Useful Science: The Art of Communicating Science Accurately and Accessibly

Written by Kathleen Godfrey

Nearly a year after a friend shared a Useful Science summary that they wrote on Facebook, I found myself troubleshooting technological issues to video chat with Maryse Thomas, who leads a board of five co-directors who run the website and podcast-based platform. As someone who doesn’t do much Facebook scrolling anymore, I’ve found that most of the posts that I pause for are those bite-sized science summaries that, for me, make Useful Science such a great tool to learn about and communicate science outside academia’s walls. Useful Science has a beautifully simple mission: to deliver accurate and reliable one-sentence summaries of scientific articles useful to everyday life.

Once our connection was good, Maryse and I got chatting. As a fan of the platform, I was curious about its origins – who saw the ‘gap’, interpreted it as an opportunity, and launched Useful Science? In the summer of 2013, after completing his bachelors in Math and Physics at McGill, Jaan Altosaar founded the platform with a group of contributors and co-founders. At the start, the idea for bite-sized summaries was inspired by the era of Life Hacks and Twitter, so shortening things was a trend. “We thought it would make science more fun and easy to interact with”, says Maryse, they wanted to provide the headline, and craft a trustworthy summary that was both accurate and accessible. She continued that, “through the years, we’ve found a place for more long-form content, because that’s how you address things like limitations and inequalities that exist in science and its methods. That’s why our podcast is so important”.

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Photo provided by Useful Science.

“Science being useful sets us apart, so we work hard to maintain this mandate”, Maryse explained to me. Categories of “everyday usefulness” are Nutrition, Education, Fitness, Happiness, Health, Environment, Parenting, Persuasion, Productivity, and Sleep. Maryse told me how the categories had evolved; her team recently decided to replace ‘Creativity’ with ‘Environment’ because the need for an Environment category “had become more important than ever” given our current political and ecological climate. Summaries that used to fall under the Creativity label are now categorized under Productivity or Happiness instead. Interestingly, “the Environment category is a bit different because it’s not just about helping our readers change their behaviour [like the other categories], but about raising general awareness for environmental issues”. More than simply being useful, the summaries are designed to be accurate – again, in a time when science can be warped to suit different interests, or get lost in translation between researchers and the public.

EnvironmentPosts-01
A few summaries that share the ‘Environment’ label. Graphic provided by Useful Science.

Useful Science uses a peer-review process to ensure that summaries are accessible and accurately represent the science, which entailed having a large pool of contributors at the start in 2013, who have since spread all over the globe. Maintaining this global network of contributors is hard work, but through contributor surveys, Maryse and her team have learned that involvement with Useful Science actually benefits their volunteer writers, too. “Contributors have said that they are better scientists, can communicate [their own science] better, and feel fulfilled” in terms of making a difference in science communication. The initial Useful Science group came from diverse backgrounds, which meant for a wide contributor base and “scientists talking across disciplines”, which Maryse and I both value immensely. While interdisciplinarity is not explicitly part of the Useful Science mandate – contributors write summaries about whatever they are reading, usually related to their own field – it definitely has enabled scientists to step outside their “comfort zones”, as everyone participates in the peer review process.

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Maryse Thomas presents Useful Science to other scholarly communicators at the FORCE2018 conference in Montreal. Photo by Ian Mulvaney.

We took a step back from the platform to discuss academic culture, the ‘publish or perish’ mentality, and how difficult it can be to know if you’re reaching your target audience. Maryse is a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at McGill and has found that “there are sometimes workshops [for science communication], but they are organized by other grad students, [not professors or professional science communicators]. There is not enough emphasis on training people to communicate research in accessible ways, or recognition for those who do.” And even if you do find an outlet or platform such as Useful Science to contribute to, that contribution is not valued as highly as traditional publications. This culture is equally frustrating to scholars in the natural and social sciences who are realizing how important public engagement is. Why do we do the work that we do? Why do we write theses or dissertations or articles? As a record of findings, ideas, surely, but surely we want to spread the word outside our labs, departments, and institutions? That’s where science can be transformed into behaviour change and action.

The demand is there – Useful Science has over 20,000 combined subscribers across all their platforms, with most people checking out the website directly. For a student volunteer-driven science communication platform, that kind of engagement is no small feat. Despite having the statistics on platform engagement, “it’s hard to tell who our audience is. I don’t know if we’re reaching non-scientists. You can measure the impact on your contributors, but it’s harder to do that with your readers”, Maryse explained, so you can’t help but wonder whether the information is getting trapped inside an academic vacuum.

Even with these unknowns, over the last six years the platform has continued to grow and test out different recipes for engagement, for example, Tweeting at the authors of the papers they summarize. Recently, they exceeded the number of subscribers to be eligible for a free Mailchimp account. The people – whoever they may be – have spoken: they want more Useful Science!

To me, this is a true testament to how the platform has mastered the art of communicating science to help people live better, more informed lives today. And that’s useful to all of us.

To learn more about Useful Science, or to join the team as a contributor, you can contact them at hello@usefulscience.org. For a little more information on their review process and helpful tips on accessible language, check out this infographic that Maryse created.

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