Thursday, June 30, 2011

Good science writing - CURING OLD VICES

Common vices in science writing include the use of the passive voice instead of the active, the use of the subjunctive mood instead of the present or future tense, the over-use of adjectives to describe a single noun, and the use of professional terminology or ‘jargon’. It is quite easy to purge oneself of these bad habits without having to go back to school to study grammar and syntax.

A great deal of science is written in the passive voice, rather than the active. The active expresses the action directly: ‘We pursued the research’. The passive focuses on the object being acted on: ‘The research was pursued by us’. The reason for overusing the passive voice probably lies in the desire of scientists to appear objective and impersonal when describing experiments and their results. However, science uses the passive to gruesome excess; this makes the writing ponderous and less easily digested than it should be. It adds unnecessary words – in the above example, 50 per cent more words are used by the passive. Writing for the public should avoid the passive voice as far as possible (e.g. instead of saying ‘The passive voice should be avoided in writing for the public …’.). Even scientific editors no longer favour the passive. Search for it in your writing and convert it ruthlessly to the active voice. Your prose will sparkle with new vigour and directness.

For example: ‘In this study the chemodynamics of heavy metals in soils were investigated.’ Why not simply ‘In this study we investigated the chemodynamics of heavy metals in soils’? Or instead of ‘A new treatment for diabetes has been developed by Australian scientists’, just write ‘Australian scientists have developed a new treatment for diabetes.’

The use of the subjunctive mood is a common feature of science writing, which makes it more turgid and its meaning more vague and uncertain to the reader. Without getting into technicalities, the subjunctive is characterised by the use of words like ‘would’, ‘could’, ‘should’, ‘may’ and ‘might’. These are often preferred by scientists to the use of the present tense (is, are) or the future tense (will, shall). However, they increase uncertainty in the reader as to what is meant – and removing them often does little damage to the sense. For example, in the sentence ‘Heavy metals could pollute soil or groundwater … ’ the word ‘could’ can be omitted: ‘Heavy metals pollute soil or groundwater … ’ This is simply a cleaner, more direct way of writing, which avoids the subjunctive but does not significantly alter the intended meaning. It expresses the meaning more directly and with less uncertainty.

Of course, science often wants to convey a degree of uncertainty, and this is the reason for the ubiquitous ‘could’ and ‘would’. However, this is often faulty reasoning on the part of the writer. Uncertainty can be conveyed directly by stating that the conclusion is not certain, or open to different interpretations, and explaining why. This is more direct and honest than using syntax to obscure the meaning, and the reader will appreciate it. Where it is unavoidable, the word ‘may’ is often preferable: ‘The universe may end, not in a bang but a whimper … ’

Source of Information : CSIRO-Open Science Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century 2010

Monday, June 27, 2011

Good science writing

Science is by its nature complicated, making it all the more important that good science writing should be simple, clean and clear. Alas, achieving clarity is something that escapes many scientific writers, whether they are addressing their peers, a knowledgeable but non-scientific audience, or society at large. Indeed, the reader often receives the impression that the writer has not thought much about their audience at all, as they struggled to give birth to long, tortuous and impenetrable prose, with clause piled upon clause, adjective upon adjective, idea upon idea. A good deal of science writing more closely resembles a train wreck than an act of communion with the reader: with words scattered like carriages all over the line.

Good writing begins with the need to pause and reflect on the audience. Who are they? What do they want from your science? How much time do they have for what you are about to tell them? What is their level of literacy or technical understanding? How do they speak and write themselves? What are the issues they are most concerned about or interested in? What will win their hearts or engage their intellects?

Finding out these things requires a skill at which scientists excel, but rarely, in this particular case, undertake: research.

In some situations the answers are easy to come by. Science journalists, for example, usually have a fairly clear idea of their audience, both from surveys carried out by their publisher and from first-hand contact with readers/viewers or receipt of their letters and emails. Technical writers for an industry or professional magazine often have a very clear idea who they are writing for. The communicator for a scientific institution, however, has the challenge of a wide diversity of possible audiences – government, industry, scientists, peers, non-government organizations (NGOs) and special interest groups, the general public and other ‘stakeholders’ – and has to tune the writing for each audience according to their needs. This often requires research. The same goes for scientists, who are passionate about their work and anxious to share its gems with a wider public: understanding this audience and its needs is an important first step in writing well. For the freelance writer, whose work may end up anywhere from full-length books to short news items, understanding the audience is even more critical, because making a living depends upon it. The advice in this chapter is generic. It is intended for all who write about science, in particular those mentioned above. It refers chiefly to writing for non-scientific audiences – the public, politicians, farmers, industry, and so on – but many of the principles apply equally to good writing in science journals, scientific and institutional reports, and on the internet.

Source of Information : CSIRO-Open Science Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century 2010

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Earlier we referred to the growing mistrust of science by society, to the increasing significance of ethical issues, to the questioning of the need for change, to the public’s fear of alienation and exclusion. These issues can all be addressed by making science a more open and democratic activity.

For the true ‘knowledge society’ to exist, a cultural change is necessary within science itself, which recognizes:

• That the knowledge possessed by the community in the form of values, beliefs, traditions, morality, feelings and behaviors is critical to the successful uptake of scientific knowledge

• That ‘lay knowledge’ and ‘scientific knowledge’ are equal, and necessary, partners in the process of innovation and adoption

• That true communication is not just about sharing information, but more about sharing meaning and achieving a common understanding.

Foreshadowing the rise in the democratization of science, the UNESCO World Conference on Science said:

Today, whilst unprecedented advances in the sciences are foreseen, there is a need for a vigorous and informed democratic debate on the production and use of scientific knowledge. The scientific community and decision-makers should seek the strengthening of public trust and support for science through such a debate.

The Conference went on to declare:

The practice of scientific research and the use of knowledge from that research should always aim at the welfare of humankind, including the reduction of poverty, be respectful of the dignity and rights of human beings, and of the global environment, and take fully into account our responsibility towards present and future generations. There should be a new commitment to these important principles by all parties concerned.

A conference organized by the British Council concluded that science can, and should, become more open and democratic, and that citizens should be admitted as active partners and participants in the innovation process. It said efforts to promote a democratic science will encourage:

• openness

• transparency

• responsibility and accountability

• independent research and advice

• negotiation of appropriate technological trajectories

• meaningful dialogues

• development of skills and education policy

• forecasting and resolution of conflicts and crises

• equity in the distribution of knowledge and technological solutions.

In Open Science, we argue that the democratization of science is not merely desirable from a societal viewpoint, but also from a scientific one.
The community can bring to science many ideas and perspectives that will result in the science being more widely accepted, rapidly adopted or commercialized, and of greater value to more people than would otherwise be the case. Society can be a partner in the process instead of an uninformed, and occasionally reluctant and resentful, recipient.

Democratization will help to ease public fears about rapid and profound change, and help to allay concerns about loss of control or failure of ethical standards. It will reduce the risk of exclusion. In developing countries it will help bring knowledge to poor people far more quickly by engaging them in the process.

We also propose a charter for global science, technology and science communication in the 21st century, appealing to all the world’s scientific institutions, scientists, science managers, communicators and policy makers to renew the essential ideal – that science belongs to all humanity – and to join together in bringing it about.

It states:

1. Knowledge is the common heritage of all the world’s people.

2. The sharing of knowledge is as important as its discovery.

3. Science will be open. It will engage the community in a democratic dialogue, each recognizing the other as an equal partner in human advancement.

4. Partnership between all nations, developed and developing, in knowledge sharing is central to the peace, wellbeing, health and sustainability of humanity.

Source of Information : CSIRO-Open Science Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century 2010

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Universities and scientific institutions worldwide produce an avalanche of remarkable discoveries, insights and advances. However, their capacity to share this knowledge widely with the community, government and industry rarely matches their research skills. Their investment in communicating science is often only a fraction of their investment in discovery. Many invest 100 or even 1000 times more in R&D than they do in transmitting its results and ensuring these are well-adapted to society’s needs.

Some people justify this imbalance with the argument that they are research institutions, not communication or technology transfer institutions. In their eyes, their primary role is to discover, rather than to share. Where they do share, it is generally through the scientific literature and their educational activity, although this reaches only a tiny part of the populace. For the most part, scientific institutions are reluctant to invest resources in disseminating the fruits of science, either because they do not know how to or because they regard this as ‘a waste of money’, or because, bluntly, they cannot be bothered.

Because the public usually funds the science, these excuses are not acceptable. The withholding of knowledge generated with public funds is a form of theft from the people who paid for it, and it is time this moral issue was more widely acknowledged as a prelude to building a more open science.

Open Science, is about practical, basic and low-cost ways to share knowledge. It is about developing the awareness of scientific organizations about ways to deliver knowledge more effectively to the society they serve.

Open Science contends that we should be putting as much money, effort and creativity into communicating science as we do into discovery. We should regard those with the skills and abilities to transmit knowledge to where it is most needed as being of equal professional value with those who discover it, as it requires both for science to achieve its full value.

Source of Information : CSIRO-Open Science Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century 2010

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Patenting and the exclusive ownership of ‘intellectual property’ is a thorny issue, and it is not the purpose of this book to resolve it. Yet, because this affects the sharing of knowledge in many ways, both positively and negatively, it may be helpful to advance a few principles:

• The private sector and the market are an efficient way of sharing knowledge, and for extending its benefits to the wider community. This will be recognised by any effective science communication and awareness policy.

• Patenting and IP protection are important ways to ensure a fair return to industry for its investment in the research and development of new knowledge and technologies.

• Patenting and IP protection are vital ways to foster continued national innovation.

• IP protection is an important source of revenue for many research institutions, and a stimulus to further research and innovation and to science/industry partnerships.

However, patenting and IP protection has become an expensive industry in its own right, to the point where protecting a technology may cost more than the technology can return. It diverts efforts that should be put into disseminating new knowledge into, often fruitless, legal entanglements. Patents are frequently taken out when a commercially shrewder course would be to be first to market. IP has also become a tradable good in ways that do not reflect the true value of the knowledge to humanity, but rather its value to financial speculators.

Also patenting and IP protection conflict with the principle of the free and rapid sharing of human knowledge. They exclude large portions of humanity from the benefits of science, retard its delivery or price it beyond their reach, they distort the focus of public good research from what benefits society to what is profitable for a few, and they help undermine community trust in science.

In view of these conflicts and contradictions, it seems sensible to seek a middle ground that aims to maximize the benefits to humanity overall. Some ways to achieve this may include:

• Restricting IP and patents to novel scientific applications, constructs and technologies

• Recognizing all chemical elements, genes and naturally occurring materials as the common heritage of humanity, not as private

• Recognizing ‘primary knowledge’ as discovered by basic research as the common heritage of humanity

• Building obligations to discuss inform and educate the community into the granting of IP rights, making the process more transparent and the consequences of new technologies more subject to public scrutiny

• Encouraging greater communication by patent holders, using effective communication techniques

• Encouraging those who take out patents and protect IP to heed the wishes and needs of society, and to engage in an effective two-way dialogue

• Developing knowledge-sharing partnerships between science, industry and the community

• Creating an international fund to buy out patents, or recompense their owners, in cases where a protected technology is urgently required to save life and deliver large-scale social or environmental benefits in the developing world.

Source of Information : CSIRO-Open Science Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century 2010

Monday, June 6, 2011


In the morning of the 21st century, knowledge grows faster than anything that humans now produce (with the possible exception of environmental degradation). Faster than food or minerals, faster than manufactured goods, faster than entertainment, faster than money. Since the work of economist and Nobel laureate Paul Rohmer in the 1970s, knowledge has come to be recognised as the primary driver in the creation of the world’s prosperity.

With such a surfeit of knowledge, and with such an abyss widening between the possessors and the dispossessed, it is time to contemplate a return to a more traditional ideal: that knowledge is the common heritage of all peoples. Not a weapon: a tool of domination or oppression. Not an exclusive possession. Something open to all.

For decades the affluent world has bemoaned the plight of the poor world, yet failed to solve the problem. One reason for this may be the assumption that poverty is a lack of wealth and requires massive transfers of money to remedy it. In reality, poverty more often results from a lack of knowledge. This is the reason it so often appears intractable, despite the millions of dollars thrown at it: money may alleviate the symptoms, but does little to eliminate the causes. Knowledge, on the other hand, empowers people to overcome their own disadvantages and gives them the confidence to do so. Unlike money, it can be shared both easily and freely. The economic miracles of modern China and India both began with the sharing of Western scientific knowledge about food production, and by these countries then applying knowledge in their own ways to create a secure and stable foundation for growth in the rest of their economies. In both cases, agricultural knowledge came first, and was a primary driver in the shift from poverty to prosperity and self-determination.

The successful sharing of knowledge about food production led to the sharing of other kinds of knowledge – health care, industrial and mineral know-how, water and energy, information technology and communications, and a growing awareness of the need to educate all citizens and to protect the environment.

If the world’s great challenges in the 21st century are to be successfully addressed, then open science is essential. The cost of this is relatively small and is advantageous to everyone because of the dividends it yields in trade, employment, peace and stability. It has the salient virtue of permitting developing countries to choose those aspects of science and technology that they most need and that best suit their culture, their people, their climate and their environment. If knowledge is widely available within a developing country, it allows individuals and communities to take charge of their own destiny and to build a better future for themselves and their children. This in turn brings prosperity, which can in turn deliver three critical benefits:

• A voluntary reduction in the birth rate, leading ultimately to reduced pressure on key resources such as water and land

• Greater political stability and democratization, resulting in fewer conflicts and refugee crises

• Enhanced trade and employment, to the mutual benefit of both developed and developing partners.

The difference between knowledge and money is that money is easily squandered and then cannot readily be renewed. Knowledge, it is true, may be wasted – but once shared, it is usually remains accessible to a community for a very long time and can be applied when required. In the case of the Green Revolution, it is easy to see how the gift of knowledge, adapted for local culture and conditions, can be used by billions of people to build a better future for themselves and their children. It is also clear that knowledge in the hands of billions of people can do more good and generate more economic growth than it can by merely occupying university library shelves or being restricted to a narrow market among the very affluent.

Because knowledge holds the key to wealth and power, as Francis Bacon said, there is a real risk that if the exponential growth of knowledge is confined mainly to wealthy countries, corporations and elites, it will simply widen the gap between the well-off and poor worlds, accelerating the transfer of wealth and resources from the have-nots to the haves.

In its Framework for Action, the 21st UNESCO World Conference on Science acknowledged that, while science and its applications are indispensable for development, the benefits are very unevenly distributed across countries, regions, peoples and the sexes. It also observed that while science has great potential for good, it also has equal scope for harm and so must be embedded in sound ethical principles. It warned that developing countries, especially those rich in biodiversity and natural resources, require special protection from exploitation by wealthy industrial companies from the developed world. It also urged ‘better understanding and use of traditional knowledge systems’ alongside modern science.

In its closing declaration, the Conference emphasized four issues:

1. There is a need for a vigorous and informed democratic debate on the production and use of scientific knowledge (authors’ emphasis).

2. The benefits of science are unevenly distributed; equal access to science is a social and ethical requirement for human development.

3. Science is indispensable to human progress – but its applications can have detrimental consequences for individuals, societies and the environment.

4. All scientists should commit themselves to high ethical standards, based on human rights instruments. Political authorities must respect this.

Only science can deliver humanity from the consequences of the ‘big six’ crises bearing down on us: the crisis in water; the crisis in resource scarcity; the crisis in land degradation, contamination and species loss; the crisis in food security; the crisis in health; and the crisis in climate change. But none of these can be remedied by governments merely changing a few laws or by companies adopting a few new technologies. Each demands profound change in human behaviour on the part of almost every individual on the planet and, for this to occur, the knowledge of both the problem and what to do about it must first be shared. Science must be open to all.

For example, if climate change could be solved merely by adding geosequestration technology to a few thousand power stations and switching to hydrogen-fuelled cars, it would be fine. But it cannot. It can be addressed only by changing almost every aspect of our lives: from what we eat, to what we wear, how we live, how we raise our children and how many we choose to have, and how we use energy, water and other resources. Such huge behavioural change depends on knowledge sharing on a pan-species scale, rather than on fragmentary technofixes. The same applies to each of the ‘big six’.

The problem is that while the world is very well set up to develop scientific solutions and technofixes, it is poorly equipped to open knowledge to humanity en masse and universally in forms that they can apply in their daily lives and work. The amount invested in knowledge delivery and adoption is, as a rule, only a tiny fraction of the amount spent on research. Indeed, many of the major problems facing humanity could possibly be solved by applying existing knowledge better and more widely, rather then discovering new – though this should not be taken as an argument to reduce R&D.

The answers to the ‘big six’ crises now confronting humanity, and which will dominate our destiny in the 21st century, lie not only the creation of new knowledge but more especially in the effective dissemination, sharing and use by people at large of all relevant knowledge. The fate of humanity in this century may well rest on whether or not science becomes more open.

Source of Information : CSIRO-Open Science Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century 2010