I maintain that there is no research too complicated to be explained in plain language. In teaching and talking about this, I’ve described this is as “the Queen challenge” (when you get honored for your amazing contribution to research, how will you respond when the Queen asks her fabled question, “And what do you do?”). In contexts where such a Britishism falls flat, I try the “Thanksgiving” or “Random Relative” scenario — how would you describe your latest research activities to a family member while you peel the vegetables for a celebratory supper? In the course of my work, I’ve asked hundreds of researchers about their work, and I’ve never yet found one who couldn’t distill what they do down to something that I could understand. But every research administrator I’ve ever met will tell me categorically that many researchers are incapable of summarizing their work for non-experts. It’s reasonable, of course, to assume that the researchers I’ve met are a self-selecting sample — the very fact that they have found themselves in conversation with me probably means that they are at the “more interested in research communication” end of the spectrum. Today’s Friday Funny brings to life the lesser spotted stereotype, the academic who is adamant that his work cannot be explained simply, and that no-one out there is interested anyway. Enjoy.

Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple is co-founder of Kudos, which helps researchers, publishers and institutions to maximize the reach and impact of their research. She is also Treasurer of UKSG and serves on the Editorial Boards of Learned Publishing and UKSG Insights.


12 Thoughts on "Professor, can you take us through your theory in layman’s terms? … No."

For publishing people, it used to be ‘Explain what you do to the CEO in 2 minutes when you meet them in the car park’. Now you’re bringing HM into it. I think you’ll find she’s always a bit more informed than you might think. Meeting her at a reception as the Patron of a society for which we published, I was surprised by her question, ‘So you’re the Publisher, are you – so how does that work?’. I had 12 seconds to respond.

12 seconds? just about enough time to have recited the URL of Scholarly Kitchen’s list of “10,000 things publishers do” ;-D

I once was a judge at a student poster session spanning optical engineering to spintronics, plasmonics, materials science, and many things quantum. One of the ranking criteria was Ability to Communicate Research Impact. I started each listening engagement with”I am going to focus on your ability to communicate research impact; how results will be used.” Perhaps 2/3 if the students got the idea and succeed in delivering a coherent summary for a non specialist. Other’s failed by diving deep, staying there reciting chemical structures and PhD-level physics rather than answering “in the future, how may this be applied or what problem may be solved? Who may ultimately benefit from the work and how?” These are critical ideas to communicate for most researchers.

As an acquisitions editor, first in clinical medicine and translational biology and now in applied mathematics and computational sciences, this is a question I ask potential authors all the time. Sure, in surgery or ophthalmology, it’s kind of a softball. In oncology, hematology, imaging science or dynamical systems it’s a reasonable way to estimate how clear that proposed textbook will be to students.

But, I freely admit that when I worked in physics and pure math, I didn’t ask this question because, as this video alludes to, it seemed much more likely that only 94 people on the planet get it. And for darn sure I’m never going to be the 95th!

Ha ha! Math particularly is the area that a lot of people cite to me as the one where “there just is no way of explaining it”. But then you ask them what the potential impact of their work might be, and suddenly the barriers crumble. I must try to find a video I once saw and share that as an example – a mathematician explaining how his work enabled better prediction of survival rates for cancer sufferers. A lot of academics are modest / have been discouraged from hyperbolizing the potential applications / impacts of their work but sometimes doing so unlocks their ability to make it meaningful for someone outside the field.

This is a delightful sketch and I think it may well be legitimate for some parts of quantum theory, mathematics and philosophy.
When I was at university I couldn’t understand a word my philosophy tutor said after ‘come in’. He (now Professor of Philosophy at Columbia) tried to explain, as did my tutorial partner (now Professor of Economics at Toulouse), but I (a simple layman) never got it.
I also bought a book on the Millennium Prize Problems in mathematics, but gave up on that when the Forward said that the author would not even try to explain the actual problems, as only about 200 people could understand them properly, but would give a meta indication of what the problems were somewhat about.
It’s real, people.

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