Mark Liberman recently wrote at the Language Log about a case of misinterpreted science. Liberman begins by describing a study showing that how couples use function words can predict their interest in each other and the stability of their relationship, meaning that the more similar their use of small words such as prepositions and articles, the more likely a couple is to start and continue dating. The researchers, who studied transcripts of speed-dating sessions and IM chat sessions between established couples, call this similarity “Language Style Matching.” Based on this research report, Liberman continues, the popular blog iO9 wrote a post claiming that “Using very short words can make people fall in love with you.” What?
Whether it’s sloppy reading, scientific illiteracy, or just lazy writing, it seems that journalists can really foul up research findings. You want the world to know about your research, especially if it has far-reaching implications, but how can researchers be sure that the message doesn’t come out as garbled as a message in a game of telephone?
The answer: Translation. Most journalists, though researchers might wish otherwise, are not trained to read and interpret academic papers or statistical analyses. Though there’s no way to absolutely control how people write about your research, proactively translating your message into terms that are easy for the layperson to understand is a good way to help ensure your work is presented more accurately. You may also want to put your message into media that the layperson understands—a blog post, a podcast, a YouTube video, or, if you’re extraordinarily concise, a tweet. You could even go the old fashioned route and create a press release.
What might that translation look like? Here is a set of YouTube videos that serve as “video abstracts” for articles published in Sociology Compass. In the first video, the author, whose paper is about the need for hate crime laws, stands on the very sidewalk where a heinous hate crime happened in Portland years before. Setting his video at the scene of a crime and explaining there, across the street from the victim’s apartment, what sets hate crimes apart from ordinary attacks and murders, makes his story accessible and compelling, even to a non-sociologist. Without reading the article, viewers can understand what this researcher’s work is about. Not everyone has shocking or visceral research findings to work with, but simply hearing a person talk about their work, seeing and hearing the author on video, can humanize the research itself.
Part of our mission at the SSRC is making research by DePaul’s faculty more widely accessible and comprehensible to the public at large. We can help you move your research findings out of the Ivory Tower into the world, by assisting you in creating a video or podcast to talk about your work, or discovering new publishing venues, or even just by working with you to refine your elevator pitch.