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Don't be a researcher: be a finder!

(Or: Putting the "technical communication" in science writing.)

by Geoff Hart

Previously published, in a different form, as: Hart, G.J. 1998. Don't be a researcher: be a finder! the Exchange 5(2):1–3.

One thing you'll notice if you get to talking with other technical communicators is how few of us actually started out intending to become writers or editors; in fact, a surprising number of us come from scientific and engineering backgrounds. Having come from a background in forest biology myself, I'm obviously one of that number. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, though, because in retrospect, it's hard to see how I could have ended up anywhere else, doing anything else.

My first encounters with science came in the field, collecting various members of Class Hexapoda. (The now-legendary incidents involving inhaled immature lepidopterans and the gallon-jar of grasshoppers with the loose lid notwithstanding, this interest was permitted to continue to the present day.) The education continued at my father's knee, whether hiking through the woods of northern Quebec, exploring pond water with a small microscope, or wondering whether I'd inadvertently blow up the house with my chemistry set. I was also surrounded by medical texts, as there were several doctors in or close to the family who saw in me the next lab-coated wonder, and I'm given to understand that at the tender age of six, I helped my uncle, who was in med school at the time, dissect various creatures as part of his gross anatomy course. (That’s a memory I've mercifully suppressed.) By the time I reached my teens, I was browsing serials such as Aviation and Aerospace Medicine and Current Practice. Whether I'd ever have made it into med school is an open question—I suspect that trying to memorize Grey's Anatomy would by itself have ended my medical career—but instead, I somehow found my way into forest biology and ended up acquiring a few degrees there.

It was midway through grad school that my epiphany came: for some time, I'd been doing peer reviews for my colleagues and (occasionally) for my thesis supervisor, and one day it struck me how much I enjoyed helping others to write. When I saw an ad for an editorial position with the Canadian Forest Service's research branch, the epiphany was complete: "Hey! People could actually earn a living doing this!" Everyone's got to be good at something; with me, it seems to have been missing the forest for the trees, an inauspicious sign for a would-be forester.

I think that what most attracted me to working as a scientific editor was the cure it provided for my scientific myopia. As a grad student in tree physiology, I was beginning to understand plant water relations far better than I understood my own life, and was increasingly becoming expert in increasingly less. By nature, I'm a "Geoff of all trades, master of [n]one", and this progressive narrowing of my focus wasn't at all to my taste. Editing was the perfect solution: I'd get to work with dozens of experts whose work I largely understood and enjoyed reading about, and who expanded my scientific horizons a hundredfold. Can you see a pattern emerging? The fact that I also got paid for doing this was the icing on the cake.

My original editing focused on basic science, the sort of research that eventually becomes the underpinnings for someone else's applied science—or maybe not, though nobody ever worried much about this latter possibility. When I had an opportunity to return to my birthplace so my children could be near their grandparents, I transferred into a slightly different line of work. I'm still a scientific editor, but now I work in operational forestry research rather than basic research. What’s the difference? Well, now my authors aren’t so much interested in why the trees grow as they are in figuring out how to persuade them to grow better. (We do other things, including figuring out more efficient ways to kill trees and turn them into paper, but figuring out better ways of growing trees is still my favorite part of what I do. You can take the biologist out of the forest, but...)

The biggest change between what I once did and what I now do is that we officially consider our research efforts to be incomplete until we’ve ensured that someone implements the results. That's not a trivial issue. I recently helped our Director write a speech for our annual meeting that poked fun at our collaborators in basic research. Daniel's theme was a strong one: "Research is useless; it's finding solutions that counts." Speaking as a reformed scientist, I think that's overstating the case a bit, but it does lead me ever so gradually to the point of this essay: that science is changing.

It used to be that science for its own sake was sufficient justification for just about any kind of research. I used to work in the same building as a scientist I nicknamed the Flying Dutchman: he sailed about, moving under a ghostly wind only he could feel, and nobody seemed to know where he came from, where he was going, or what he was doing along the way. I don't recall ever seeing a publication by him throughout my whole career at that lab, but after his retirement, he was nonetheless acknowledged as having been a good scientist. What it was that he found, nobody seemed to know, and this made writing his retirement testimonial something of a challenge.

Nowadays, basic science is by no means moribund, but it's certainly under considerable pressure. The biggest pressures are those that force researchers to obtain funding from agencies or (increasingly) industries that insist on getting results that they can implement; even if that implementation is one or two research steps away, there still has to be a clear final product in mind. And that brings me back to Daniel's point: research is no longer enough—you have to find something as well.

What does that mean for the scientific communicator? Well, for one thing, it means that our profession has changed so gradually over the past century that the change has been almost unnoticeable. In effect, we’ve increasingly changed from our traditional role of being documenters of research to something more like stereotypical technical writers. Our new goals are no longer just to report what we found, but now include showing others how they can put that knowledge to work. Traditional science writing left the application largely implicit; modern science writing is increasingly making it explicit.

It's a fascinating change to be part of. My current employer, the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada (FERIC), started life almost 25 years ago based on the traditional model of scientific research and publishing. You can still see this in our reports, which follow the archetypical pattern of an Abstract, followed by an Introduction, the Methods and Materials section, and so on. Although FERIC's goal is to perform what's known as technology transfer (i.e., helping foresters in the trenches to solve their problems by implementing the results of our research), we've been following a very different model in our publishing. Since I've been here, I've been agitating to make some changes to our approach. Technology transfer means that we must provide our clients with solutions to their problems, not archival basic research to prove we did something with their money. This has certain obvious implications. For example, including a "methods and materials" section in our reports is far less meaningful than it would be in traditional scientific publishing, since few of our clients will ever try to replicate our research and since our standard research methodology is not worth repeating ad nauseam; what our clients really want to know is under what conditions the research applies—they'll trust us that we did the research correctly. To reflect this sort of need, we've recently begun reassessing our communications strategy, and one thing I'm looking forward to with great interest is a change towards providing implementation advice, not just reporting. (That's not to say I’ve given up on editing basic science. I still enjoy doing that on the side, as a freelancer.)

One of the fascinating things about science is just how many breakthroughs have come from mixing the knowledge provided by entirely different disciplines, and I suspect that this lesson has yet to be learned in our own discipline of scientific communication. Technical writers have been grappling with the issues of rhetoric, audience analysis, and usability testing for years, and have developed effective solutions and techniques for addressing these issues. Scientific communicators have largely ignored these breakthroughs and clung to our familiar models of communication. The challenge for us over the next decade is likely to be one of adapting these and other tools to our own unique situation. Although my membership in the Society for Technical Communication has provided a wealth of resources to help me through this change, I like to remind myself that communication involves an exchange of information, something that undoubtedly contributed to the naming of this newsletter. And that leads me to the question that gave birth to this article: If we can benefit from the knowledge of technical writers, what knowledge can we bring to the exchange that will help technical writers do their work?

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

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