Explaining science using simple words: Up Goer Five

While thoroughly enjoying the recent #overlyhonestmethods meme on twitter I came across the #upgoerfive meme.

This latest meme was inspired by an xkcd comic that attempted to explain the Saturn V rocket using only the 1000 most common English words.  Saturn V becomes Up Goer Five.

So Theo Sanderson created a text editor that only allows you to use the 100 most common English words and challenged scientists to explain what they do using simple language. It isn’t easy.  Anne Jefferson and Chris Rowan (of the excellent blog Highly Allochthonous) then created a tumblr blog collecting examples, like this description from volcanologist Lockwood Dewitt:

I like rocks. Also high places that sometimes act like they’re on fire. But what I really like is sharing what I know about rocks and high places, and how those things came to be. What made them? What moved them? Why are they the way they are? I think the answers to these questions are important, and I think people should know more about them. So I use words and pictures to show everyone how beautiful and amazing rocks and high places are, why they’re important to us, and why it’s important to know about them. Sometimes I even get to take people to see rocks in real life, which is the best part of what I do.

I tried my hand at explaining my job in simple language:

I help people learn about the different types of stuff they can find on the computer. I help them find books and computer stuff they need to learn about the world around them.  And I help them learn about how people tell other people about what they learned.

One of the first things I thought of was how this forces you to really think about the topic you are writing about, because you can’t rely on the jargon you normally use.

My next thought was that this could be a useful exercise for students, and could help them understand the concept of “putting something into their own words,” a concept that I talk about often in plagiarism workshops.

The first part of putting something into your own words is to really understand what you are trying to say, a step that students sometimes skip when putting together their term paper at 1am the morning before it is due.

So this might be an interesting challenge for students: ask them to use the Up Goer Five text editor to explain their research or term paper topic.

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The never ending literature search

I’ve mentioned it before: I like searching for information.  I like it so much, that sometimes I just keep going beyond the point where a rational person would stop and say “I have what I need.”

There is a lot of advice about conducting a literature search.  In fact, it is my job to give a lot of advice about how to conduct a literature search.  Much of this advice focuses on the literature search as a cycle, where you often need to return to earlier steps, like this image from the Workshop on the Information Search Process for Research (From the University of Calgary):

Information Search ProfcessBut there is rarely any advice about that last step, “Search Closure.”  How do I know when I’m done searching?

Perhaps many librarians have this problem, but it’s been hitting home recently as I try to manage several publication projects.  I’m rarely convinced that I found everything I need.

This can manifest itself in two ways.

First, the literature on the topic can be really extensive.  Have I actually found the most relevant papers?  Do I have anything to add to an already large body of literature?  At some point, I need to trust my own skills and say that I have found a sufficient amount of information for my needs.  I need to (perhaps repeatedly) tell myself that I probably don’t need to track down every single paper on the topic.

Second, I may not find much of anything.  Am I using the correct search terms?  Should I try other databases/search engines?  Is it really possible that I’m doing something that hasn’t been done before?  This is where I start asking colleagues for advice.  What keywords would you use?  Have you heard of anything like this before?  And at some point, I need to trust my own skills and examine the possibility that there just might not be anything published on my topic.

Of course, the never ending literature search is just one more excuse to put off the harder stuff: writing the actual paper.  (Perhaps writing this blog post about the never ending literature search is another excuse to put off writing the actual paper!)