Jeremy Côté

What Makes Your Work Important?

As a graduate student, I’m no stranger to reading lots of papers. Okay, that’s not quite true. I’m used to reading parts of papers. We don’t tend to go through the whole thing like you might a book. Instead, I’m looking for bits that might be useful for me.

Despite this, I’m not just scouring the papers for information. I’m not a computer, so digging through raw information isn’t pleasant. In fact, studying a paper that is simply a bunch of calculations with little surrounding context is something I try to avoid as much as possible. Too often though, I fear we as writers of scientific articles can get stuck in “information delivery” mode.

What do I mean by this? Essentially, this mode only focuses on giving the reader the details. Think of it like going through a bunch of results step by step, but with no context. Just mathematics and results. Would it be useful? Maybe. But it would also be super-boring to read.

When I’m trying to find meaning in a scientific paper, my goal isn’t to find the result. It’s to understand what it means within the broader web of science (link to the web of science). We can present scientific results in a vacuum, but they don’t live in a vacuum. Instead, results have tendrils that connect to other results. They have context, and ignoring it makes understanding the results so much weaker.

I first noticed this problem when working on my PSI essay for my master’s degree. We needed to write a thirty-page essay on a scientific topic, showing research-level knowledge of a subject. For most of us, I would say that this was fine. What was tricky—at least, from the essays I looked at—was writing the introduction and conclusion. As a reader, I may not be able to understand all of the details that my friends studied, but I wanted to know how their results fit into a broader context. This is exactly what the introduction and conclusion are made to do. It doesn’t have to be a collection of earth-shattering connections either. I just want to know what the results mean! But this is what seemed to stump people the most.

It’s related to the issue of levels of abstraction. When we work on a scientific problem, we tend to stay in the trenches, trekking through the details. But when it’s time to bring our results into the broader fold of scientific knowledge, we can’t remain in the trenches. We have to climb out and take a bird’s eye view of the landscape. Only then is it possible to talk about our work within the broader ideas of science.

This is difficult, and something I know I wasn’t familiar with doing. As a student, my job was always to study the details. But as a scientist, my responsibility is to communicate my ideas and bring them to a wider audience (even if that’s just within my research field). Doing so requires this ability to get away from the details and talk about the meaning of my work. And yes, it’s not always comfortable, particularly when you see that many are prone to showering their work with hype. However, it’s a job that’s worth doing, because this is how you get people to react to your work.

Every time I read a research paper, a technical blog post, some other piece of science communication, I jump to the question, “What’s the story?” I want to know the reason for why this work is important. If you can’t tell me that, then something is wrong. I understand that, as a student, you might not have a full idea of what this means. That’s okay, I was in the exact same position. The crucial part is taking the time to reflect on what makes your scientific work worth doing? Answer that, and the story becomes clear.

As scientists, we need to be more than repositories of information. We have to be storytellers. It’s the way to entice people to read our work, as well as giving them a way to fit our ideas into the broader scientific web.