The Battle of Science and the Public: How to Make Scientific Writing Friendly

by Maggie Buyuk
Photo of Maggie Buyuk

Maggie Buyuk is a Nursing major from Bolton, MA. She wanted to focus her essay on the scientific discourse community because she feels as though it is often unapproachable: “As a nursing major, I know that I want information to be easily accessible for both myself and my patients. Unfortunately, the scientific rhetoric is not publically friendly because of the jargon and format of the scientific paper standard.” Maggie believes that there is a middle ground where the scientific community and the public can meet in order to better understand each other. This essay is special to her because, as a student, she has felt left out of the scientific community because of the jargon. “I don’t think that knowledge and understanding of the scientific community should be a privilege, but the strict scientific paper format makes it a privilege for people within the community.” In her personal life, Maggie enjoys being able to help people in their times of need; she became an EMT at the age of 16 and “absolutely loves it!” She says “when I see people in the back of the ambulance, I know that they are having a horrible day, so I like to be able to ease some of the stress and pain that they are experiencing. It makes me happy to hear them say that I helped them in any way, whether it be emotionally or physically.”

Science plays a role in the daily life of everyone; unfortunately, embracing the scientific world is a challenge for most of the general public because of the language and structure used by scientific rhetors. But is the challenge because of disinterest or misunderstanding, and if so, where does that stem from? I believe it is because of the relationship between the writing styles of the general public and the scientific community. Unfortunately, most scientific research papers are not friendly for the general public. How does the relationship between the scientific community and the general public complicate the writing process? Can scientific rhetors ease the confusion and frustration that scientific research causes the general public? In order to resolve the problems within scientific writing for the public, there needs to be an understanding about the relationship between the two groups and their standards for what makes a valid and accessible research paper.

In order to discuss scientific writing for the general public in greater depth, first I will talk about the idea of “discourse communities” and how they pertain to writing. James Porter claims that all texts are influenced by the audience, or discourse community. He defines a discourse community as “a group of individuals bound by a common interest who communicate through approved channels and whose discourse is regulated” (Porter 38-39). Discourse communities can be broad or specific. For example, the scientific discourse community encompasses many different fields, but it can be narrowed down to focus on the medical community, which can be further narrowed to epidemiology, which in turn can be narrowed to epidemiologists who study the spread of COVID-19. For the purposes of my essay, when I mention discourse community I mean the scientific discourse community that provides information to the general public, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also known as the CDC.

It is important to understand writing expectations in the scientific discourse community in order to appreciate why it may be difficult for the public to comprehend science writing. Porter explains that discourse communities decide what is “appropriate for examination and discussion, what operating functions are performed on those objects, what constitutes ‘evidence’ and ‘validity,’ and what formal conventions are followed” (39). In the scientific community, all research papers follow a specific formula. Matthew Allen explains that the formula for scientific papers is “Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion… IMRD” (99). This formula is used because it has been accepted and come to be expected by a majority of scientists for centuries. Another practice that Allen mentions is that the majority, if not the entirety, of a science paper is written in a passive voice in order to appear objective (958-9). Allen also suggests that appearing objective is one of the key criteria to being accepted by the scientific discourse community because subjectivity suggests bias. When bias appears in a scientific paper, other scientists within the discourse community may be led to believe that the study was conducted in order to affirm a preconceived belief, therefore making the writing invalid. If the study is deemed invalid then it will be rejected within the discourse community and may not be published.

If a study is not published in a well-established, peer reviewed journal, then the public will most likely distrust the study. In other words, a scientific paper must be accepted by the scientific discourse community before it becomes a valid source for the public. Once a scientific paper has been accepted by the scientific community, it must be revised in order to fit the general public discourse community guidelines before it is published in a newspaper, on a website, or in a scientific journal written for the public. Porter states that the writing “expectations, conventions, and attitudes of this discourse community – the readers, writers, and publishers” change when moving into different discourse communities (40). So, the question remains, how can authors conform to the general public discourse community, while adhering to the expectations set by the scientific discourse community?

There is a very fine line when writing about science for the masses because the jargon has to be understood by a majority of the population, while still giving sufficient and effective information. Unfortunately, most scientific research is not friendly for the eyes of the general public. Scientific papers are tailored for the scientific discourse community and can be very bland, unengaging, and difficult to understand. Scientific rhetors have vocabulary that is considered “common” or “basic” for their field of study. However, that does not mean that the vocabulary is well known by everyday people, so it can make reading scientific articles a chore and lead to confusion and mis-translation of the information. Marcin Kozak and James Hartley’ suggestions about making scientific writing friendlier for scientists of different disciplines can also apply to writing for the general public. They seem to agree with Rebecca Gowers’ claim that scientific writing should be written “in clear, plain English” (Kozak and Hartley 70). Simplicity in writing through use of clear, plain English makes writing straight-forward and engaging in order to grab and maintain the attention of the audience. To further this idea, I propose that uncommon and essential scientific key terms should be defined in order to help clarify scientific jargon for everyday people. Despite key terms being distinguished in the scientific community, they are not always well-known by the public. An essential term should be explained in a concise manner. Writing in this style does not degrade one’s intelligence, but ensures that there is an explicit understanding. For example, I have used the term “discourse community” throughout my paper, but I included Porter’s simple definition for anyone unfamiliar with the idea of discourse communities. No one, including myself, wants to have to refer to a dictionary every other sentence in order to understand a paper.

I also advocate that in order to make scientific writing more reader friendly, the structure should change from IMRD to something more linear and story-like. The IMRD structure Allen discusses is not the best writing structure for the general public because it can be hard to follow. Instead, the information should be shared in a story-like structure. The information should be organized as events that occurred and their outcomes in chronological order, otherwise known as cause and effect. This builds trust because it allows the audience to assess the information in a linear structure, rather than misunderstanding the information because the connection between methods and results could be missed. Objectivity does not rely on the IMRD structure. It can still be achieved while simplifying jargon, defining scientific key terms, and writing in a linear cause-and-effect organization. This way the writing conforms to the standards of the scientific discourse community while still being accessible and understandable to the general public.

Why is writing in plain English important in order to make research more accessible? It can be summed up in a simple word: trust. Trust between the author and their audience is essential with scientific papers. If a scientific concept is thoroughly explained and easily understood by the general public, then there will be less distrust and hesitancy between science and the public. K.P Whyte and R.P. Crease argue that cooperation between scientists and the public “contributes to better understanding and resolving public controversies where issues of trust and distrust impede deliberative decision making and limit the public benefits that can be provided by scientists and scientific research activities” (412). This means that distrust can prevent advantageous progress within the scientific discourse community because the public will not cooperate with the scientific findings. It is important to build trust between the scientific community and the general public because distrust can lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and conflict when trying to resolve problems. Distrust causes a separation between scientists and the public, when both groups need to work together in order to instill change. Scientific findings, especially medical studies, mean nothing if the public refuses to believe the research. Simply put: scientists share their findings and if the audience (the general public) trusts the research, then people are more likely to make progressive decisions or follow the guidelines that scientists suggest.

In order to clarify the guidelines about writing for the general public, I will analyze the CDC website about COVID-19 vaccinations. As of late, understanding how vaccinations work has piqued the public’s interest. Everyone wants life to return to normal, but many people are still unsure about the reliability of the COVID-19 vaccinations that are available. Uncertainty leads to research, which results in many people going to the CDC website for answers. The CDC is considered a reliable source and it is geared towards the general public as an audience.

One of the first articles that appears on the CDC page is titled “Understanding How COVID-19 Vaccines Work.” The article describes in plain English certain factors in the immune system that play an important role in immunity. For example, they state that “Macrophages are white blood cells that swallow up and digest germs and dead or dying cells” (“Understanding How COVID-19 Vaccines Work”). The language being used is clear and easy to understand. The terms “swallow up” and “digest” are part of everyday vocabulary, so it is easily understood by any audience. By using clear and plain English, as suggested by Kozak and Hartley, and defining key terms, the CDC starts to build the general public’s trust. The CDC assumes that people will need background information before they are able to understand how the vaccines actually function. By providing clear background information, the general public will be able to make better assessments of the research and have more reasonable opinions based on the information. Once the background information is described, the CDC explains how three different types of vaccines work. They explain the mRNA vaccine as follows:

mRNA vaccines contain material from the virus that causes COVID-19 that gives our cells instructions for how to make a harmless protein that is unique to the virus. After our cells make copies of the protein, they destroy the genetic material from the vaccine. Our bodies recognize that the protein should not be there and build T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes that will remember how to fight the virus that causes COVID-19 if we are infected in the future (“Understanding How COVID-19 Vaccines Work”)

This is a clear, simple, and engaging explanation of how the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines work. Using terms like “instructions” and “harmless protein” allows anyone to understand the basic concept of how vaccines work, without having to study the biology behind the immune system. The CDC organizes the information in a story-like, linear fashion, which allows the reader to follow the sequence of events more easily. Interestingly, they also use terms such as “our” and “we” to connect with the public. They are building trust by pulling the public into the “story” to help them understand and relate to the information provided. However, even after reading that, some readers may still have concerns that the live virus is being injected into them or that they will develop mutations, so the CDC provides more resources and answers.

The article “Understanding MRNA COVID-19 Vaccines” is hyperlinked to the page about COVID-19 vaccines, in case anyone seeks more information. On this page of the CDC website they really drive the point home that mRNA vaccines “cannot give someone COVID-19. mRNA vaccines do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19… They do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way” (“Understanding MRNA COVID-19 Vaccines.”). Those statements are extremely explicit, objective (as required by the scientific discourse community), in plain English, and engaging. The CDC articles ensure that their readers are able to access and understand the text because they want to gain the general public’s trust. Once the public trusts the CDC, they are more likely to go get vaccinated. Getting vaccinated is a decision the general public can make in order to return to “normalcy,” but they must trust the science behind the vaccines first.

There is a fine line between standards of scientific writing and writing for the public, but it is achievable, as can be seen through the use of the CDC website. I believe clear language and structure build a trusting relationship with the public and scientific discourse community, while still adhering to the standard rules and regulations of scientific research writing. Writing effectively for a broad, general audience can be daunting, but it is important because it is the most successful way to widely broadcast accurate information.

Works Cited

Allen, M. C. “The Rhetorical Situation of the Scientific Paper and the ‘Appearance’ of Objectivity”. Young Scholars in Writing, Vol. 2, Sept. 2015, pp. 94-102.

Kozak, Marcin, and James Hartley. “Academic Science Writing: an Inconsiderate Genre?” European Science Editing, vol. 45, no. 3, Aug. 2019, pp. 69–71.

Porter, James E. “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 1986, pp. 34–47.

“Understanding How COVID-19 Vaccines Work.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9 Mar. 2021.

“Understanding MRNA COVID-19 Vaccines.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Mar. 2021.

Whyte, K.P., Crease, R.P. “Trust, Expertise, and the Philosophy of Science. Synthese, vol. 177, 2010, pp. 411–42.