How conveniently can you package your results?

April 13, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, Mike sent me a link to this interview with ecologist James O’Hanlon, who made this poster (borrowed from this post on O’Hanlon’s blog):

O'Hanlon et al isbeposter

We had a short email exchange which quickly converged on, “This would work well for some projects, but not for others.” That’s the same conclusion I came to in my recent review of my own paper titles: I am increasingly enamored of titles that are full sentences, because then if all someone reads is your title, they still know what you found. But not every paper can be summarized so neatly.

Beginning a tight little internet eddy that will be complete at the end of this post, Andy Farke posted my paper title review post on Facebook and it fired some discussion in the comments. Victoria Arbour wrote, “I’m trying to move more towards ‘sentence’ titles, but it’s difficult to come up with something that’s concise, accurate and nuanced sometimes!” I responded, “Totally agreed. There’s no one size fits all solution. I have no idea how John Foster and I could have turned the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus title into a sentence that wouldn’t have been a disaster. ‘Concise, accurate, and nuanced’ are all good goals, but they pull in different directions.”

But it got me thinking about the different ways that we can craft our results for effective delivery. The default package is long-form: the paper. Not just long, but narrowly targeted: just about every sub-sub-subfield has a core of diehards who will read your paper because it’s right in their wheelhouse and they basically have to, to stay caught up. You were going to reach them anyway. The real question – the question that, iterated over all of your papers, will decide the shape of your career – is who else are you going to reach? The answer is going to depend a lot on serendipity, but you can improve your chances by building something easily digestible – scattering the seeds of your results over as many brains as possible, to increase the number of successful germinations (which in this metaphor could be anything from citations to one-off collaborations to life-long friendships). Here’s what I have so far.

Four ways to efficiently package your results

I almost wrote, “four ways to weaponize and aerosolize your science”. You’re trying to infect people with your ideas. Here are some potential delivery mechanisms.

First, and already mentioned: a good title. Not “Aspects of the history, anatomy, taxonomy and palaeobiology of good heavens I have lost feeling in my extremities” but, whenever possible, something that either tells people what you found (the sentence title) or at least indicates that you found something interesting (the question title, some ‘hook’ titles – “Why giraffes have short necks”). See these three posts for more.

Wedel and Taylor 2013 bifurcation Figure 9 - bifurcatogram

Congratulations, now you’ve read Wedel and Taylor 2013a (to a first approximation). What are you going to do with all the time we just saved you?

Second, a summary figure. Discussed here. Nice because once people have seen that figure, they basically have your results in one convenient, portable, easily-digestible package. Downside: figures are usually entombed in papers, so this doesn’t count as an outreach maneuver unless you let the figure out into the wild some other way. Blog it, put it on Facebook, do something with it so that it functions as a funnel, catching people and pointing them toward your work.

Third, a punchy poster, like O’Hanlon’s. This has a similar caveat as the summary figure: if the only place people can see it is in its native environment (the paper, the scientific meeting), it’s still only preaching to the converted. Get it out where other people can see it. Second caveat: if the poster doesn’t point to something outside of itself, it doesn’t really count as outreach material. The best part of O’Hanlon’s poster is the QR code. If anyone is unhappy with how brief the poster is, they can follow the link and go down the rabbit hole. The depth of the engagement is in the user’s hands. Corollary: if your poster doesn’t have a QR code or a (tiny)URL, it’s a dead end. Why not make it into a gateway? It’s not a question of either/or, it’s an opportunity for yes/and.

ankylosaur heads by Victoria Arbour

Fourth, an infographic, like this one Victoria Arbour made to summarize some of the results from her big 2013 paper on Alberta ankylosaurs (borrowed from here). I thought it was ingenious when I first saw it (on Facebook), and I still do. You know why? Because I know jack about ankylosaurs, but this thing makes them seem both cool and tractable. Victoria is conveying, “There is structure here, and it makes sense. Let me guide you through it.” I instantly wanted something like this for every group of dinosaurs. You know who will appreciate you building something like this? Every other person besides the half-dozen grognards who work on the exact same thing you do (and maybe them, too). Gratitude leads to citations – people will go out of their way to cite your work just because they want other people to know about it.

Conclusions: give people a destination, give them choices, give them something

Three final points about all of this. First, none of these things work if there’s nowhere for interested parties to go, or nothing for them to find when they get there. If there’s a paper already, it had better justify the interest that made people look at it. Don’t let your catchy title be like the trailer for that movie that was 2 minutes of awesome and 1:58 of zzzzzzz. If there’s no paper yet, what are you pointing people to – a blog, a research website, a PeerJ preprint, some files on FigShare, a YouTube video, your open notebook, what? Give them somewhere to go. Immediate implication: if there’s nowhere else for interested people to go, why are you presenting now? Again: don’t build dead-ends, build gateways.

Next, if you think that crafting a second, tighter package strictly for the purposes of promotion is a bit gauche, here’s another perspective: you’re giving people more choices about how to engage with your work. A paper alone presents a very limited set of options. Read me (or skim me, or look at my figures), or don’t. Some people don’t have the activation energy that requires, and by ‘some people’ I mean everyone outside of your little niche. Most of them will never know that your work even exists. Craft something that will reach those people and give them an easy way in. Even for those closer to home, it may still make their lives easier. Have I actually read Arbour and Currie (2013)? No, but I looked at the pretty figures, because I saw the infographic on Facebook. So when I do need to know something about ankylosaurs (hey, stranger things have happened), I know where to turn – and who to cite. I, the user, have options. Give your users more options, and you may find that you get more users.

Third, it pays to stop and think about how people who aren’t in your narrow sub-sub-subfield are going to find out about your work. Do you have a blog? A Facebook account? Active on a mailing list or a forum? As long as that figure or poster or infographic sits in its native habitat, it’s only reaching the converted. Put it on your blog or on Facebook, now it’s something else, carrying your ideas out into the world: a missive, a missile, a missionary – all from the Latin mittere, ‘to send’. You’re already doing the work. Package it, neatly and tightly, and send it.

– – – – – – –

Many thanks to Victoria Arbour for permission to post her diagram, and for her patience over the 23 months that it has taken me to get around to doing so. You really should go check out Arbour and Currie (2013) – the figures are stunning – and Victoria’s extensive and entertaining series of blog posts that followed. That rabbit hole starts here.



12 Responses to “How conveniently can you package your results?”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    We’ve been quite self-congratulatory about the bifurcatogram illustration from Wedel and Taylor (2013a), and I’m happy to see it pop up again here. But in the context of your caption, I realised we missed a trick here.

    You say “Congratulations, now you’ve read Wedel and Taylor 2013a (to a first approximation)”, and that made me think about what this figure leaves out that could have helped it to convey more of the paper’s message. The answer is: at least two things.

    First, I can’t believe we didn’t put a phylogenetic tree next to it. We went to the trouble of arranging all the taxa in “phylogenetic order”, so there really is no excuse. It would have been easy to do, and made the whole thing read much more clearly.

    Second, I wish we’d found a way to communicate the ontogenetic status of the specimens. It’s not immediately obvious to me how we could have done that elegantly, but there has to be a way. And it would have meant that the one figure really did convey a huge part of our argument.

  2. Matt Wedel Says:

    Both solid points. On the ontogeny point, really all that needs to be understood is that the adult* sauropods with deeply split spines also have unsplit spines and every condition in between – since adults encompass all possible states for the character, merely finding an unsplit spine does not allow one to say anything about the ontogenetic status of the animal, even assuming that the degree of bifurcation changes over ontogeny.

    * But that gets into the problem of what counts as an adult. The C. lewisi holotype, the D. hallorum holotype, anyone else? Bueller? Maybe CM 3018. All the other big mounted individuals have major joints unfused.

    …Hmm. Anyone else freaked out that the pitiful handful of skeletally mature sauropods were all made the holotypes of new species (and in some cases genera), even though they were described long after their sister taxa/’home’ genera? The potential for conflating ontogenetic and phylogenetic differences in sauropods is a serious problem, even if it hasn’t yet been shown to be warranted for neural spine bifurcation specifically.

  3. Zach Miller Says:

    Holy shit, I’m going to do an infographic like that for ceratopsians and ceratopsids. That is a LOVELY infographic. This is totally going in my manuscript.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    “I have no idea how John Foster and I could have turned the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus title into a sentence that wouldn’t have been a disaster”

    A new specimen of the rare sauropod Haplocanthosaurus from Snowmass, Colorado.

  5. Matt Wedel Says:

    …is not a sentence, it’s a clause with no verb. Not too different from what we actually went with, minus the parenthetical asides.

    Back to the drawing board.

  6. If you make an infographic, then you may try do make it interactive. For example a phylogenetic tree so that when you hover with the mouse over one node it highlights the line from the array which corresponds to it. When you pass the mouse over one of those symbols in the array, then it highlights the relevant nodes of the tree.

  7. […] impact is the mode of acceptance or may also be rejection expressed by the audience or reader on your presentation of something (whatever it […]

  8. […] western North America – hence this post. It’s timely because I was just talking in the last post about putting together infographics to spread your ideas; here Adam’s very nice diagram […]

  9. […] in your paper so that a wider audience can understand them. You can find those posts here and here.  Dave Hone talks about his paper on combat and cannibalism among tyrannosaurs (see above) on his […]

  10. […] impact is the mode of acceptance or may also be rejection expressed by the audience or reader on your presentation of something (whatever it […]

  11. […] spans a full half of my research career to date. So I had a chance to take the principles that I say that I admire and try to put them into […]

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