Sunday, February 28, 2010

What could scientists learn about concise writing by summarizing their papers on Twitter?

A Twitter contest with hashtag #sci140 sponsored by the science blog Faculty of 1000 asked readers to summarize research papers (either their own or classics) within Twitter's 140-character limit (actually less, to leave room for the identifying hashtag). Most contestants opted for the classics, summarizing famous breakthrough papers from the points of view of their authors and benefiting from audience familiarity with the work. Some examples:
Where are you, Heis? “Don’t know exactly, but I can tell you how fast I’m going!”

Salt of DNA structure= double helix. Strands anti-parallel; has implications. (PS Rosie didn’t help)

Dropped heavy and light ball at Pisa; saw landed at same time. Peer review problems now, especially after telescope incident.
The tongue-in-cheek entries, funny as they are, don't tell us much about the usefulness of Twitter in actual scientific discourse. What if you try to use Twitter to summarize an unknown research paper? That's what intrigues Coturnix at Blog around the Clock.
I found tweets about people's own papers fascinating. Why are these tweets so much clearer about the papers than the actual official titles of those same papers? Can we or should we try to make our papers' titles so short yet so informative as if they will be tweeted in full?

Twitter forces one to think about the economy of words, to become much more efficient with one's use of language. It takes work and thought and practice to get to the point of tweeting truly well. I remember Jay Rosen once saying that some of his tweets take 45 minutes to compose and edit until he is satisfied that the text uses the words for maximal clarity and impact. There is no luxury in using superfluous language and the result can be a crystal-clear statement or description that far outshines the often-wordy original.
What do you think? Can the constraints of Twitter actually improve communication in complex technical fields by cutting through the clutter with clear and concise summaries? Can it enhance communication, or does it simply increase noise, just adding to the clutter and chatter that bombard us on all sides?


Anonymous said...


Madison Guy said...

That was one of the entries.