Four levels to accessible communications

I presented this four-level accessibility framework at a few academic conferences this year, and some people have requested a non-academic summary, so here it is. I’ll leave out the methodology details, but if you’re curious about them, please get in touch!

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Is your communication accessible? This question can be tricky to answer, because access means different things to different people. By analyzing the themes in a series of articles about accessibility, I’ve found that most definitions of access fit under four main categories, and I’ve organized these into a framework I use as a checklist of sorts when I create communications (pamphlets, books, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc.) for the general public. I hope you’ll find it helpful, and I welcome suggestions to make it better.

The four levels are:

  1. discovery—can users find your communication?
  2. acquisition—can users get your communication?
  3. use—can users use your communication?
  4. comprehension—can users understand your communication?

Continue reading “Four levels to accessible communications”

Time to leave academic writing to communications experts?

In the Lancet’s 2014 series about preventing waste in biomedical research, Paul Glasziou et al. pointed to “poorly written text” as a major reason a staggering 50% of biomedical reports are unusable [1], effectively squandering the research behind them. According to psycholinguist Steven Pinker [2], bad academic writing persists partly because there aren’t many incentives for scholars to change their ways:

Few academic journals stipulate clarity among their criteria for acceptance, and few reviewers and editors enforce it. While no academic would confess to shoddy methodology or slapdash reading, many are blasé about their incompetence at writing.

He adds:

Enough already. Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.

The problem of impenetrable academese is undeniable. How do we fix it?

In “Writing Intelligible English Prose for Biomedical Journals,” John Ludbrook proposes seven strategies [3]:

  • greater emphasis on good writing by students in schools and by university schools,
  • making use of university service courses and workshops on writing plain and scientific English,
  • consulting books on science writing,
  • one-on-one mentoring,
  • using “scientific” measures to reveal lexical poverty (i.e., readability metrics),
  • making use of freelance science editors, and
  • encouraging the editors of biomedical journals to pay more attention to the problem.

Many institutions have implemented at least some of these strategies. For instance, SFU’s graduate student orientation in summer 2014 introduced incoming students to the library’s writing facilitators and open writing commons. And at UBC, Eric Jandciu, strategist for teaching and learning initiatives in the Faculty of Science, has developed communication courses and resources specifically for science students, training them early in their careers “to stop thinking of communication as separate from their science.” [4]

Although improving scholars’ writing is a fine enough goal, the growth in the past fifteen years of research interdisciplinarity [5], where experts from different fields contribute their strengths to a project, has me wondering whether we would be more productive if we took the responsibility of writing entirely away from researchers. Rather than forcing academics to hone a weak skill, maybe we’d be better off bringing in communications professionals whose writing is already sharp.

This model is already a reality in several ways (though not all of them aboveboard):

  • Many journals encourage authors to have their papers professionally edited before submission [6]. From personal experience, I can confirm that this “editing” can involve heavy rewriting.
  • The pharmaceutical industry has long used ghostwriters to craft journal articles on a researcher’s behalf, turning biomedical journals into marketing vehicles [7]. We could avoid the ethical problems this arrangement poses—including plagiarism and conflict of interest—with a more transparent process that reveals a writer’s identity and affiliations.
  • Funding bodies such as CIHR have begun emphasizing the importance of integrated knowledge translation (KT) [8], to ensure knowledge users have timely access to research findings. Although much of KT focuses on disseminating research knowledge to stakeholders outside of academia, including patients, practitioners, and policy makers, reaching fellow researchers is also an important objective.

To ensure high-quality publications, Glasziou et al. suggest the following:

Many research institutions already employ grants officers to increase research input, but few employ a publication officer to improve research outputs, including attention to publication ethics and research integrity, use of reporting guidelines, and development of different publication models such as open access. Ethics committees and publication officers could also help to ensure that all research methods and results are completely and transparently reported and published.

Such a publication officer would effectively serve as an in-house editor and production manager. Another possibility is for each group or department to hire an in-house technical communicator. Technical communicators are trained in interviewing subject matter experts and using that information to draft documents for diverse audiences. In the age of big data, one could also make a convincing case for hiring a person who specializes in data visualization to create images and animations that complement the text.

That said, liberating scientists from writing should not absolve them of the responsibility of learning how to communicate. At a minimum, they would still need to understand the publication process enough to effectively convey their ideas to the writers.

Separating out the communication function within research would also raise questions about whether we should also abolish the research–teaching–service paradigm on which academic tenure is based. If we leave the writing to strong writers, perhaps only strong teachers should teach and only strong administrators should administrate.

Universities’ increasing dependence on sessional and adjunct faculty is a hint that this fragmentation is already happening [9], though in a way that reinforces institutional hierarchies and keeps these contract workers from being fairly compensated. If these institutions continue to define ever more specialized roles, whether for dedicated instructors, publication officers, or research communicators, they’ll have to reconsider how best to acknowledge these experts’ contributions so that they feel their skills are appropriately valued.

Sources

[1] Paul Glasziou et al., “Reducing Waste from Incomplete or Unusable Reports of Biomedical Research,” Lancet 383, no. 9913 (January 18, 2014): 267–76, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62228-X.

[2] Steven Pinker, “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2014, http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Writing-Stinks/148989/

[3] John Ludbrook, “Writing Intelligible English Prose for Biomedical Journals,” Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology 34, no. 5–6 (January ): 508–14, doi:10.1111/j.1440-1681.2007.04603.x.

[4] Iva Cheung, “Communication Convergence 2014,” Iva Cheung [blog], October 8, 2014, http://www.ivacheung.com/2014/10/communication-convergence-2014/.

[5] B.C. Choi and A.W. Pak, “Multidisciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity, and Transdisciplinarity in Health Research, Services, Education and Policy: 1. definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness. Clinical and Investigative Medicine 29 (2006): 351–64.

[6] “Author FAQs,” Wiley Open Access, http://www.wileyopenaccess.com/details/content/12f25e4f1aa/Author-FAQs.html.

[7] Katie Moisse, “Ghostbusters: Authors of a New Study Propose a Strict Ban on Medical Ghostwriting,” Scientific American, February 4, 2010, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ghostwriter-science-industry/.

[8] “Guide to Knowledge Translation Planning at CIHR: Integrated and End-of-Grant Approaches,” Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Modified June 12, 2012, http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/45321.html.

[9] “Most University Undergrads Now Taught by Poorly Paid Part-Timers,” CBC.ca, September 7, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/most-university-undergrads-now-taught-by-poorly-paid-part-timers-1.2756024.

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This post was adapted from a paper I wrote for one of my courses. I don’t necessarily believe that a technical communication–type workflow is the way to go, but the object of the assignment was to explore a few “what-if” situations, and I thought this topic was close enough to editing and publishing to share here.

Communication Convergence 2014

Plain language advocates Cheryl Stephens and Katherine McManus teamed up with the Society for Technical Communication’s Autumn Jonssen and EAC-BC’s Amy Haagsma to organize the first Communication Convergence mini-conference as part of the Vancouver celebrations of International Plain Language Day, October 13. Because IPL Day coincides with Thanksgiving this year, we celebrated one weekend earlier, on October 5.

The afternoon included a networking buffet lunch, followed by three panel discussions. I was a panellist on the first, which explored the tendency for different communication fields to apply a common range of methods. Joining me were:

Frances Peck moderated.

The second panel looked at the real-world demand on communicators and featured

Katherine McManus moderated.

The third panel, hosted by

  • Lisa Mighton, director of communications and community liaison at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC
  • Paula LaBrie, marketing communications specialist;
  • and Cheryl Stephens, who moderated,

was more of an open discussion asking where we—as a community of communicators dedicated to plain language—go from here.

We had eleven speakers and three moderators, as well as plenty of comments and questions from the floor, so although the format made for invigorating discussion, I couldn’t capture everything that everyone said in my notes. Not pretending to do all of the participants justice, I’ll just give an overview of my impressions and the points I found most interesting. Because there was a lot of overlap among the three sessions, I’ll focus on the day’s themes rather than the specifics from each panel. (Find photos of the Communication Convergence event on IPL Day’s Twitter.)

Writing and editing for the audience (sometimes easier said than done)

We all agreed that the audience is paramount when we craft our communications. Joe Goodwill pointed out the importance of considering the audience’s cultural context, which can be very different from our own.

What can get especially tricky is when your work has to go through several layers of approval, said Heidi Turner. Frances Peck agreed: often at each of those levels managers and directors reintroduce jargon and officialese and undo all of the work you’ve done to make that text accessible. Turner always tries to advocate for plain language, telling those clients for whom she writes grants that “A funder won’t want to give you money just because you use big words,” but from a business standpoint she ultimately has to give her clients what they want, and sometimes they don’t have a very good idea of who their readers are.

How do you write for disparate audiences? Sometimes you have to create more than one document, and Stephens reminded us that there will always be some people we can’t reach with our writing. But if your hands are tied, Elizabeth Rains said to “use the plainest language possible that will satisfy your readers’ needs.” She firmly believes that “no matter what type of information you have, it can be explained simply. And you may find that you can use that same language to explain concepts to very, very different audiences.”

Tools and resources

Pam Drucker’s work as a technical communicator has evolved over the years; today, she no longer works on large manuals but instead writes individual articles or topics. Her most consulted resources include the

She also uses structured writing techniques (e.g., Information Mapping).

Plain language as a right

Beyond the arguments that clear communication is more efficient and will get better results, what motivates many advocates of plain language is that we feel it’s a human rights issue. Information can be life altering, sometimes life saving. Citizens need to understand their government’s legislation to participate in a democracy. People with health issues deserve to understand their treatment options to achieve the best health outcomes. What can we do get people the information they need?

Christabelle Kux-Kardos works with immigrants and seniors, among others, to help them access community and government services. Her approach is to do what she calls a literacy audit: she tries to step back and try to see the world through the lens of a new client. This process has shown her that some services, even essential ones, have poor signage and are hard to find, particularly if you don’t know the language well or aren’t comfortable with technology. She sees it as her responsibility to point out to those services what they could be doing better. A lot of her work, she said, involves talking with her clients to tease out the right questions. What don’t they know that they need to know? Often they don’t know what they don’t know.

Nicholson reminds us that for some people, there is value in misrepresentation. “There are circumstances in which people are vested in obfuscating,” she said. “We have to be loud enough to cut through the clutter.”

Beyond comprehension to persuasion

Did the audience understand the message? Achieving understanding is always the communicator’s goal, but should it stop there? How do we persuade people to act on that information?

Hompoth, an image consultant, said that we are judged on

  • how we look,
  • what we do,
  • what we say, and
  • how we say it.

What we say accounts for 7 percent of the message, but how we say it counts for 13 percent (with other non-verbal communication making up the balance). In other words, our delivery is more important than our content.

That reality certainly jibes with health and science communications. How best to achieve persuasion is an unanswered question from a knowledge translation point of view: we can present people with evidence that smoking harms health, but evidence alone isn’t enough to convince some smokers to quit. Whether our message spurs change depends on the audience’s level of motivation.

As much as some of us may shy away from marketing, if we really want to effect change, we may have to study it. Will a course in psychology eventually be a required part of communications training?

Communication in and from academia

Those who know me know that one of my life’s missions is to try to eradicate turgid writing from academia. Academese is unnecessary, it hinders understanding and collaboration, and, because research is mostly taxpayer funded, it is undemocratic. Part of my research in knowledge translation involves finding alternative means of communicating research so that stakeholders beyond a researcher’s own colleagues can find and use it. Journal articles haven’t fundamentally changed in sixty years: if you print one out, it will still be in tiny type, packed onto a page with no space to breathe.

But we are making some gains. Many journals, North American ones, especially, are more accepting now than ever of first-person pronouns in journal articles. The style can be more conversational, and as research necessarily gets more interdisciplinary, researchers are beginning to recognize that they need a lingua franca to work together, and that lingua franca is plain language. We still have a long way to go, but we can celebrate these small victories.

Jandciu’s programs at UBC try to tackle the problem earlier, with communications courses designed specifically for science students. Although the Faculty of Science had always acknowledged that its students needed to develop communication skills, it usually left that training to first-year English courses. Feedback from graduating students, though, showed that those courses weren’t adequately preparing them to write reports and scientific articles or prepare and give presentations. Now the Faculty of Science offers a first-year course that integrates communication into science training and helps students develop scientific arguments. A third-year course has students interview researchers and develop videos and podcasts. Even funders, said Jandciu, are wanting researchers to do more outreach using social media, videos, and multimedia. Research communication can no longer be just text based.

He occasionally still hears students say, “But I’m in science because I don’t like to write,” or “I can’t do presentations,” but after the courses they realize the value of being able to communicate their scientific expertise. They begin to grasp that a lot of legislation hinges on policy makers getting sound information, and right now scientists aren’t doing a good enough job getting it out to them or to the public. “We need science students to stop thinking of communication as separate from their science,” said Jandciu.

Jeff Richmond, a journalist, responded that a lot of blame is put on “the media” for distorting research. And although it’s true that some stories can get sensationalized, if you talk to individual journalists, they typically have the sincerest of intentions. How does the distortion happen, and how we can express ideas in plain language without altering the facts?

Increasing awareness and uptake of plain language

We were all preaching to the converted at Communication Convergence—we all understand the value of plain language. But not everyone thinks the way we do. Nicholson said that we know that clear communication is the ethical choice, but when it comes to convincing others, some people and organizations simply won’t respond unless you show them the economic benefits.

And Stephens said that although professional legal associations support plain language, there’s still a culture of resistance among practising lawyers. I believe the key is in subtle shifts—a kind of quiet rebellion. There are several tacks to plain language; do what you can within the bounds of the culture, but start gathering evidence that what you are doing is producing results.

Does the public at large realize what they’re missing when communication isn’t clear? How can we raise awareness of plain language?

Paula LaBrie suggested that we all find a way to celebrate International Plain Language Day at our workplaces and spread the word about it. Lisa Mighton said we should always look for opportunities to turn our work into a media story.

The ideas from the crowd reinforced the community’s need for a central repository of plain language information: research, case studies, history. I urged everyone to join the Clear Communication Wiki and start contributing to it. It has the potential to become a valuable resource, but it needs a critical mass of participation.

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My key takeaway from Communication Convergence is that being able to say “I don’t understand” is a privilege. The most disenfranchised among us may not realize that there’s an alternative to confusing communication or may feel that revealing their lack of comprehension might make them look ignorant, compromising their position.

We communicators need to acknowledge our privilege and use it to push for change. “By not calling people on their poor communication practices,” said McManus, “we’re making people—maybe generations of people—put up with a lack of information. It becomes the responsibility of communicators not to just throw up our hands and give up.”

Stephens and McManus hope to make Communication Convergence an annual event. If you have ideas for session topics or speakers, get in touch via LinkedIn or Twitter.

Back to school: A self-indulgent personal post

This week I got an official letter of acceptance to the PhD program in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, where I’ll be studying knowledge translation. In particular, I’ll be looking at ways to apply plain language principles to mental health research to make it more accessible to patients, practitioners, advocacy groups, and policy makers. I’m thrilled by the prospect of applying my editorial skills and clear communication knowledge to increase health and scientific literacy.

Although I’m heading back to school, in no way will I be leaving publishing; I adore my career, and my plan (although plans may change, of course) is to come right back once I’ve completed the degree. In the meantime, I’ll be dialing down the amount of publishing work I take on to a small handful of projects a year so that I can focus on my research.

I’ll also be drastically cutting back on my volunteer commitments with organizations such as the Editors’ Association of Canada. Over the past two years I’ve been a member of EAC’s Certification Steering Committee, which oversees the national program that certifies editors who have demonstrated excellence in proofreading, copy editing, stylistic editing, or structural editing. This committee is made up of some of the smartest, funniest, and most dedicated people I know, and working with them on projects to promote and strengthen the certification program has been a huge privilege. Leaving this collegial, optimistic, and productive group in August will be bittersweet.

At the branch level, I’ve worked with Frances Peck for the past two seasons (and with Micheline Brodeur last year) on the EAC-BC Programs Committee to set topics and invite speakers for our monthly meetings. We managed to put together an impressive lineup of speakers on fascinating subjects from forensic linguistics and cartography to subcontracting and the evolving role of libraries. Our ideas have spilled over into next season, and whoever takes over on the committee next year will be able to hit the ground running.

I can’t emphasize enough that my experiences on these committees—not to mention the professional relationships and friendships I’ve forged—have been tremendous for professional development, and I urge anyone considering volunteering for EAC to seize the opportunity. I will still be an active EAC member, and I am still happy to volunteer for small jobs here and there or for one-off events, but I’ll no longer have the time for ongoing committee work. If there’s still demand after this year’s PubPro unconference, a peer-driven professional development event for publication production professionals, I would be more than willing to run it again. And I still hope to attend EAC meetings and conferences and write up what I’ve gleaned from the sessions on my blog (although once I’m off the Programs Committee, I may allow myself to miss the odd meeting).

Speaking of my blog, my intention is still to post regularly on editorial, indexing, publishing, and plain language topics, but you might start seeing a bit more of a knowledge translation, health literacy, or mental health bent to my writing. Realistically, though, I won’t have time to do any more book reviews once school starts up. I’d love to keep crapping out my dumb little cartoons, but I might not be able to keep up with my monthly schedule.

Finally, I’d love to keep teaching in SFU’s Writing and Communications program. Changes are afoot in how those courses are being offered, though, so I’m not sure if I’ll still have a role to play. If it turns out that I will, I’ll be sure to post news about upcoming courses.

I’d like to thank all of my friends, colleagues, and mentors who have given me encouragement and advice as I’ve plotted this next step, which I have wanted to take for a long time. I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by so many amazing, supportive people.

Comments on Canada’s science and technology trajectory

I just sent this note in response to Industry Canada’s consultation paper, Seizing Canada’s Moment, and I encourage anyone who has an opinion about Canada’s science and technology strategy to write in as well. You can send your feedback to science-tech-innovation-consultation@ic.gc.ca by February 7, 2014.

I’m not naive enough to believe that anyone at Industry Canada will actually read my note, nor do I think it’ll actually make any kind of a difference, but I thought I should at least make some effort to engage. I didn’t want to pass up an explicitly offered opportunity to speak up.

I tend to shy away from posting anything overtly political on my professional blog, but I’ve made this one exception. Thanks to Cheryl Stephens for drawing my attention to the original consultation paper.

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To the Honourable James Moore, Stephen Harper, and Industry Canada:

I’m writing in response to Seizing Canada’s Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation, the consultation paper in which you solicited “the views of stakeholders from all sectors of the ST&I [science, technology & innovation] system—including universities, colleges and polytechnics, the business community, and Canadians—to help identify solutions that reflect the realities of today’s ever-changing global innovation landscape.” As one of those stakeholders, both as a science communicator and as an engaged citizen, I’d like to offer a few of my thoughts about the Government of Canada’s ST&I strategy. My opinions here are informed by my handful of years in physics research as well as my career of over a dozen years as a writer and editor:

  • In 2002 I founded a national journal for undergraduate physics students to introduce them to the process of peer review and scholarly publication; the Canadian Undergraduate Physics Journal published until 2010.
  • I have, since 2004, edited more than 175 academic journal articles, dissertations, book chapters, and books in physics, earth sciences, chemistry, and engineering, among other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
  • I have also edited popular science books and am co-author of an upcoming book about personalized medicine for a general audience.

I’m neither the scientist making the groundbreaking discoveries nor the entrepreneur applying research results to create a new product or process, but I’d like to believe that those of us in communications have a critical role to play in the exchange of information and knowledge. We are, as Peter Levesque of the Institute for Knowledge Mobilization has said, the grout that joins the tiles.

Your consultation paper includes several questions for discussion:

Business innovation

  • Building on the advice provided by the Expert Panel on Federal Support for Research and Development, what more can be done to improve business investment in R&D and innovation?
  • What actions could be taken, by the government or others, to enhance the mobilization of knowledge and technology from government laboratories and universities, colleges and polytechnics to the private sector?

Mobilization of knowledge and technology depends, fundamentally, on a free and open exchange of information.

Although I applaud the country’s researchers for helping Canada become “the only G7 country to increase its number of scientific papers about the world average in recent years,” these papers do precious little good if other researchers and people in business can’t

  • find them,
  • read them, and
  • understand them.

Research can’t be done in a (figurative) vacuum; new discoveries are fuelled by previous knowledge, and both researchers and innovators in business need full, unimpeded access to this body of knowledge to drive scientific progress. What Canada needs is the following:

  • A robust network of libraries that serves as a comprehensive archive of scientific information, as well as a metadata-rich cataloguing system that allows Canadians to search the entire network’s content in a centralized location. This kind of network would allow everyone in the ST&I sector to easily find publications on the latest research, as well as encourage interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. Some of the most innovative ideas can arise when mathematicians talk to musicians, or when architects talk to psychologists. Further, a centralized catalogue would let Canadians find not only all papers published in open access journals (see next item) but also those published under a “green open access” models, where the paper appears in a pay-to-access journal but is self-archived by the researcher for free access in an institutional repository.
  • Open access to all Canadian-made research. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes  of Health Research (CIHR) recognize that if they have funded research, we Canadian taxpayers have paid for it, and we deserve to be able to see the results of that research—i.e., the publications—without having to pay for them again in subscription or access fees. Privatizing the National Research Council Press (today Canadian Science Publishing) such that it has to put its papers behind a paywall is a step in exactly the wrong direction. Paywalls stifle innovation because many of those businesses that could be applying the research have neither the access to an academic library’s subscriptions nor the budget to pay $30 to read each paper, without knowing whether it will ultimately be useful. Mandating open access, however, although a good first step, isn’t enough: to offset the loss of revenue from the reader, open access publishers often have to charge the researcher or the researcher’s institution for the privilege to publish. A system of Government of Canada subsidies to cover part or all of those publishing costs would allow scientists to focus their budgets on research rather than on publication.
  • Plain language knowledge translation and mobilization. High-level research can involve specialized language which, coupled with academia’s deeply ingrained habit of producing dense writing, can hinder understanding of new discoveries. In the long term, the ST&I sector would benefit from a plain language overhaul of all of its communications. For now, communication professionals skilled at distilling research knowledge into usable information for other researchers, industry, policy makers, and ordinary citizens will have a critical role to play in bridging the gap between scientific discovery and innovation.

Developing Innovative and Entrepreneurial People

  • How can Canada continue to develop, attract and retain the world’s top research talent at our businesses, research institutions, colleges and polytechnics, and universities?

“Canada has rising numbers of graduates with doctoral degrees in science and engineering,” according to your consultation paper. “This valuable resource of highly qualified and skilled individuals needs to be better leveraged.” As you acknowledge, these researchers are trained, world-class experts. Wouldn’t it behoove us to listen to what they have to say?

To attract and retain skilled researchers, we have to foster an environment in which they feel fulfilled and secure in their work. In other words, we need a government commitment to evidence-based policy making and a system that allows researchers room to explore. If the government wants industry to work with our scientists, it should be prepared to serve as a role model and do the same. Science is about discovering the laws of nature—these are laws none of us can defy. Only by learning more about them, rather than denying them, will we be able to harness them to our advantage.

Further, for our scientists to succeed, we have to give them room to fail, without the fear that they’ll lose their jobs or grants. Researchers who “push the frontiers of knowledge” are bound to run into a few dead ends. When we learn about scientific progress, we get a sanitized version of history, where discoveries are made regularly, linearly. What non-scientists don’t see are the frustrations, the setbacks, and the outright failures that come with every step forward. These difficulties are part of science, but in the rush to commercialize research, the value they add to the sum of human knowledge is likely to be overlooked.

Excellence in Public and Post-Secondary Research and Development

  • How might Canada build upon its success as a world leader in discovery-driven research?
  • Is the Government of Canada’s suite of programs appropriately designed to best support research excellence? 

Although I understand that this government’s focus is on developing commercial applications of science, the fact is that you can’t apply what you don’t have. Investment in pure science is just as important as developing new technologies; what discoveries will turn out to have useful applications in the future are almost impossible to predict with certainty. Who could have imagined that Max Planck’s musings about quantum theory in the early 1900s would pave the way for the now-ubiquitous laser? And if Galileo hadn’t turned his telescope to the sky—out of curiosity rather than for commerce—and discovered that moons orbit other planets, we might still be terrified of eclipses and bewildered by the tides. (Incidentally, how many years do you figure the whole of civilization was set back by the Church’s persecution of Galileo and its denial of his theories?)

Support for pure science is also what will bring us the next generation of inquisitive, creative, scientific minds. James Day, a UBC superconductivity and physics education researcher, once said to me, “Kids who become interested in science usually get into it in one of two ways: through dinosaurs or through stars.” Neither paleontology nor astronomy are probable sources for the kinds of commercialization this government seems to be after—but to neglect these and other pure sciences in favour of those you somehow deem more likely to yield new products or processes is to deprive future generations of Canadians the opportunity of carrying on our scientific researchers’ impressive legacy.

Sources

Gulrez Shah Azhar. “Access to information is crucial for science.” The Lancet, Vol. 377, April 23, 2011, p. 1404.

Emily Chung. “No more free access to Canadian science journals,” CBC News. March 8, 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/no-more-free-access-to-canadian-science-journals-1.1044255.

Industry Canada. Seizing Canada’s Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation. Ottawa: Industry Canada, 2014.

Carl Lagoze and Herbert Van de Sompel. “The open archives initiative: building a low-barrier interoperability framework.” Proceedings of the ACM/IEEE Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, Roanoke VA, June 24–28, 2001, pp. 54-62.

Peter Levesque. “Knowledge mobilization as readiness for care.” Institute for Knowledge Mobilization. November 24, 2010. http://www.knowledgemobilization.net/archives/261

Richard Van Noorden. “Open access: The true cost of science publishing” Nature, Vol. 495, March 27, 2013, pp. 426–429. http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-the-true-cost-of-science-publishing-1.12676

Peter Levesque—What is the role of plain language in knowledge mobilization? (PLAIN 2013)

How do we measure the value of research?

Productivity in academia is still largely measured using the “publish or perish” model: the longer your list of publications, the more quickly you rise through the ranks in the ivory towers.

But what happens to the research after it’s out there? In an ideal world, industry, government, and community groups put it to use, and other researchers build on it to make more discoveries. “If we put billions of dollars into research, shouldn’t we get billions of dollars’ worth of value?” asked Peter Levesque, director of the Institute for Knowledge Mobilization. “We couldn’t answer that question,” he told us, “because we didn’t know what we were getting.”

Part of the disconnect comes from the data explosion of the information age. For example, in 1945, fewer than five hundred articles were published in geology—it was possible for a geologist to know everything in his or her field. Today, thousands of geology articles are published each year, and there’s no way a researcher can keep on top of all of the research. Levesque gave another example: a family doctor would have to read seven research articles a day, every day of the year, to keep up with the latest discoveries. Physicians don’t know the latest research simply because they can’t.

Disseminating research via the traditional passive push of journals and conferences isn’t effectively getting the knowledge into the hands of people who can use it. The growing complexity and interdisciplinarity of research is also demanding a shift in thinking. This recognition—that knowing isn’t the same thing as doing—is one of the foundations of knowledge mobilization, which advocates not only a push of knowledge but an active pull and exchange, creating linkages between communities and encouraging joint production. Knowledge mobilization, admits Levesque, is a term wrapped up in jargon: there are over ninety terms used to describe essentially the same concept, including knowledge translation and knowledge transfer, but they all boil down to “making what we know ready to be put into service and action to create new value and benefits.” Knowledge mobilization is still a system under construction, said Levesque, but it is a promise of improvement. By getting the latest evidence into the hands of those who develop our policies, programs, and procedures, we can improve—and in some cases save—lives.

So where does plain language come in? Well, if the evidence we’re using is incomprehensible, it’s effectively useless. Solutions in complex systems require input from several sources of knowledge, and specialized language creates barriers to interdisciplinary communication. Because academics aren’t used to communicating in plain language, they need plain language practitioners to translate the knowledge for them or to consult them on knowledge mobilization projects.

A practical example of knowledge mobilization in action is ResearchImpact, where universities from across Canada have posted over four hundred plain language summaries of research. Another example is the Cochrane Collaboration, the world’s largest organization that makes current medical research, including systematic reviews and meta-analyses, available to all government, industry, community, and academic stakeholders. The Knowledge Transfer and Exchange Community of Practice aims to connect the practitioners of knowledge transfer from across the country.

Levesque advocates continuing the conversation between the plain language and knowledge mobilization communities to strengthen the links between the groups. One opportunity to do so is the Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum, set for June 9, 2014, in Saskatoon.