Explaining Research cover
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Of course, publishing excellent research papers is central to your professional success. However, lay-level explanations of your work—news releases, Web sites, videos, and so on—can convey information that even the most brilliant scientific paper cannot. For example, a scientific paper does not effectively explain the broader implications and applications of your work. It has room only for the briefest allusion to those implications. Witness perhaps the most famous such perfunctory line in the history of science—James Watson and Frances Crick's terse sentence in their 1953 Nature paper on the implication of their proposed structure of DNA:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

Needless to say, that copying mechanism provided the basis for understanding how life replicates and evolves, as well as underpinning the genomic revolution.

Lay-level articles might, in fact, be more effective than scientific papers at reaching some important professional audiences such as researchers in other fields. While peers in your area of expertise will read your paper, researchers outside your immediate area might not. If you are, say, a molecular biologist, you cannot expect a biomedical engineer—who could contribute ideas to your work or collaborate with you—to read the molecular biology journal that publishes your latest paper. However, that engineer might read USA Today, Scientific American, Science, Science News, Nature, New Scientist, or Chemical & Engineering News—all of which might publish articles on your research findings.

Science communicator Ben Patrusky recalls many instances in which such lay-level presentations led to invaluable collaborations. For three decades, Patrusky organized the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing's New Horizons in Science Briefings for science writers, which features a variety of scientists discussing their work at a lay level. "There have been numerous collaborations developed at CASW which would not have happened but for CASW," says Patrusky. "For example, there was the geophysicist at one meeting where he heard a talk by a surgeon/geneticist about treating a critical illness. And he saw that the computational algorithm for predicting earthquakes and other catastrophes he was working on applied to that field. So, the two people—who otherwise would never have even seen one another—formed a collaboration."

Also, when posted on the Internet, lay-level communications such as news releases convey your work globally and on an equal basis with major media stories. For example, the news release on your latest paper, distributed by research news service such as EurekAlert!, will be listed on Google News and Yahoo! News right along with stories from The New York Times and other media outlets. In contrast, your scientific paper is far less likely to be picked up by search engines. In fact, many scientists search out news releases as quick summaries of a piece of work and its implications.

(Next: Media Coverage Affects Citations)