It’s long been said that children are tiny philosophers. They observe and evaluate the world around them fearlessly, asking their parents—and pretty much anyone willing to listen—endless questions of “why?” and “how?” They want answers, and clear ones.
It should be no surprise, then, that children are drawn to science. As the young audience for science grows, publishing powerhouses are launching kid-targeted journals and welcoming children into the editorial process, with a global network of professionals mentoring them on best practices.
The Washington Post published a feature story on the editing process at the delightfully rigorous science journal, Frontiers for Young Minds, where top scientists—including Nobel Prize winners—submit their work to young reviewers between the ages of 8 and 15 years old. For this journal in particular, clarity and accessibility are key priorities.
“It’s so important,” says a 2014 Nobel-winner May-Britt Moser, whose work has appeared in the journal. “What we say in our lab is, ‘If you can’t communicate your findings to children, then you haven’t understood it yourself.’” So far, 10 Nobel Prize winners have had papers published in the prestigious children’s scientific journal. Ten more Nobel winners have papers under review.
The editorial staff has no hesitation requesting revisions from the world’s preeminent researchers. Israeli brain researcher Idan Segev and a colleague from Switzerland had to revise a paper on “the Human Brain project” three times before it was accepted for publication. His project is an attempt to input all our knowledge of the mind into a large computer model.
He was happy to reframe his work for an audience of young readers. “Everything can be explained,” Prof. Segev said. “I’m sure of it.”
Frontiers for Young Minds has been in existence for nine years, and has garnered nearly 30 million online page views worldwide. It is published in English, Arabic, and Hebrew, and plans to publish in French and Mandarin as well. Its success is more than the quality of content. The journal understands its audience: “Science for kids, edited by kids.”
Want to start a spirited argument at a scientific conference? Begin lamenting over communication challenges with the general public.
Almost all fields of expertise have a jargon problem. When an audience turns inward, you can’t help but create your own language. Jargon plays an important role in establishing a technical vocabulary that allows us to discuss nuances within complicated concepts with maximum precision. Jargon can also be a time-saver, a handy tool for developing shorthand for those already in the circle.
However, jargon is not a great tool for growing an audience. The best way to build trust and engage with new audiences is to understand the current knowledge, priorities, and values of that audience and meet them where they are.
At its highest levels, science needs a technical vocabulary. But we don’t need it all the time. We can all benefit from reading the room.
Interestingly, the public is not the only audience turned off by excessively erudite, verbose, jargon-laden prose. A study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B looked at more than 21,000 scientific manuscripts, and found that papers with high quantities of jargon in their titles and abstracts were cited less frequently by other researchers. They concluded that “science communication—with the public but also among scientists—suffers when a research paper is packed with too much specialized terminology.”
Maybe the kids have a point. Work that is written “by scientists, for scientists, edited by scientists,” will always be the keystone of the field itself. But, once again, children have held up a mirror to the habits of adulthood we’ve put on autopilot, and given us a lot to think about.