Scientific storytelling helps researchers communicate their findings in a competitive publishing environment

Today, I attended a seminar at LSU on scientific storytelling presented by Dr. Rafael Luna. Luna is an LSU alumnus and author of The Art of Scientific Storytelling, a guide to presenting and publishing scientific research with the help of narrative elements.

 Dr. Rafael Luna speaking at LSU. Photo credit: Paige Jarreau.

Dr. Rafael Luna speaking at LSU. Photo credit: Paige Jarreau.

Too often, scientists view writing and publishing as a burden, an unwelcome add-on that slows their momentum and interferes with getting on to the next experiment. Why, then, do scientists write? There are two sets of reasons—content-related and career-related. Researchers disseminate findings to move their field forward, thus allowing others to add further knowledge. Without publications, the work would go unrecognized, and the field would not advance. Publications are also the currency of a career, valuable in acquiring visibility, demonstrating independence and advancing professionally. Like it or not, researchers are measured by what they write. They can have brilliant ideas, but if they do not communicate those ideas clearly, no one will know. - Writing well: lowering the barriers to success, by James C Gould, Rafael E Luna & Donna L Vogel

The talk essentially covered what stories look like and how scientists can use storytelling devices and the narrative arc to help get their research published. Why? Because scientific journal editors and peer-reviewers, just like the rest of us, love stories.

I went to the seminar expecting a bit more information on the psychology of storytelling and how scientific research can be turned into story for lay audiences. However, Luna mostly covered the elements of scientific storytelling as applied to scientific manuscript writing. How do you write a manuscript title that “packs a punch” and tells a story? How do you focus scientific manuscripts such that they tell a defined story peer-reviewers and other scientists can make sense of? How can storytelling shape how scientists conduct their research? These are the types of questions Luna addressed. But he did touch on the fact that we can remember stories better than we can remember strings of facts.

But why tell stories with research data? And what is a story anyway? In the age of social media, attention spans are increasingly short, Luna said. Most people will only read the title and abstracts of our scientific publications. Heck, even peer-reviewers are likely to get lost or distracted along the way unless scientists lure them along with stories. What was the problem? Who/what are the main characters? How was the problem resolved? What was at stake? Scientists must increasingly answer these questions in presenting their research, and they need to be able to distill answers to these questions down into, well, 140 characters.

So what does a story look like? According to Luna, a story tells of a series of events involving a main protagonist and a main or multiple antagonists. Within the arc of the story, the protagonist interacts with the antagonists and is forever changed by the series of events included in the narrative. But if you had to distill a story down into a single element, that element would be conflict resolution, Luna explained.

What is a good story without a good conflict and a satisfying resolution? Simba must have his Scar, Batman his Joker. Any good story builds up a conflict that is in the end resolved to a greater or lesser extent. And the higher the stakes of the conflict, the more interesting the story and satisfying the resolution. Breaking Bad captivated viewers with Walter White’s story by pitting him against the highest of stakes – a chance at a more exciting life, prison sentences, bloodthirsty drug lords, cancer and even death.

But where do the elements of story – protagonist, antagonist, plot, scene, conflict, resolution, stakes – fit within the processes of scientific research and publication? It can start with something as basic as a research article title.

Check out the following scientific article title: Using Magnetic Levitation to Separate Mixtures of Crystal Polymorphs.

Now, even if you have no idea what that title means scientifically, can you point out the protagonist, antagonist, conflict and resolution story elements inherent in this title?

Look closely. Did you identify them? Protagonist: Magnetic levitation. Antagonist: Crystal polymorphs. Conflict: Mixture. Resolution: Separation (with magnetic levitation). In nine words, the authors have constructed a story that the rest of the manuscript will flesh out with details of theory, methods and results.

Try this one: Enterotoxicity of a nonribosomal peptide causes antibiotic-associated colitis.

Perhaps you were able to identify the protagonist (the peptide), the conflict (enterotoxicity), the scene (colon) and the stakes (colitis). But where is the antagonist? The antagonist could be the mechanism leading to the colitis. Who are the other characters here, and how are they interacting with the peptide? But that mechanism isn’t identified in this title, and so we are left with an incomplete, and perhaps more importantly, unsatisfying, story.

Luna has helped many authors figure out the stories that hide in their scientific data. The takeaways? Don’t data dump, and don’t try to fit too many characters and scenes into a single research manuscript i.e. your story. Focus on identifying a main protagonist and antagonist(s), conflict and resolution. Even better, figure out what is at stake. Then, structure your scientific manuscripts into a narrative arc, starting with a statement of your hypothesis and what is at stake, creating tension as you discuss the results of your hypothesis testing, and finally resolving the conflict and tension with validation (or rejection) of your hypothesis and discussion of what it all means.

 Narrative Arc. Photo Credit: Paige Jarreau

Narrative Arc. Photo Credit: Paige Jarreau

The ‘conflict’ in research involves setting the stage, identifying a need or an unknown and building momentum so that the reader wants to know the outcome. The ‘resolution’ is describing the methods, showing the results and explaining how they meet the previously stated need. The responsibility is upon the investigator to tell this story in a logical fashion and make it clear to a scientific reader. - Writing well: lowering the barriers to success, by James C Gould, Rafael E Luna & Donna L Vogel

But storytelling doesn’t have to be just an after-the-fact addition to the scientific research and publication process. Storytelling can in turn shape how scientists conduct their research. Luna says that in his research today, he has the “plot” of a story in place before he even begins collecting new data.

Outlining a project with manuscript(s) in mind promotes a systematic approach. In such an approach, benchmarking progress through achieving intermediate goals helps keep the project on track. As experiments progress, figures should be mapped out in a logical fashion. Writing and figure-making should be integrated with the collection of data. This process can be streamlined now that many data readouts are digital, thus allowing for the almost simultaneous production of results and figures. As this process repeats, the author must begin to assemble the results into a message, i.e., the answer to the question. Everything else flows from the message, and there must be only one message per paper. The author has to be brutally selective as to what must go in the paper to provide enough evidence for the answer. - Writing well: lowering the barriers to success, by James C Gould, Rafael E Luna & Donna L Vogel

If you are a scientist, how do you use storytelling or narrative elements in conducting, talking about or publishing your research? As a science writer, how do you interpret scientific research to tell a story? Chat with me about it on Twitter, @FromTheLabBench.

Happy storytelling! And remember: Protagonist, antagonist, scene, conflict, stakes, resolution. You should be able to identify these elements in any research article title or abstract you write or read.