. Should the authors who publish in Conservation Biology strive to make their papers more understandable by non-specialists? People ask scientists to contribute to debates about law, economic policy, health practices, education and, of course, the environment. Most of these scientists developed their careers during the 20th century. Now, in the 21st century, everyone has faster access to information, and people clamor for answers. The demand for answers is reinforced in conservation biology because in crisis disciplines scientists feel the need to disseminate their results as quickly and effectively as possible. Unfortunately, too often, the language of science stands in the way of effective communication. There is an argument that this circumstance is the fault of scientists who were not trained to talk to the public, much less explain their work in terms everyone can relate to. Why do we need to reach out to a wider audience? In other crisis disciplines such as engineering safety or epidemiology, the need for the work is selfevident. When this science is disseminated, human lives are saved. Conservation biologists have a more difficult task. Most conservation biologists have been asked by the people for whom they work so hard to protect biodiversity, along with the public and decision-makers: why do we need to do this and what is the value in protecting this species or piece of habitat? Among scientific colleagues, we would, for example, respond with talk about the food web, the microbial community and its role in supporting the surrounding habitat, or the persistence of the herpetofauna populations. For people who do not share our views and training in natural history and ecology, we must explain the significance of the biodiversity at hand in the broader context of nature and evolution. We must describe the notions of cumulative impact, intergenerational equity, and the long time scales of ecological processes without preaching. Our explanations have to satisfy stakeholders to the extent that they understand the potential consequences so that if a development or improvement plan or proposed policy is rejected, the process makes sense to them. The pages of
this journal provide ample evidence that if stakeholders do not understand and support conservation decision processes and the role of science in them, they will resort to litigation and other means to achieve outcomes they believe are legitimate. There is a groundswell in the publishing world to provide interpretive guidance in conjunction with scientific articles (Lupia 2013; Besley 2015). There is increasing momentum among U.S. and European governments to require public access to publicly funded research (Arzberger et al. 2004; Howard 2012; Suber 2012). Such policies may aid the dissemination of science, but the situation will not improve if the public cannot read our work. The most pressing need is to devise methods to elucidate research results that contribute to specific, pressing public issues. Happily, such methods are available and have been for some time (e.g., Lanham 1974, 1992). There will be challenges. Scientific conventions run deep, and it will be difficult to have work written in plain language published in many science journals. Let us hope Conservation Biology will accommodate it. It would not be practical to annotate every scientific publication. Of course, selecting work that is most suitable for public consumption or is most urgently needed is difficult. However, I can illustrate the idea of effective communication with a discussion I was involved in about Long Island’s south shore estuary. We were seeking one word for the recovery of many marine species over the past four decades. John, the scientist, proposed calling this revival a renaissance or regeneration, but Lisa, the public school administrator, said restoration was a better term. John and I immediately pointed out that restoration is too heavily debated among ecologists because it is unclear how far back in time one must go and what the target time frame is, a truly important academic debate. But Lisa said, “The public can wrap themselves around the term restoration, it makes them feel good.” We must continually ask ourselves to whom are we talking and how can we reach our goals most effectively. In conservation biology, perhaps more than any other scientific discipline, professionals should be open to simplifying their scientific language so their work is generally accessible. And, they should arm themselves with 973 Conservation Biology, Volume 29, No. 4, 973–974 C 2015 Society for Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12543
communication skills so that they can provide short explanations of complex issues that will resonate with the public and decision makers. Instead of debating whether we should help people understand our work, let’s figure out how to help people understand. R. W. Abrams Dur Associates, Inc., 40 Hitching Post Lane, Glen Cove, New York, 11542, U.S.A. email [email protected]
Literature Cited Arzberger P, Schroeder P, Beaulieu A, Bowker G, Casey K, Laaksonen L, Moorman D, Uhlir P, Wouters P. 2004. Promoting access to public
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research data for scientific, economic, and social development. Data Science Journal 29:135. Besley JC. 2015. What do scientists think about the public and does it matter to their online engagement? Science and Public Policy 42:201–214. Howard J. 2012. Legislation to bar public-access requirement on federal research is dead. The Chronicle of Higher Education 27 February: http://chronicle.com/article/Legislation-to-Bar/130949/. Lanham RA. 1974. Style: an anti-textbook. Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia. Lanham RA. 1992. Revising prose. Simon and Schuster, Concord, Massachusetts. Lupia A. 2013. Communicating science in politicized environments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(Suppl. 3):14048–14054. Suber P. 2012. Ensuring open access for publicly funded research. The BMJ DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e5184.