Want people to read your science stories? Don’t forget the personal side

When Suganth Kannan showed up to present his mathematical model for earthquake prediction at Elsevier’s engineering conference in The Hague, the organizers were taken aback. He was just 12 years old.

After he published an article about his work in the related journal, I invited him to write about the experience for Elsevier Connect. It was one of our most popular stories.

As an editor, I have a front-row view on which stories people read, share and engage with the most. They often have common traits, so when I advise contributors, I keep these elements in mind. A key element is to “make it personal.”

There are many ways to do this depending on your topic, audience – and how much you want to reveal. And even if you prefer a more formal approach, there is a way to present your connection to your research that will help readers relate to it.

Often we begin the editorial process by brainstorming. Can you share something about yourself? Why are you writing this instead of someone else? What motivated you to do this research, or write this article? Do you have a unique perspective? Did you learn a lesson the hard way?

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Karina Pombo-García, PhD, performs in the finals at FameLab Germany 2014. In her 3-minute talk, she illustrated how nanoparticles reach cancer cells to diagnose tumors in patients. Previously, she was a Falling Walls Labs finalist.

Sometimes, all you need to do is write about your research in a straightforward way that shows your interest or enthusiasm.

Being able to communicate your science to a broad audience is becoming increasingly important. At some point, you will have to convince people to fund your research or to hire you to serve on a university faculty. Meanwhile, journal altmetrics that take web and social media engagement into account are gaining in popularity and impact. And there are even conferences and competitions for science communication. Last year, I watched in awe as early-careers researchers showed their skills in the annual Falling Walls Labs competition in Berlin, with just three minutes to present their research to judges in a wide array of disciplines. Sitting next to me was Dr. Karina Pombo-Garcia of Technische Universität Dresden, a former finalist who shares her enthusiasm for science writing in her story “Six ways scientists can become storytellers — and why they should.”

“Red is such a terrifying color”

In Suganth’s case, his earthquake research was extremely complex, so we decided to stick to a summary of his story while linking it to his journal article and audioslide. Meanwhile, I asked him to write about his journey to becoming a published author – including how it felt to get the acceptance letter – and to share what inspired him to get into earthquake prediction.

Still, I was skeptical about what would come of our conversation. After all, he was clearly gifted at writing for his peers, who were capable of understanding high-level mathematics, but could he write something that would resonate with the rest of us?

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In 2012, Suganth Kannan presented his research at the Fifth Annual Conference on Engineering Failure Analysis (ICEFA) in The Hague.

My fears were allayed when I received his first draft.

Early on, Suganth described the time he was in an earthquake at violin camp:

While we were at lunch, the table started shaking and all things around me began trembling, and I initially thought someone was vigorously pushing the table. Then a picture on the wall starting spinning, building alarms started ringing with loud noise.

He called it “a moment that was hard to swallow.”

Suganth went on to write about his angst in preparing and submitting his paper – something I think we can all relate to:

I wrote for days, read it, improved my writing and arrived at a draft copy and gave it to my mentor for his review. A week (after submitting it to the journal), I got all red marked-up pages. I almost gave up. Red is such a terrifying color, you know.

So when readers got to the part about the science behind his model, they were already engaged; they felt like they knew him. And those who had a deeper interest in his science had a place to go to learn more about it.

“A hair-brained idea”

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Prof. Temple Grandin visits Mark Deesing on his ranch. He is sitting on his horse Amy, a German warmblood show jumper. (Photo by Kelly Mozetta)

Mark Deesing is a horse trainer who fulfilled a long-time dream to do scientific research. And he got to do it with an icon: Dr. Temple Grandin, the famous animal behavior expert whose autism has helped her understand animals in a much deeper way that most people are able to.

From his years of experience, Mark had come up with a theory that the direction of the hair whorl on a horse’s head was a good indicator of its temperament – how feisty the animal was and how it should be handled. But he didn’t have a college degree, and no one would take him seriously. In his words: “One professor kicked me out of his office and told me it was a stupid hair-brained idea.”

Finally, he managed to get a meeting with Temple in her office at Colorado State University, where she is Professor of Animal Science. When I interviewed him for a story in Elsevier Connect, I asked him to describe their meeting:

“I remember that first conversation like it was yesterday,” he said:

I talked straight for 45 minutes, and Temple never once made eye contact with me. She was fumbling with papers and looking at her mail and all this other stuff that just made me think that, ‘Oh, God, she’s not even listening.’ I was totally frustrated. …Then finally she looked up and said to me, ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about but it’s interesting, and I’m in. What do you want to do? How do you want to study this?’ I was just blown away.

The story had a happy ending. They have been doing research together ever since, and the picture you see here is on the cover of the book they co-edited for Elsevier: Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals.

Too often, authors are just names on the page listed alongside their affiliations. But readers want to get to know you.

“We want recognition for our work”

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Eleonora Presani, PhD

Sometimes “making it personal” can simply involve revealing a challenge you and your fellow researchers face. Dr. Eleonora Presani was particle physicist at CERN before joining Elsevier, and she used that experience when she was publisher of a unique open access journal called SoftwareX, which publishes open-source software and code.

In a story about the launch of the journal, author Tobias Wesselius uses Eleonora’s experience to write from the perspective of readers who would be interested in the journal. He quotes Eleonora explaining that she spent a lot of her time coding as a physicist, as many researchers do, but that work often goes unrecognized in the world of scholarly research:

  Software developers in science have always struggled to get academic recognition for their work. They rarely advance their academic career based on the code they wrote to contribute to science, even though this software often has a fundamental impact on research.

Tobias goes on to write:

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This image is from the SoftwareX video. The video was made by Bruno van Wayenburg. In this frame, he cites an article by Zeeya Merali, which points out that 35 percent of researchers spend one day per week coding.

(Eleonora) pointed out that while some researchers spend most of their time developing software, they will publish just the final results that are obtained with that software. In the end, funding bodies and university boards judge them on that tip of the iceberg, rather than on the rest of their output, which remains “hidden.” That’s because software development has not traditionally been treated as a full academic undertaking.

In this case, no one revealed their deepest feelings. But a connection was made: readers found a source here who understood their plight, having been there herself, and worked to improve it.

So regardless of how much – or how little – you or your sources want to reveal, think about how you can connect with readers to make your science even more meaningful to them.

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