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Editorial: Paying back, scientifically speaking

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2004. Editorial: Paying back, scientifically speaking. the Exchange 11(2):2, 7–8.

I was trained as a scientist, but though I briefly contemplated a career in research, I discovered that my real passion was the printed word and later, the online word. Having reconciled myself to the notion that there would be no Nobel prize in my immediate future, I set about learning the trade of editor and honing my passable skills as a writer into a sharper tool. Reading the Chicago Manual of Style cover to cover, and washing that information down with a shot of Strunk and White and a Plotnik chaser, gave me the foundation for the skills I needed to do the new work I was seeking. What was lacking? More formal training in the art and science of communication.

I was fortunate. When I landed my first job, with the Canadian Forest Service, my mentor introduced me to the Society for Technical Communication and budgeted for my membership fee. I soon found a treasure trove of information that could be applied directly to my new profession: an improved understanding of the concept of audience, insights into data graphics through my readings in information design, and a wealth of information in applied cognitive psychology, among many other things. Over the years, I've deepened my insights into these and many other fields; better still, I've learned to apply the techniques of technical communication to my work in scientific communication. I've also joined a community of kindred spirits who have nurtured me and given me an opportunity to nurture others in turn, which is arguably the greater gift.

STC's near-total lack of focus on anything to do with scientific communication has made membership even more useful. Some friends have argued that membership in a science-focused organisation such as the Council of Science Editors or the National Association of Science Writers would be a more effective way to hone my skills, and there's certainly some merit to that suggestion. But I'm already immersed in the practice of scientific communication, and what I wanted more than anything else was an outsider's viewpoint—one that would provide a whole range of different skills and attitudes that could be brought to bear on the problems I face as a scientific communicator. The isolation of the scientific communication community does provide a more focused range of expertise, but leads one to internalize that commmunity's prejudices and received knowledge. That kind of acculturation makes it much harder to bring new insights to bear on one's work. STC provides an antidote to a potentially insular world view.

There's much that we scientific communicators can learn from STC, particularly in the fields of information design and audience analysis. But what could STC learn from us? Let's consider just one simple example of the kind of things scientific communicators do better than anyone else, and how the related skills could be transferred to other branches of technical communication.

The schema of journal articles

The peer-reviewed journal article has a standard structure so well known to scientists that experienced readers can use its schema (mental model) without conscious thought to gain entry into the information stored in an article. The form in which the information is presented matches its intended use so closely that it's hard to imagine the kind of breakthrough that would lead to an improved design. Yet if you compare journal articles with (say) software user manuals, it rapidly becomes apparent that no such standard schema exists for documentation. Instead, readers must discover and learn to use a different schema each time they open a new manual.

What if we applied the journal model, suitably modified to fit the new audience and new context, to the task of structuring user documentation? For example:

Paying back (and forward)

No one approach fits all situations, and the journal article schema clearly isn't a perfect match for user documentation. The power in my example lies in considering each of the strengths of this schema, in discerning the underlying principles that give rise to each strength, then applying those principles to the task of improving user documentation. In my example, I've listed seven components of a journal article and briefly discussed their principles and how these principles might be applied in technical communication. Let me now issue a challenge: How can you apply those principles to the types of task a typical STC member might have to accomplish? How have you applied these principles?

If you have any insights, disagree with any of my assertions, or want to expand on what I've written, The Exchange would be a great place to do so. I've long wanted to start an ongoing dialogue on how we can apply the techniques of scientific communication to other forms of technical communication. Conversely, if you've learned something from STC that applies to scientific communication, why not share it with other members of the Scientific Communication SIG? There's plenty of room in our newsletter for a broader range of voices, and I'd be pleased indeed to offer you that room in which to share your own insights.

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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