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Translating scientific papers for the public.

Translating scientific papers for the public

18 December 2023

Eager to make your research accessible to a general audience without glossing over all the effort that has gone into your work? Try creating “doodle summaries” of your papers.

Simple wording and sketched illustrations overlay the title and author list of a scientific paper.
Credit: Claire Lamman for Physics Today

Communicating scientific results to a general audience is difficult. Communicating the tangle of methods and analysis that support neatly packaged results, not to mention the uncertainties, is even more challenging. To lift the hood on the process, I suggest a method to communicate science in the most direct way possible: by doodling annotations on scientific papers.

Simple explanations help clarify a graph in the Riess et al 1998 paper.
A doodle summary can deemphasize the jargon and symbols on plots and highlight the takeaways. Credit: Claire Lamman for Physics Today

This idea came about when my mom mentioned that she was excited to read a recent paper of mine. The research was on a subtle systematic effect in cosmological surveys, specific enough that I worried even people in my field would have difficulty understanding it. I wanted to annotate the paper, which was published in June in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in a way that gave my mom a real idea of my work and what went into it. The result was a “doodle summary” of my paper. I linked to it on the paper’s arXiv page and received a large, positive reception from other scientists. I’ve since published another summary.

The annotated-paper approach has proven to be a multiuse tool. It’s helpful for describing my work to colleagues, sharing the content of papers with undergraduates, and explaining to the public what actually goes into a scientific paper. I’ve found that general audiences are often surprised by how much work underlies a single result, and how much of a paper scientists may devote to describing all the reasons they may be wrong. The paper summary enables deep-level understanding of a scientific project without the need to wade through the detailed text of the paper itself. It’s also a clean way to visually communicate the most important ideas in plots and tables.

Other scientists have now made similar summaries of their papers, and I would be excited to see more. Though some artistic skill is helpful for those wanting to include doodles, all that is really needed is PowerPoint and some reflection about what the most important ideas in a paper are.

Here, I demonstrate the doodle translation on a widely known study that was published 25 years ago: the Astronomical Journal paper by Adam Riess and colleagues that used observations of supernovae to make a compelling case that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Along with research by Saul Perlmutter and collaborators that was published in the Astrophysical Journal several months later, it is the most consequential result in modern cosmology, one that was recognized with the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Simple wording, sketches, and a cartoon overlay the complex wording of a scientific paper.
A combination of text and simple illustrations can help distill lengthy sections of a paper for a lay audience. Credit: Claire Lamman for Physics Today

I’ve translated the 1998 Riess et al. paper for a more general audience by summarizing the main ideas in each section and including brief background when necessary (along with fun doodles even when not necessary). In the true spirit of scientists reading papers, you may not want to wade through the entire document. However, I hope it’s an entertaining demonstration of the value of communicating science directly from the source.

Claire Lamman is a cosmologist, science communicator, and PhD student at Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics.

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