How Can I Keep My Research from Being “Dumbed-Down”?

When you publish a study and it is picked up by the general press, you may feel like you’ve lost control of the story. The question in the title reflects a list of worries:

  1. You don’t want your work to be misinterpreted.
  2. Over-simplification can lead to errors or exaggeration.
  3. Your work is necessarily of a highly technical nature, and without the technical detail, it might seem easy or trivial.

These are valid concerns. Misinterpretation is something to be avoided. However, no journalist or science writer thinks he or she is “dumbing down” scientific findings. Imagine that your economist brother-in-law is interested in what you’re working on, but he’s not very familiar with your field. Is he too “dumb” to understand it? How would you explain it to him?

Rather than worrying about whether a reporter will oversimplify your results, you can take an active role in making your work understandable to both the writer and the public. The task of translating research into simpler language, while maintaining the essence of the work, represents a different level of sophistication.

Here are a few tips that can help you transmit the essence of your work to a general audience:

Before:

  • Find out from your department chair, supervisor, or media relations department if you are cleared to deal directly with the person requesting an interview.
  • When deciding whether to grant an interview, get a sense of the audience and the angle. Ask the reporter about the publication that will run the piece, what the overall story is about, and why it is being written now.

During:

  • Once you grant an interview, realize that nothing you say is “off the record.”
  • Use direct, jargon-free language the target audience can understand, and think of analogies to relate unfamiliar concepts to everyday experience.
  • If the interviewer goes off topic, bring the discussion back to the main point of your research. If you were to have only one “sound bite,” what would it be? Use that to focus the conversation.

After:

  • For a journalistic article, you will not see a draft before it goes to press. If you notice an error in a published piece, send a diplomatically worded correction right away.

Remember that to get your research the attention it deserves, you’ll need to help the writer describe your work for a lay audience. Communicating well with a science writer can make your research understandable to many who might benefit from your work.

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