Kristin Sainani M.S. ’99 Ph.D. ’02, clinical assistant professor in health research and policy, is on a campaign against bad science writing.
“I think scientists really need to know how to write well,” she said. “Why shouldn’t [the general public] be able to understand why research and work is being done?”
Sainani, who was motivated by what she saw as an excessive amount of jargon and poor writing standards in the sciences, started a course called Writing in the Sciences in 2003. This year, she is teaching her class online on Coursera, a massive open online course (MOOC) platform founded by Stanford computer science professors. Nearly 30,000 students are signed up for the class online.
“When you’re in your own culture of science, you do develop your own language,” she said. “You start using jargon because everyone in your own little niche of academia uses the same jargon.”
The scientific community, she feels, has created a self-perpetuating culture of complexity.
“I don’t think it’s intentional, but that’s just the way things are done. Unfortunately, this creates a situation where things are hard to read even for scientists.”
“If you’re going to write for an audience that is wider than that little niche, then all those acronyms and that jargon are going to get in the way of getting your point across,” she added, jokingly suggesting that the problem creates job security in the sciences.
Although the effort seems innocuous, Sainani has faced some backlash.
“People worry that you’re going to be less precise, and that you’re going to ‘dumb down science,’” she said.
A desire to make her lessons more widely accessible and a seed grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning led Sainani to move her class online this year.
In the past, she had received email requests for her class materials and tried sharing them through online PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos. Wanting to make the process simpler, she designed a module-based version of her in-class course, based on a short video-lecture format.
“It took some time to figure out how to take the material and put it in these smaller modules to adapt it to the smaller format,” she said. “All my didactic content is now in modulized videos<\p>…<\p>in class, we can do some actual writing and editing.”
Much of her advice to writers is closer to common sense than advanced writing techniques.
“When I was a graduate student, you just learned to write papers by looking at what was around you,” she said. “Teaching writing formally can go a long way to teach scientists to write things that are understandable. They’re very simple tips, but are not usually taught to scientists.”
So far, feedback from students has been positive.
“I’m more than happy with the initiative,” said Carol Croffield, a student taking the course online. “Professor Sainani has delivered outstanding lectures far exceeding my expectations for an online course.”
With characteristic conciseness, Sainani summarized the one piece of advice she has for all technical writers.
“Envision that your audience is not just the technical person sitting next to you, and write intending to show [your work] to a larger audience,” she said.