A trainee-based editing service as route to improve scientific communication

A narrative describing InPrint, a trainee-based editing service at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Science communication is as important as ever in 2021. Countless examples during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have exemplified the impact of good, and bad, science communication on public health. However, before scientists can be experts in communicating with the public, they must master communicating with each other. Unfortunately, pre- and postdoctoral training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) does not provide universal, formal training for the types of scientific communication necessary to relay often complex information to other scientists. Although universities provide resources such as writing centers or workshops, most scientists rely on their direct mentors for instruction in scientific communication, creating training deficiencies across early career stages. Further, students that seek additional training may instead focus on science communication, or how to effectively communicate with the public, as opposed to scientific communication with other scientists. To fill this gap and enhance scientific communication, trainees started InPrint, an editing service at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (WUSTL). The mission, organization, and impact of InPrint are described in an article published this week in Nature Biotechnology1 [https://doi.org/10.1038/s41587-021-01077-1].

The idea of InPrint was conceived in 2015 with a small comment in a grant writing workshop at WUSTL. “I was co-instructing a workshop with Deborah Frank, a Scientific Editor at WUSTL School of Medicine, when she mentioned scientific editing groups run by postdocs at other universities,” remembered Dr. Kathleen Schoch, former postdoctoral fellow at WUSTL and founder of InPrint. “She suggested starting a similar group here at WUSTL.” Excited by the prospect, Dr. Schoch knew she could not do it alone. She shared her ideas with the medical school’s postdoctoral community in 2017, and a team of interested postdocs established a structured organization to provide editing services. The team soon included biomedical PhD students to provide professional development and scientific communication skill development across all trainee stages. To ensure high quality editing, InPrint developed a system where two editors would review submitted documents consecutively. This structure allows the first editor to be less experienced, followed by a more experienced managing editor who provides quality assurance for the client and feedback for their peer. In 2018, Dr. Schoch, now a Research Instructor at WUSTL, alongside six postdocs and two graduate students, officially launched InPrint with the goal to improve scientific communication in the Washington University research community. “Our main idea from the beginning was to help trainees become better scientific writers, but it quickly became clear that there were other training needs beyond writing.” Then-graduate student Dr. Madison Mack had the idea to expand InPrint’s services to include a schema design team. Thus, InPrint began creating graphical schematics to visually communicate scientific concepts in manuscripts, grant proposals, and presentations, which transformed the team from an editing service to a broader scientific communication service.

InPrint’s vision to enhance scientific communication encompasses several goals: encourage discussions among authors, enhance communication skills, and support trainees’ professional development. The trainee-based, non-profit service tackles this mission with three approaches. First, the WUSTL research community can submit their written documents or schema ideas to InPrint, work with two editors or designers, and receive an edited version of their document or a custom-designed schematic. Second, InPrint organizes regular workshops for the WUSTL community focusing on scientific communication topics such as grant writing, data visualization, or schema design techniques. Finally, InPrint’s members gain experience in writing, editing, graphic design, and client-facing work outside their primary research projects and get regular feedback from their InPrint peers.

Figure 1. InPrint member leads a schematic design workshop to the WUSTL community in 2019.

Figure 1. InPrint member leads a schematic design workshop to the WUSTL community in 2019.

InPrint’s success is supported by its statistics. The group has grown from nine to over 50 members. Among these, 17 members have moved on to new career stages, including five members who started a career as professional editors and science communicators. InPrint has completed more than 200 editing and 70 schema design projects. Approximately 1000 trainees have improved their scientific communication skills from InPrint’s workshops. In acknowledgement of InPrint’s accomplishments, the WUSTL Graduate School awarded InPrint a 2021 Liberman Leadership Award for their efforts in professional development programming.

InPrint’s growth can be attributed to its evolving nature driven by the members’ passion for scientific communication. “For me, the most rewarding part of founding InPrint has been to see how the group changed based on the ideas of its members”, concludes Dr. Schoch. InPrint’s ongoing mission to enhance scientific communication drives us to find more solutions and develop services that meet the needs of the WUSTL research community. For example, InPrint has added an additional presentation consulting service to assist with oral presentations. Further, InPrint is developing a high school outreach program to aid in college applications and collaborating with other departments to reach more trainees. After seeing the need in its own community, InPrint hopes to inspire other trainee-run groups to serve their research communities and fill scientific communication training gaps at all levels.

 

  1. Dicks, A., Bhatia, H., Clemens, A.W. et al. Improving scientific communication with service, education and career development. Nat Biotechnol 39, 1309–1313 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41587-021-01077-1

Andrea Scharf

Ph.D., Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis