‘Poor writing makes for poor science’: Scott Montgomery publishes new edition of popular ‘Guide to Communicating Science’

Scientific research that doesn’t get communicated to the public may as well not have happened at all, says Scott Montgomery in his new book, a second edition of 2001’s “The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science.”

“There are no boundaries, no walls, between the doing of science and the communicating of it,” writes Montgomery, a lecturer in the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies. “Communicating is the doing of science. Publication and public speaking are how scientific work gains a presence, a shared reality in the world.”

Montgomery answered a few questions about the new edition.

This is, you write, “a book of advice, not rules; guidance, not demands. It is my experience, from years of publication and teaching.” Who is the audience for this book — who can be most helped by it?

SM: I actually had a number of audiences in mind. Grad students, professional researchers at any stage in their careers, scientists with English as a nonnative language, science translators, and also teachers of scientific writing. There are techniques and advice for scientific authors and speakers at every level, from the graduate thesis to grant proposals, scientific papers, letters to the editor, even blog posts and tweets.

I’ve included material on the realities and ethics of scientific publishing, including forms of misconduct, that are probably essential for all professionals. But I also discuss areas that have been growing in importance recently, like forms of open-access, use of social media and how to handle controversial subjects in public settings. There’s significant space devoted to dealing with the media and how to communicate effectively for nonscientific audiences. As the scientific community knows all too well, speaking truth to general audiences has never been more important and necessary.

What’s new in this second edition of “Communicating Science”?

SM: Given the realities of science today, I needed to treat several new topics, plus some previous ones in new ways. Altogether, there are six new chapters, seven if you count a total re-write of the chapter about online science (the first edition came out in 2001, when many journals were still trying to decide if they’d ever go digital).

The new chapters are about how to produce a graduate thesis; the different knowledge sectors (academia, industry, government, nongovernmental organizations, etc.) where scientific communication occurs; plagiarism and authorial misconduct; translating scientific material; communicating with the public; and how to be a responsible source for the media.

“To borrow is to steal,” you write in a chapter that cautions scientific writers to resist all forms of plagiarism. “Using the work of others as a model is one thing; embezzling it is something quite different.” Where is the line between those two, in your view?

Scott L. Montgomery

Scott L. Montgomery

S.M.: T.S. Eliot wrote that immature artists borrow, mature poets steal. Doubtless, he wasn’t the first to say this. He didn’t mean it literally, of course, but rather as an acknowledgement of interpersonal inspiration.

Authors of any kind, when they find a piece of writing they admire, may study and emulate it by adopting its form — sentence structures and length, transitions, overall style, other rhetorical elements — while changing the subject and the words. In science, the data, facts and interpretations must be changed too. Drawing the line, however, can be tricky.

Today’s anti-plagiarism software has been known to make this line very sharp indeed, searching for the repetition of only six or seven words as evidence of theft. Such is extreme and wasteful; there are many phrases of this length that can be repeated innocently in science — for example, in my own field (geoscience), the words “collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates” has probably been used hundreds of times in papers dealing with the Himalayan Mountains. For the purposes of irony, we could even point to a phrase like “plagiarism is defined as the verbatim copying of…” as something that has been repeated in many places.

So drawing the line too sharply will be counterproductive. As a crude rule, copying more than, say, 20 percent of the original language is no longer borrowing. But even here, as the “collision” example just given suggests, this may be wrong. If just one or two sentences are involved, the accusation of plagiarism probably isn’t justified, unless a key idea or interpretation is included with no attribution. Repeated use throughout a paper of another author’s language, particularly if such “reuse” goes beyond technical terminology, strongly suggests an act of larceny.

The point here is that examples are crucial for getting a sense of when emulation crosses over into appropriation. I provide several that should help.

You include a chapter for researchers for whom English is a second language. Briefly, what is your message?

S.M.: The most basic message is that communicating should be understood as part of research, not separate from it. Yet learning to communicate research in a foreign language requires much study, practice and patience. With writing, it cannot be done by a focus on grammar; this is a very common and unfortunate error — common, because grammar is still the core subject of English language teaching in many countries. The chapter provides a series of approaches based on the use of model research papers and other publications. The topic as a whole has a huge potential audience, in fact, since English is now the global language of science and there are already many more nonnative speakers in the sciences than Anglophones.

How might this book and works like it help reduce inexact or incorrect reporting of science in the press?  Or even battle what is now being called “fake news”?

S.M.: Teaching in the Jackson School and writing often about energy, I’ve been interviewed fairly regularly in recent years and have also spoken with researchers whose work has been covered in the media much more than my own.

It’s clear that scientists need to be prepared before speaking with media people to ensure the research involved and related issues are handled well. Problems have not been the fault of reporters alone; far from it. Scientists need to understand how the media works, what are its goals, its pressures, its constraints. My book and some other works treat this is detail, offering much that should be helpful about the interview process, what to expect, how to control or guide the message, what kinds of statements to avoid, and much else.

Just as there is “fake news,” there is “fake science” as a subset. I talk about this, too, and provide some charged examples as well. There has been much of this regarding climate change for well over a decade now, but it is also far older than that, as those in such fields as fetal research, nuclear energy and genetically modified organisms well know. Fake science cannot be obliterated, but it can be effectively challenged, using an array of legitimate popular science journals now online, as well as social media.

I would say, in fact, that any truly useful book on science communication today needs to deal with all of these situations. The internet has changed science mostly for the better, but not entirely.

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